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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 12 The First Romantics
Richard Taruskin

Beethoven lived less than three years after the premiere of the Ninth Symphony, finally succumbing to the effects of liver disease (itself the result, it is speculated, of heavy drinking) on 26 March 1827. During this final phase he returned to the string quartet, another genre he had not touched in more than a decade, and devoted himself to it almost exclusively. The immediate stimulus came from Prince Golitsyn, the Russian nobleman who arranged the first performance of the Missa solemnis. In the fall of 1822 he had invited Beethoven to compose anywhere from one to three quartets for him, and to name his price. In the end Beethoven completed six works for string quartet, including the three commissioned by Golitsyn and dedicated to him (opp. 127, 130, 132), and two more full-scale works in the genre (in C-sharp minor, op. 131, gratefully dedicated to a certain Baron von Stutterheim who had accepted the Beethoven’s nephew Karl into his guards regiment after the boy’s attempted suicide; and in F major, op. 135).

The remaining work was a “Great Fugue” (Grosse Fuge) that was originally planned as the finale of the Quartet in B-flat major, op. 130. When Mathias Artaria, his publisher, pointed out that at six movements the quartet was long even without the mammoth finale, and that the fugue was not only huge but inordinately difficult to play, Beethoven agreed to detach the fugue for separate publication (as op. 133, dedicated to Archduke, now Archbishop, Rudolph) and to compose a dancelike rondo to provide a more conventional, less taxing conclusion to what was already a somewhat suitelike composition resembling a divertimento of old. The substitute finale of op. 130, delivered to the publisher in November 1826, was Beethoven’s last completed work.


fig. 12-10 Beethoven’s study in the Schwarspanierhaus, his last residence.

The steadfastness of Beethoven’s late interest in the quartet medium can be partially accounted for by the devotion of Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776–1830), the violinist who served as orchestra leader (or “concert-master” as we now say) at the momentous concert in which the Ninth Symphony was unveiled. He had been the leader of Prince Lichnowsky’s private string quartet since the 1790s, and Beethoven had relied upon his counsel from the very beginning of his career as a quartet composer. Following the general trend of the time, Schuppanzigh reconstituted his quartet as a freelance ensemble during the winter of 1804–5 and began giving subscription concerts in Vienna. These were among the first regular public chamber music concerts anywhere. It was at these concerts that Beethoven’s “middle” quartets were first performed, notably the “Razumovsky” series, op. 59, commissioned by the Russian ambassador in Vienna. Razumovsky later employed Schuppanzigh’s quartet and lavishly subsidized its activities until 1814, when his palace burned down.

From 1816 until 1823, probably owing to his connection with Razumovsky, Schuppanzigh relocated in St. Petersburg, the Russian capital, where he was very active in promoting Beethoven’s works, and not only quartets. It was he who put Prince Golitsyn in touch with Beethoven, thus serving as the late quartets’ catalyst. His own professional ensemble, again reconstituted in Vienna in 1823 and again offering regular subscription concerts, gave the first performances of the three Golitsyn quartets, as well as the posthumous premiere of Opus 135, Beethoven’s swan song. Schuppanzigh’s readiness for creative collaboration with Beethoven was surely among the most potent stimuli on the composer’s “quartet imagination.”

And yet there came a point where Beethoven’s burgeoning romantic idealism doomed any true symbiosis with performers. A much-repeated story that may be true recounts Beethoven’s contemptuous retort when Schuppanzigh complained that a certain passage in one of the late quartets was too difficult to play effectively: “Do you fancy I am thinking of your puking little fiddle when the muse confides in me?” he is supposed to have said. In fact, in Beethoven’s choice of the verb “confide” we may encounter another reason for Beethoven’s late preoccupation with the quartet medium: its privateness, or, as the German romantics characteristically put it, its “inwardness” (Innigkeit or Innerlichkeit).

The intimacy of chamber music offered the composer the possibility of a heightened subjectivity, a medium where he could speak his inmost, private thoughts and confide his deepest private moods as if to a musical diary. There are pages in the late quartets that can seem almost embarrassing to hear in public, as if hearing were overhearing—eavesdropping on the composer’s afflicted personal existence, invading his privacy. One of these is the fifth movement of the Quartet in B♭ major, op. 130. Its tempo is Adagio molto espressivo; the parts are marked sotto voce (in an undertone); and it is subtitled “Cavatina,” which to Beethoven meant a short, slow operatic aria of particular poignancy. (The Countess’s “Porgi amor” in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, in which a betrayed wife gives vent to her misery, is a classic of the genre.)

