It is very hard to avoid dividing the career of LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN into ‘early’, ‘middle’, and ‘late’ periods, especially in describing the string quartets, which came in biographically convenient bunches. There are six early quartets, Op. 18, expanding the string quartet legacy of Haydn; then there are the middle quartets Op. 59 (1-3) and Op. 74, expanding the scale - both in length and depth – of the string quartet as a composer’s medium; and finally, there are the sublime, abstract, and searching late quartets Op. 127, 130, 131, 132, and 135. In between middle and late, the string quartet Op. 95 is something of an exception-to-prove-the-rule: on the one hand, its fearful compactness seems opposed to the expanse of the middle quartets, but on the other hand, it is surely more reality-based than the late ones. Op. 74 also breaks the rules a bit… an exception proving the rules to be rules-of-thumb.
The string quartet Opus 135 can seem like something of an exception too. Although it was Beethoven’s last complete work, it doesn’t seem to aspire to the scope and intricacy of the other late quartets, or perhaps it lives even further afield than they. There is something weird in it (a little like the last violin sonata, Op. 96), a sort of ‘post-late’ quality of resignation or acceptance - but rather more light in tone than those words might imply, and not as total. It is both wandering and concise, and seems to seek (evasive) simplicity. Musical problems seem to arise and then evaporate, as though altered or solved or refused by an outside force.
The sense of this meta-compositional abstraction is strong in all the movements. In the first movement this quality is fairly conversational — ‘classical’, one might say, albeit interruptedly. The second movement is like a minuet by Mondrian: it has the place, shape, and time signature of a minuet, but frightfully little content. The third movement is written as a theme and variations, but, in its slow tempo and continued calm (“a song of peace and repose”), it avoids the usual buildup of theme/variation movements, and seems content with its own subtle varying and eventual disappearance.
The last movement is first remarkable for including the following imposing images at its start (see inset). This message attracts a lot of attention, because it at first seems so temptingly specific, connecting notes and words one-to-one, with Beethoven-hero possibilities. But no one knows what the ‘it’ is that ‘must be’ (it depends on what the meaning of the word “Es” is). Some say it has to do with unpaid bills and the need to finish the piece, some say it has to do with his own imminent mortality. Given that this is Beethoven’s last complete work, it is difficult to take the motto lightly, but the tone of the work is so strange and abstracted — concretely speaking, the words must at least address the wanderings of the previous movements, as though their issues must be directly and finally addressed. But in the end it must be unknown. We do not know, we will not know, and there are no more clues to come.