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Beethoven’s ‘Late’ String Quartets: a

Critical Study in String Quartet

Performance and Recordings

Wissenschaftliche Masterarbeit

Anna Jane van der Merwe 1473305

Universität für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Graz Konzertfach

Violine (Orchesterintrumenten)

Betreuerin: Ao.Univ.Prof. Mag.phil. Dr.phil. Ingeborg Harer

Abgabedatum: 19/01/2018

This thesis deals with a contextualised history and discussion of performances and recordings
of Ludwig van Beethoven’s late period string quartets - Opuses 127, 130, 131, 132, 133:
Große Fuge in B-flat major for string quartet (1826; originally the finale to Op. 130), and
135. Chapter 1 deals with a brief history of the works. Chapter 2 involves a detailed
discussion of the history and development of the string quartet from Beethoven’s time up
until the modern era, to provide insight into changes and developments that may have
affected performances and recordings of these works. In Chapter 3, the discussion revolves
around more instrument-specific and aesthetic changes that occurred throughout the life-cycle
of the late quartets so far; a brief analysis of three recordings made at different time periods
provides support for this argument. Chapter 4 draws together the threads of the previous
chapters, questioning the way in which musicology analyses performance in general,
concluding with a discussion regarding research opportunities for further study in this field.

Die vorliegende Arbeit beschäftigt sich mit einer breiten kontextualisierten Geschichte und
Diskussion von Aufführungen und Einspielungen von Ludwig van Beethovens späten
Streichquartetten (Opus 127, 130, 131, 132, 133: Große Fuge in B-Dur für Streichquartett
(1826; ursprünglich Finale zu op. 130) und 135. Kapitel 1 behandelt eine kurze Geschichte
der Werke: In Kapitel 2 wird die Geschichte und Entwicklung des Streichquartetts aus der
Zeit Beethovens bis in die Neuzeit ausführlich erläutert, um Einsichten in Veränderungen zu
gewinnen und Entwicklungen, die Aufführungen und Aufnahmen dieser Werke beeinflusst
haben könnten. In Kapitel 3 dreht sich die Diskussion um instrumenten-spezifische und
ästhetische Veränderungen, die sich während des gesamten Lebenszyklus der späten
Quartette bisher ereignet haben, eine kurze Analyse von drei Aufnahmen, die bei
Verschiedene Zeiträume stellen eine Stütze für dieses Argument dar.
Kapitel 4 fasst die Fäden der vorangegangenen Kapitel zusammen und hinterfragt die Art und
Weise, in der die Musikwissenschaft die Leistung im Allgemeinen analysiert, und schließt
mit einer Diskussion über Forschungsmöglichkeiten für weitere Studien auf diesem Gebiet.


Abstract ...............................................................................................................1

Acknowledgements .............................................................................................3

Introduction: Research Approach and an Overview of Chapters .....................4

Chapter 1: The History of Beethoven’s Late String Quartets: Style,

Background and Reception ..................................................................................9

Chapter 2: The String Quartet of Beethoven’s Time versus the Modern String
Quartet: Historically-minded Performance ........................................................21

Chapter 3: A Critical Discussion of Beethoven’s Late Quartet Cycle:

Interpretation, Ideology and the Age of Recording............................................36

Chapter 4: The Study of Performances and Recordings...................................59

Conclusion .........................................................................................................66

Selected Bibliography ..................................................................................... 68



Firstly, I would like to thank my supervisor Dr. Ingeborg Harer for the guidance and support
that made the process of working on this thesis a wonderful experience. Thank you also to the
London Haydn Quartet for inspiring the topic of this dissertation during my participation in
the Music Works course a few years ago. It was through the practical study of one of Ludwig
van Beethoven’s late-period string quartets at this course in the United Kingdom that I
became fascinated with the late string quartets of Beethoven. During this week of intensive
practical study our quartet was coached by Catherine Manson and James Boyd, whom I
would also like to thank for the resources that they had provided me with.