The impression is unmistakable that Beethoven is confiding his private grief; and in case anyone should mistake it, the composer makes it even more explicit near the end (Ex. 12-10), where the dynamic level becomes even more hushed (“sempre pp”), the harmony slips unexpectedly and mysteriously into the flat submediant region, and the first violin, in a passage marked Beklemmt (constricted or stifled, “all choked up”), effectively loses its voice, its line being continually interrupted by rests as if racked by sobs.


ex. 12-10 Ludwig van Beethoven, Quartet no. 13 in B-flat, Op. 130, V (“Cavatina”)


ex. 12-11a Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 3, II (“Marcia funebre”), first violin, mm. 1–8


ex. 12-11b Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 3, II (“Marcia funebre”), first violin, mm. 238–47

This was not in fact the first time Beethoven had used this device. A comparable, though much shorter, passage had occurred at the end of the second movement (“Marcia funebre,” “funeral march”) in the Eroica Symphony more than twenty years earlier (Ex. 12-11). But what had the appearance of a public orator’s rhetorical ploy in the symphony now has the aspect of a private disclosure. The voice appears to belong this time not to a public “persona” but to an actual person, recalling the inscription Beethoven placed on the first page of the Missa solemnis autograph, “From the heart: May it also go to the heart” (Von Herzen—Möge es wieder—zu Herzen gehn!).

In the wake of this movement and others like it, the key of the flat submediant became a virtual symbol of Innigkeit—“inwardness of expression”—for Beethoven’s successors, particularly Franz Schubert, his fellow Viennese. Here Beethoven bequeathed to future composers of the romantic persuasion not only an esthetic purpose, and not only a general approach to instrumental music that invested it with “voice,” but an actual topos—an expressive “topic” or sign referent. For a musical work may indeed point outside itself to another musical work, and after Beethoven, the work that failed to point to his colossal example was a rarity. One can fairly say that virtually the whole corpus of German instrumental (and not only instrumental) music composed in the nineteenth century was a commentary on Beethoven.

In the appropriation of a vocal genre lay a further clue as to why Beethoven spent his last, semiretired years with the string quartet rather than what would seem for him an equally private medium, namely the piano. In fact he did continue to write for the piano, and with emphatic “privacy,” after completing the Diabelli Variations, concentrating on short, strongly characterized pieces he called Bagatelles (French for “trifles”). He had been writing them for decades; one, a little rondo composed in 1808 and published with the subtitle “Für Elise” (For Eliza), has become a ubiquitous children’s practice piece. The late ones, composed between 1820 and 1824 and published in two sets (op. 119 and op. 126), are definitely not for the young. They are gnomic, often enigmatic pieces that find their echo in some of the more grotesque little movements in the late quartets (for instance, the tiny presto that forms the second movement of the same B♭ major quartet that also contains the heartrending Cavatina).

But the piano could not give the illusion of “vocality” on which Beethoven now relied for intimately “innig” utterance. His preoccupation with the vocal, moreover, was also strangely bound up with archaism—an archaism already evident in his predilection for fugues in many of his late works, including three of the late piano sonatas (opp. 101, 106, and 110). Taken in conjunction with the political sentiments expressed in Der glorreiche Augenblick, this archaism has been interpreted as a religious gesture, and a sign of Beethoven’s disillusioned acquiescence in the spirit of post-Napoleonic reaction. That reading gains some support from the late quartets, for now Beethoven pushed back beyond fugues to imitations or evocations of earlier modes of religious vocal polyphony—his own version of a stile antico.

