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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 8

Classical revolutionaries: Beethoven, The Schuppanzigh Quartet and the new musical culture

by Pemi Paull / May 2, 2011

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Few were moved; it was a weak succès d’estime.” Thus Joseph Böhm described the first performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in E-flat, op. 127 as performed by the Schuppanzigh Quartet on March 6, 1825. But the failure of the performance was not surprising, given that the composer failed to deliver the score enough time in advance. In a letter dated February 1825, Beethoven wrote:

Most Honored Milord! Your Eminence may perform the Quartet on Sunday, two weeks from today. I was unable to give it to you sooner because I have had a great deal of work to attend to, and only one copyist to cope with it... But the Quartet will not be published for some time, and so Your Eminence can have sole rights to it ‘in loco’. Your Eminence has not sent me news about the concerts, so we shall hear nothing about them at all. Farewell. As soon as I have perfected my machine, by which you can be hoisted up to the fourth floor in comfort, I shall let you know. Yours, Beethoven

The letter is addressed to Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830), first violinist of the Schuppanzigh Quartet. Due to his enormous girth, Beethoven called him ‘Milord Falstaff’, hence the remark about the machine to hoist him up to Beethoven’s fourth-floor apartment.

Regardless of the circumstances of the premiere, the composer was furious about the quartet’s failure and laid the blame squarely on Schuppanzigh. As he wrote to his nephew Karl:

The Quartet was a failure the first time that Schuppanzigh played it, for he, being so very stout, needs more time than formerly before he can master anything... I predicted this, for although Schuppanzigh and two others draw their pension from princes, his Quartet is no longer what it was when they were all constantly playing together.

In spite of Beethoven’s apparent cruelty towards his colleague, he never attempted to compose a quartet without Schuppanzigh’s collaboration, from the op. 18 quartets through op. 135. Indeed, the relationship between Schuppanzigh, his eponymous quartet, and Beethoven resulted in a quantum leap forward in the medium of chamber music.

Schuppanzigh’s fundamental innovation was to present string quartets, performed by a professional ensemble, in public for an audience of paying listeners at a time when chamber music was still, first and foremost, recreational music for the home (Hausmusik). By performing successive string quartets at each performance, Schuppanzigh’s concert series demanded and created a new kind of listening, of concentration on musical processes without the aid or distraction of text, sustained through the course of a whole concert. These quartet concerts were arguably a necessary precondition for Beethoven’s late quartets.

Beethoven, for his part, seized upon the inherent possibilities for a new and markedly different kind of listening experience, and he pushed those new possibilities to extremes with which, as we have seen, even Schuppanzigh could not immediately come to terms, especially in the op. 127 and op. 131 quartets.

It was not until a hundred years later that the likes of Stravinsky and Schoenberg composed music that was as markedly a departure from the surrounding musical culture—and yet, as with Beethoven, still growing out of that culture—as were the last five string quartets and the Grosse Fuge of Beethoven. The publishers did their part as well, aiding and abetting this new discipline of listening by issuing the new quartets simultaneously in parts and in score, an unprecedented technological application for chamber music. But the initial, decisive break with the prevailing concert practices and modes of listening, certainly in Vienna, was due to Schuppanzigh and the influence of his quartet concerts.

In early 1823 Schuppanzigh had returned to Vienna from a seven-year journey centred on St. Petersburg that had included concert trips through Poland, Prussia, and North Germany. Soon after, during a lengthy visit with Beethoven, Schuppanzigh talked about ‘composing a new quartet together.’ Two months later, he presented the first of a series of quartet concerts, open to the public upon subscription. Two years after that came the premiere of op. 127, affording an historical highpoint and, due to its many shortcomings, a musical low point to his series, which continued for another five years until the violinist’s death in 1830.

When Schuppanzigh began the subscription concerts, the other members of his quartet were Karl Holz on second violin, Franz Weiss on viola, and Joseph Linke on cello. The series was dedicated, to a large extent, to the music of Beethoven. Over five seasons and 106 concerts, the Quartet presented 313 works: 100 by Beethoven, 88 by Haydn, and 78 by Mozart.

The programming of these concerts was revolutionary. They were the only concerts in Vienna devoted entirely to instrumental music, and by extension the only instrumental concerts to focus on a single musical genre. Thus they were also pioneers in an historicist, canon-forming function. These innovations notably persist in modern programming, though the early 21st century is beginning to revise them.

The members of the Schuppanzigh Quartet were very closely tied to Vienna’s musical life. At least one of these men was a member of nearly every influential musical organization in the city. During Beethoven’s last years, the members of the ensemble were the only performers in regular contact with him. They became Beethoven’s eyes and, most importantly, ears on Vienna's music.

The plethora of duties and obligations that occupied the members of the ensemble led to an impossibly thrifty rehearsal schedule. Holz told Beethoven that they never rehearsed the Haydn or Mozart works on their programs, only those by Beethoven. Whether or not Holz was exaggerating for Beethoven’s benefit, it seems clear that, by the standards of modern professional chamber ensembles, they rehearsed together remarkably little.

Confronted with the uncharted difficulties of Beethoven’s late quartets, they scrambled to find more rehearsal time; numerous comments in the conversation books refer to scheduling difficulties. Their extensive duties in Vienna also explain why they never went on tour to foreign musical centres like London, Berlin, or Paris, leaving the dissemination of Beethoven's late works to other musicians, like Spohr and Böhm.

Ignaz Schuppanzigh and his string quartet have gone down in history as the ensemble closest to Beethoven, the ensemble that inspired, championed, and bore the responsibility for first speaking Beethoven’s radically new musical language. With Beethoven, the Quartet spearheaded a profound musical, cultural, and technological shift that went to the heart of the music and the concert experience—changes that shape our musical culture to the present day.

Complete Beethoven string quartets at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, May 10 to 25. www.festivalmontreal.org

(c) La Scena Musicale