Introduction: Research Approach and an Overview of Chapters

The aim of this thesis is to gain a multi-faceted understanding of the evolution of various
performances and recordings of Ludwig van Beethoven’s late-period string quartets. The
discussion will juxtapose various interpretative and performance-related aspects of the
aforementioned works, as well as explore questions posed by studying a selection of
recordings from the earliest known to the most recent. The research approach will be to
consider the topic from less of a technical/analytical viewpoint but rather a music-historical
one, hence the inclusion of a chapter examining the general historical information related to
the composition and reception of Beethoven’s late string quartets. The reasoning behind this
approach arose as a result of there being a noticeable gap in the literature on the performance
practice or interpretative discussion of performances or recordings of the quartets directly.
Many sources discussed the history of the quartets in general or a few general performance
practice related issues, but few went on to make a link between the historical context and the
development of the interpretations, performances and recordings of these quartets. There was
also minimal literature, if any, that discussed the entire set of late quartets in detail with
regards to performance historical matters.

This repertoire was chosen because the Beethoven late string quartets are arguably some of
the musical works that are most closely linked to ideals of Werktreue (textual fidelity) and
have therefore attracted particularly strong scholarly attention and performance traditions.1
Due to Beethoven’s precision in dynamic and articulation markings, the late quartets are an
ideal subject for differentiating between changes and developments in performance practice.
A point kept in mind throughout the process of writing this thesis was to focus not on
comparing pros and cons of different methods of performance practices, but rather on seeing
the merit in all of them as parts of a large, complex and constantly evolving discussion of
how we understand music.

Nancy November, "Commonality and Diversity in Recordings of Beethoven’s Middle-Period String Quartets,"
Performance Practice Review: Vol. 15: No. 1 (2010) Article 4.

The research question emerged initially out of the issue of practical studies rather than out of
pure theoretical interest. My in-depth practical and analytical study of Beethoven’s late string
quartets led to an exploration of the historical research surrounding them, including the
critical assessment of various recordings and interpretations.

I have selected a number of historically valuable and informative recordings of complete

cycles of the late quartets from the beginning of the 20 th century up until the present day from
which to provide support for my research. The selection of these recordings has been made
without personal taste having influenced any decisions; each performance was selected due to
its clarity of style or stylistic ‘personality’ in order to convey the way of playing particular to
each time period. The stylistic period definitions (‘early’, ‘middle’ and ‘contemporary’) used
as headings for the recording analysis in Chapter 3 were created solely for the purpose of
displaying a way to present the three different time-periods in which each recording was
made. The recordings are approximately thirty years apart from one another, in order to
clearly separate major technological changes and the development of research or aesthetic
changes that would affect each interpretation. Utilizing these recordings, an in depth critical
analysis of the performances and interpretations will prove highly valuable in terms of
providing evidence to support various statements to be discussed in the following chapters.
As background research I will also look into the theory of how to evaluate interpretations and
performances, delving into research relating to the complexities of performing works with an
extensive history of received tradition and historical evidence.2

Much of the literature to be used contributes toward the research by substantiating either the
string quartet performance practice aspect or the historical context, rather than the link
between the two as will be discussed in my essay. By attempting to bridge the gap and
establish a connection between these aspects, I will attempt to answer my two main research

For example: Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, “The Changing Sound of Music: Approaches to Studying Recorded
Musical Performances”, London: CHARM, 2009, Chapter 7 Paragraph 6.

1: Why have interpretations of Beethoven’s late string quartets changed over time?

2: How have these interpretations changed?

It is clear that there are many aspects to consider when discussing and utilising the rather
broad concept which is: ‘performance practice’ in Beethoven’s late quartets. This will be
further discussed in the chapters related to the reception and performances of the quartets, as
well as the chapter discussing the beginning of the age of recording.

It could be considered that the late quartets were some of Beethoven’s most rhetorical, inward
and monumental works, displaying the inexhaustible expressions of the sonata form as well
as entirely new structures and ways of presenting material and motifs and structuring
movements. This is music that is at once incredibly centred yet also extreme and at times
even bizarre; if one may be so presumptuous as to use his music as a window into
Beethoven’s innermost thoughts, it seems to be a clear indicator of the contrasts present in his
daily life – the struggles of a person battling with a condition so debilitating that it catalysed a
change in the style of his musical output so greatly that it would become a beacon in musical

Some of the clearest examples of received tradition in the string quartet are available in the
form of early recordings of Beethoven’s quartets. There is a wealth of diversity in early
recordings of these works, which gives way as the twentieth century progresses toward a
more homogenous approach to their performance – this will become clear in the discussion of
recorded evidence in Chapter 3.4 Because of the popularity and importance of these works,
we are also left with an enormous legacy of recordings made by almost all of the greatest and
most influential quartets in musical history.

