BEETHOVEN Ludwig van, String Quartet in F Op.135

Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo
Der schwer gefaßte Entschluß [The difficult decision]. Grave, ma non troppo tanto (Muss es sein? [Must it be?]) – Allegro (Es muss sein! [It must be!]) – Grave, ma non troppo tratto – Allegro

Beethoven’s final string quartet (only the replacement finale of Op.130 is later) was completed in October 1826. After an awful summer during which his nephew Karl had attempted suicide and been imprisoned, Beethoven was able to escape to the tranquillity of Gneixendorf, a village near Krems about fifty miles from Vienna. He arrived at the end of September and his last masterpiece was finished in the following month, much of it composed outdoors (the locals were amused to observe Beethoven singing and waving his arms as he worked). It is dedicated to his friend and supporter Johann Nepomuk Wolfmayer, who was originally to have been the dedicatee of the C sharp minor Quartet Op.131. The F major Quartet Op.135 is much the shortest of the late quartets, and there’s a conciseness and simplicity that perhaps point forward to the direction Beethoven might have pursued in his music had he lived longer. Its less serious mood can also be explained by the circumstances in which it was written: at the end of his tether after his nephew’s problems in the summer, the composer could at last be refreshed. Op.135 seems to be imbued with this new sense of well-being, and within a relatively conventional movement structure (unlike several of the other late quartets), Beethoven expresses both humour and the deepest seriousness with amazing brevity. The expressive heart of the work was probably the first part to be composed: the Lento assai, barely fifty bars long, was originally intended for the Op.131 Quartet. The finale has the famous superscription “The difficult decision”, based on a question-and-answer motif: “Must it be? – It must be!” The origins of this are a canon jotted down at the end of July 1826, “half-humorous, half-philosophical” as Barry Cooper puts it, providing the ideal theme for a movement that seems to encapsulate the “difficult decisions” that marked out Beethoven as a timeless genius.

© Nigel Simeone 2013


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