This new-old inclination, and its highly personal meaning for Beethoven, is vividly embodied in the slow movement of the Quartet in A minor, op. 132, composed in 1825. Beethoven had spent the month of April and part of May that year gravely sick in bed, and the movement, composed later that spring, bears the heading Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart (“Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving from a Convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode”). It is in effect a sort of motet with variations, on a theme reminiscent of an old chorale (Ex. 12-12), summoning up (in Joseph Kerman’s words) “some infinitely remote liturgy, a ritual music of romance,” interspersed with a contrasting exultant dance in D major, marked “Neue Kraft fühlend” (Feeling new strength), that also returns in varied form.35 The variation technique is itself an archaic one: “divisions,” as they were called in the seventeenth century, whereby the rhythmic activity is continually heightened by breaking the long notes values down into shorter and shorter ones.


ex. 12-12 Ludwig van Beethoven, Quartet no. 15 in A minor (“chorale” tune), Op. 132, III (“Heiliger Dankgesang”), reconstructed from mm. 3–7, 9–13, 15–19, 21–25

The “Lydian mode” is of course another archaism, the most obvious one of all, and the most romantic. For in actual practice the Lydian mode of medieval music theory had been regularly adjusted into what we call the major mode from the beginning. Beethoven’s version of the mode is thus no medieval restoration but a romantically exotic invention: a strange F major notated without a B♭ in the key signature, with all the B-naturals (and they are quite rare) applied as leading tones to C, the dominant, or used within a transposed statement of the choralelike subject that is harmonized in C.

What makes the imaginary archaism of the music evident to all listeners is the contrapuntal nature of the writing, the use of “freely canonic” imitation at the octave and unison, the cantus firmus textures, particularly the liberal use of dotted note values on the weak beats, typical of school counterpoint even today but unusual in any other context. In reality, the seemingly archaic contrapuntal style gives Beethoven access to a level of pure diatonic “linear” dissonance that must have struck his earliest listeners as nothing short of modernistic. It is used to project an overwhelming intensity of subjective feeling at which Beethoven hints verbally in the last and rhythmically most complex variation, where he writes that the instruments are to be played Mit innigster Empfindung (“With the most inward expression”), actually using the word that would become for all German composers the very motto of romanticism (Ex. 12-13).

And yet despite all privacy and inwardness in thought and apparent purpose, Beethoven at the time of his death was far more a public figure than any composer had ever been before; and that, too, was part of the legacy of romanticism. The streets of Vienna were thronged on the morning of his funeral, 29 March 1827. Police estimates put the crowd at ten thousand.


ex. 12-13 Ludwig van Beethoven, Quartet no. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, III, Last variation on the “Heiliger Dankgesang”


fig. 12-11 Beethoven’s funeral procession, by Franz Stoeber (Beethoven House, Bonn).

At the cemetery wall, an oration by the dramatist Franz Grillparzer (1791–1872) was declaimed in high tragic tones by a famous actor, Heinrich Anschütz. Like the letter of 1824 imploring for Vienna the rights to first hearing of the Ninth Symphony, Grillparzer’s eulogy placed the emphasis on nationality, comparing Beethoven with Goethe (the “hero of verse in German speech and tongue”) and tracing for him a historically spurious but heavily symbolic musical genealogy from Handel and Bach. “Standing by the grave of him who has passed away,” Grillparzer’s homily began,

we are in a manner the representatives of an entire nation, of the whole German people, mourning the loss of the one highly acclaimed half of that which was left us of the departed splendor of our native art, of the fatherland’s full spiritual bloom. There yet lives—and may his life be long!—the hero of verse in German speech and tongue; but the last master of tuneful song, the organ of soulful concord, the heir and amplifier of Handel and Bach’s, of Haydn and Mozart’s immortal fame is now no more, and we stand weeping over the riven strings of the harp that is hushed.36

Forever afterward it would be an article of faith for German artists that Beethoven’s stature was unequalable (“He who comes after him will not continue him,” Grillparzer declared), that with Beethoven the age of heroes had ended. The Napoleonic myth and the Beethoven myth—as can only seem inevitable in retrospect—had fused. And yet all who came after would nevertheless be under an onus to strive toward the unreachable mark Beethoven’s legacy had set. The concept of music and the role of the composer had both been irrevocably transformed by romanticism, and enormously enlarged. Beethoven had been at once the protagonist of these transformations, and their vessel.


(35) Joseph Kerman, The Beethoven Quartets (New York: Norton, 1979), p. 254.

(36) Forbes, ed., Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, p. 1057.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 The First Romantics." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 May. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-12008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 12 The First Romantics. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 22 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-12008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 The First Romantics." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 22 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-12008.xml