Peter J. Burkholder, Claude V. Palisca, Donald J. Grout., A History of Western Music. New York: Norton,
2010, 586-594.
November, Commonality and Diversity in Recordings of Beethoven’s Middle-Period String Quartets,
Article 4.
Robert Martin, “The Quartets in Performance: A Player’s Perspective” in The Beethoven Quartet
Companion, ed. Robert Martin, Robert Winter (California: University of California Press, 1994) 111-141.

In a discussion between Robert Martin and an unnamed young professional string quartet
during one of their rehearsals, a lengthy debate about experimenting with articulation leads
into a discussion on the influence of recordings on their interpretation. The members of any
professional quartet would most likely have listened to a favourite recording more than once
prior to embarking on the process of learning or performing one of the quartets.5 Even though
many performers choose to avoid this while studying a piece to keep a clear mind in terms of
interpretation, even the long distant memory of a first hearing could create a conscious or
subconscious frame of reference. Martin discovers that this particular problem is faced by this
young quartet: they find that even when the specifics of recorded interpretations are not
remembered, there is often a feeling of an inner ‘right’ idea that guides a performer’s intuitive
decision-making in terms of tempi, articulation, texture and bow-stroke.6

There is doubt as to which ideas are recollections of a past hearing and which are genuinely
new and personal, which complicates the rehearsal process at many points. 7 Despite this
eagerness to create an innovative, fresh interpretation, it is undeniable that the performance
practice traditions (in this case a combination of received tradition and historical evidence)
surrounding Beethoven’s quartets will have an effect on the interpretation. This is a
particularly interesting aspect of performance practice in regard to the late quartets of
Beethoven, which will be discussed further in chapter 4 of this thesis.

This topic of effect and influence of recorded musical evidence upon historically informed
performance practice cannot be overstated, as substantiated by Nancy November, who
believes that the recordings of the quartets have a substantial underlying effect on the
performance practice of them.7 As previously stated, the performance of Beethoven’s quartets
has been linked to the ideals of Werktreue and has correspondingly attracted rather strong
performance traditions.

Ibid., 112-122.
Ibid., 115.
Ibid., 115-116.

Over 88 years of recording history exists, with qualitative studies of the works revealing
trends and commonalities within the supposedly more diverse early recordings, and
quantitative data revealing increasing and persistent diversity and even some noteworthy
exceptions8, which will be substantiated in Chapter 3. Following this, more in-depth studies
of the recordings maintain that there are practices from any applicable time period that are
specific to the performance of Beethoven’s works, and that there are performance practices
specifically associated with the string quartet.10 Both scholars of recording history as well as
recording artists claim that these practices and views correspond with those of early
nineteenth century performers in general, or even with those of Beethoven and his quartet
performers, and November9 postulates that this idea of an unbroken performance tradition is
one to be scrutinised and that the concept of “historically informed” 10 Beethoven string
quartet performance needs to be investigated. It seems that November’s conclusion is that
performance traditions are nonlinear and multifaceted with breaks in some areas and
continuity in others, which is precisely the area of discussion that I am addressing in this

November, Commonality and Diversity in Recordings of Beethoven’s Middle-Period String Quartets, Article

The History of Beethoven’s Late String Quartets: Style, Background and

Ludwig van Beethoven: the Composer in Context

Although this text will be predominantly focusing on quartets from the later period of
Beethoven’s life, it will prove necessary to gain context about his life in general in order to
better understand the importance that these works hold in a historical as well as musical
context. Ludwig van Beethoven can be viewed as the musician whose career and music best
reflect the tumultuous changes in the decades around 1800. He was highly conscious of
Enlightenment ideals of the time, and had a direct influence on and connection with the music
of Haydn and Mozart; having observed the French Revolution from a distance, he had
idealised and then become disillusioned by Napoleon, finally living his last years under
political repression. Having often celebrated heroism in his music, Beethoven himself
became somewhat of a cultural hero, with a reputation that continued to grow throughout the
nineteenth century. The story of his life seemed to define the ‘Romantic’ view of the creative
artist as a social outsider who suffers selflessly to bring a glimpse of the divine to humanity
through the medium of art. In the twentieth century, biographers and historians began to sift
through the myth surrounding Beethoven’s persona, reclaiming the mere human being behind
the romanticised ideal. Burnham11 notes that this may have been a difficult task for scholars,
as it is not easy to separate the Beethoven we know today with the history of his critical and
popular reception.

