Beethoven, Ludwig van: Op. 29, String Quintet in C Major

One would suppose that when Ludwig van Beethoven met Goethe, as he did in 1811, there must have been quite something to talk about. That may have been the case, but, on the record at least, the meeting seems to have been a remarkably earthbound occasion:

Goethe on Beethoven:
His talent amazed me; unfortunately he is an utterly untamed personality, who is not altogether in the wrong in holding the world to be detestable but surely does not make it any the more enjoyable for himself or others by his attitude. He is easily excused, on the other hand, and much to be pitied, as his hearing is leaving him, which perhaps mars the musical part of his nature less than the social. He is of a laconic nature and becomes doubly so because of this lack.

Beethoven on Goethe:
Goethe delights far too much in the court atmosphere, far more than is becoming to a poet. How can one really say very much about the ridiculous behaviour of virtuosi in this respect, when poets, who should be regarded as the leading teachers of the nation, can forget everything else when confronted with that glitter.

While it is true that Beethoven was a difficult and abstracted man (as Goethe says), and it is true that Beethoven had a distaste for glitterati and a romantic idea of art (as he says of himself), it should be remembered that neither his reticence nor his idealism overruled his pragmatic needs as a professional composer. He was perfectly capable and willing to present crowd-pleasers like Wellington’s Victory or write patriotic cantatas. The String Quintet in C Major, op. 29 seems to have slipped into this category, at least from the perspective of music history; one can find many a book on Beethoven’s string quartets which mentions the quintet only in passing, or not at all. (How far from a string quartet can it possibly be?) The musicological story one most often finds in studying the quintet is about a tense legal and copyright struggle, during which Beethoven seems to have publicly sabotaged an edition by Artaria in Vienna so that the quintet could be published properly only by Breitkopf in Leipzig. (He defended himself by saying that Haydn had also done this sort of thing. This did not impress the judge.) Though he might protest that his interests were absolutely poetical, the Beethoven who was writing the String Quintet showed a very robust, and not absolutely scrupulous, professional self-interest.

There was a bit more of a frisson when Beethoven met Mozart in 1787, during exactly the weeks in which Mozart would have been finishing his own C Major string quintet, K. 515. Details of the meeting are few, but it did at the least generate an anecdote. Mozart – a famous but not yet deified composer at this point – was not so impressed with the young man’s composition. On hearing him improvise, he remarked, famously: ‘mark that man, he will make himself a name in the world.’ Whether Beethoven’s C Major quintet has anything to do with Mozart’s is anybody’s guess – certainly the exact match in instrumentation and key make one wonder a bit, and Beethoven almost certainly would have looked to Mozart for a model. But Beethoven’s quintet was written some 15 years later (published in 1802), and it has a decidedly more forceful and singular outlook. The weird obsessiveness of the minuet and subsequent explosion (‘Storm’) in the last movement clearly point to the canonically Beethoven-ish qualities of the 5th and 6th symphonies. It doesn’t pretend to the searching puzzles of his most celebrated piano sonatas and string quartets, but the quintet is clearly the work of an astonishingly good composer at the top of his game – precisely what Ludwig van Beethoven was at the ripe young age of 32.

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