As with the works of most of humanity’s great artists, Beethoven’s music has produced
differing reactions and opinions at different points in the history of music. 12 Several defining
aspects of Beethoven’s life, career and musical output as well as the critical reception of his
works has contributed to the perpetuation of the aforementioned mythical status that has been

Scott G. Burnham, Beethoven Hero. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995, 69.

thrust upon him by peers and scholars alike. 13 For example Robert Winter and Robert
Martin 14 , in their book The Beethoven Quartet Companion, describe Beethoven’s late
quartets as the chamber music genre’s equivalent to the plays of Shakespeare and the art of
Rembrandt, and Joseph Kerman writes of this image of Beethoven as an artistic hero, and
how it became fixed indelibly into Western consciousness.15

The Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon points out a highly important development:
Beethoven was viewed, in an almost reverent way by many 19th century musicians and critics,
as the originator of the Romantic movement in music.16 From the 1920s however, beginning
with the writings of Arnold Schmitz and culminating in the significant work of Charles Rosen
in the later quarter of the century, musicologists began to see Beethoven as not so much the
father of the Romantic paradigm but as the archetypal Classicist. 17 “The deeper we delve into
the essence of Beethoven’s music, the more obvious it is that it belongs to the classical world,
and the more clearly it is divided from the romantic” stated Walter Riezler in 1936 18, and a
few years later Paul Henry Lang continued along this line of thought, saying, “To count him
among the Romanticists amounts to a fundamental misreading of styles, for Beethoven grew
out of the eighteenth century. . . What he did was to make a new synthesis of classicism and
then hand it down to the new century.” 19 We can see therefore, that most of the other
foremost critics of the early-twentieth century seemed to follow Schmitz’s train of thought.
Even if music historians did in fact notice Beethoven’s impulses toward romantic gestures or
a foreshadowing of romanticism, they tended to assume that he was displaying only a
fragmented and unsystematic glimpse of a periodic movement, which he himself remained
unaffected by.20

Robert Winter, Robert Martin, eds., The Beethoven Quartet Companion, 1-3.
Joseph Kerman, “Beethoven Quartet Audiences: Actual, Potential, Ideal” in The Beethoven Quartet
Companion, ed. Robert Winter, Robert Martin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 7-28.
Maynard Solomon, “Beethoven: Beyond Classicism” in The Beethoven Quartet Companion, ed. Robert
Winter, Robert Martin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 59-63.
Burnham, Beethoven Hero, 69.
Walter Riezler, Beethoven, Berlin: Atlantis, 1938, 106.
Paul H. Lang, Music in Western Civilisation, London: W. W. Norton, 1940, 752.
Solomon, Beethoven: Beyond Classicism, 62.

From around 1900 to the present, another kind of nostalgia had come into play, whereby the
canonized ‘classics’ of chamber music, which were only just being established in the early
nineteenth century, were thought by some influential devotees of chamber music to be under
threat.21 In 1927, which was the one-hundredth anniversary of Beethoven’s death and close to
the start of the recording age, the idea of this “great classical tradition” must have seemed like
a heavy burden indeed. 22 In his 1927 article on Beethoven’s quartets and “the music of
friends” for The Musical Times, Thomas Dunhill23 observed an urgent need to “win friends”
for the Beethoven quartets; he noted an antipathy to Beethoven’s “almost inarticulate” late
quartets in particular. More recently, Winter24 echoes Dunhill, observing that “the seventeen
quartets have increasingly borne the burden of the great classical tradition that - argued critics
and theorists such as Hanslick and Schenker - died with Brahms”.

This change in perception is extremely important to consider as we try to understand not only
how Beethoven and his works should be viewed by cultural historians, but also how his
music is to be heard, interpreted and performed. The issue has important bearing on how
musicians would perform and perceive works such as the late quartets especially: should they
be seen primarily as outgrowths of eighteenth century traditions and performance practices or
as examples of fresh traditions in the process of formation and creation? This is a practically
unanswerable question as Beethoven’s style and writing in the late quartets was so complex
and highly introverted that it almost seems a futile point to ponder. Rather than trying to
categorize Beethoven’s so-called style in order to make performing the works in an informed
way ‘easier’, it would be most useful and holistic (so to speak) to take a collaborative
viewpoint on such topics, realising that there is merit in almost all schools of thought, as
postulated by Richard Taruskin.25

Victor K. Agawu, “The First Movement of Beethoven’s Opus 132 and the Classical Style”, College Music
Symposium Vol. 27 (1987): 30-45.
Nancy November, “Performance History and Beethoven’s String Quartets: Setting The Record Crooked,”
Journal of Musicological Research Vol. 30, Issue 1. (2011): 10-22.
Thomas F. Dunhill, “The Music of Friends: Some Thoughts on the String Quartets of Beethoven”, The
Musical Times 1008, 68 (1927): 113-114.
Winter, Performing the Quartets in Their First Century, 57.
Richard Taruskin, Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Although many of his compositions (especially from the late 1790s to around 1810) were
immediately popular, many of his late works, especially the late period string quartets to be
discussed in more detail later, were not absorbed into mainstream musical culture until many
years after his death. 26 Gradually, as aesthetic values and socio-cultural climates began to
change, the late works too became to be regarded as great, almost being seen as an even
deeper reflection of Beethoven’s inner life and exemplary craft than his more approachable
compositions. Beethoven’s string quartet works form the core of the genre’s repertoire, and
all later composers for the genre have had to confront his model as a great and often
intimidating paragon. His influence has been felt not only in style and technical aspects, but
also in conceptions of music and the role of the composer. Beethoven’s works naturally
continued to attract attentive listening and probing in terms of critical interpretation as time
wore on. Musicologists and academics, seeking to explain Beethoven’s music, developed
new approaches in motivic, harmonic, formal and tonal analysis (although these aspects will
not be discussed further in this thesis, it is useful to touch briefly on the topic to add further
context of their importance in general musical history).

Further to this, the unity and coherence he achieved through harmonic relationships, motivic
links, and other means were highlighted in various studies 27 and these aspects of his
compositional technique became a measure of greatness in musical art, until challenged in
recent decades by new values and by attempts to rediscover the values of earlier generations.
Musicians, academics and critics have so often used Beethoven’s work and aesthetic as a
measuring rod, but this way of thinking can also often be inappropriate or misleading when
evaluating music of different styles, traditions, cultural periods or even purposes.

Beethoven’s music was particularly admired for its assertion of the ‘self’. As a composer, it
seemed that he could afford the time to compose as he pleased, without having to answer
directly to an employer. It could be as a result of this that he occasionally put his own
experiences and feelings at the heart of his compositions, going beyond the long-standing
traditions of representing the emotions of a poetic text, dramatising those of an operatic

Peter J. Burkholder, Claude V. Palisca, Donald J. Grout., A History of Western Music, 593-594.

character, or suggesting a mood through conventional devices (Chapter Four continues this
discussion in greater detail). This kind of self-expression was becoming the norm in
compositional style, as it was in tune with the aforementioned growing Romantic movement
that would come into being after Beethoven’s time. Beethoven, and especially the critical
reaction to his music, changed society’s idea of what it is that a composer did. The image he
cultivated of the composer as an artist pursuing self-expression, composing only when
inspiration struck, continues to predominate.

The Late Quartets

By the time Beethoven had reached the stage of composing his late quartets, Op. 127, 130,
131, 132, 135 and the fugue of Op. 133 between the years of 1824 and 1826, he had not
written anything in that genre for the past twelve years and had reached the last few years of
his life.28 Although his state of mind and physical condition at the time seems to have been
exaggerated by many early 20th century scholars, it can be deduced that he was experiencing a
steady decline in his general health and hearing as well as having reached a low point
financially and socially.29 In this later portion of his life he was to write his last three piano
sonatas and the Diabelli Variations, the Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis and of course
the late quartets.30 From a music historical point of view, there are a few features that make
these late quartets particularly significant in terms of Beethoven’s compositional output. As
he reached the end of his life, the genres in which he composed slowly dropped away, and
though he had begun planning a second opera and sketching a Tenth Symphony, he
concentrated almost exclusively on string quartets.31

It is clear when reading a passage from Beethoven’s correspondence of 1813-23, that he had
experienced a profound change in mindset since his youth and that he had begun writing for a
different purpose than merely for passing success and recognition. He writes: “Du darfst
nicht Mensch sein, für dich nicht, nur für andere, für dich gibt's kein Glück mehr als in dir

Michael Steinberg, “Notes on the Quartets”, in The Beethoven Quartet Companion, eds. Robert Martin,
Robert Winter, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994, 143-145.
Joseph D. Marliave, Beethoven’s Quartets, London: Oxford University Press, 1928.
Steinberg, Notes on the Quartets, 143-145.

selbst, in deiner Kunst.” (Thou mayest no longer be a man, not for thyself, only for others, for
thee there is no longer happiness except in thyself, in thy art). 32 This change in point of view
can be seen as a catalyst for the change in Beethoven’s music which culminated in the
content of the late string quartets. This change expresses itself more noticeably in subtle
matters of proportion and a marked increase in the use of complex polyphonic texture and
less in any major specific details of style.33 The composition of string quartets was clearly
highly important to Beethoven. From a technical aspect, Beethoven was one of the very few
composers who could master the matters of texture, contrapuntal control and linear
integrity.34 This is an area of discussion that could be taken further in a future investigation of
this topic: Beethoven’s move to an abstract compositional space, almost removed from
contemporaneous formal and stylistic compositional paradigms, opens up an entirely different
way of thinking about the works in the first place. In terms of the actual instruments, each one
having four strings, the textural possibilities are vast; the sound is full enough so that broken
chords or double-stopped strings could be used freely rather than as a necessity. With four
stringed instruments, the contrapuntal possibilities and therefore challenges are also
multiplied literally sixteen-fold, and this is another possible reason for the quartet having
taken first place as the quintessential chamber music norm.35

Reception and Early Performances

As mentioned before, the weight of past interpretations frequently burdens the hearing and
playing of musical works possessed of a rich critical tradition, such as Beethoven’s late
quartets. 36 Each generation of listeners is caught between inherited paradigms and the
demand for a fresh aesthetic response. This chapter attempts to illuminate the early 19 th
century cultural and social contexts of Beethoven’s late quartets (with reference to earlier

Thayer, Alexander W, Ludwig van Beethovens Leben, Band 3 Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1908.
Daniel G. Mason, The Quartets of Beethoven, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1947.
Kerman, Beethoven Quartet Audiences: Actual, Potential, Ideal in The Beethoven Quartet Companion, 7-27.
Leon Botstein, “The Patron and Publics of the Quartets: Music, Culture, and Society in Beethoven’s Vienna”,
in The Beethoven Quartet Companion, Robert Martin, Robert Winter, eds Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1994, 105-109.

quartets) through a re-imagining of the past – its politics, literature, theatrical tradition, social
structures and patronage.37

“It is amazing where the newest composers are heading, with technical and mechanical
dimensions raised to the very highest levels; their works end up no longer being music, for
they go beyond the scope of human emotional responses and one cannot add anything more
to such works from one’s own spirit and heart … For me, everything just remains
stuck in my ears.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in conversation with Eckermann (12 January 1827)38

“Möser’s quartet evenings ... are, when it comes to instrumental music, the most
comprehensible to me: one hears four rational people talk among themselves, one
believes that one gains something from their discourse and becomes acquainted with the
idiosyncrasies of their instruments.”
Goethe to Carl Friederich Zelter (1829)39

“I doubt whether Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven ever re-experienced their works in so clean,
secure, and healthy a way as they are given here … [Möser] so electrifies his fellow players
that the hearer also does not know what is happening to him. One believes that one is playing
along; one understands the unfathomable, one is possessed – one does not know by what.”
Zelter in a letter to Goethe (1829) 40

Translated from Fl. Frhr. Von Biedermann, Goethes Gespräche: Gesamtausgabe, (Leipzig, 1910), 3:315.
Translated from Briefwechsel zwischen Goethe und Zelter 1799-1832, ed. Hecker, M, 3 volumes, Frankfurt
am Main, 1987, 3:233, 246.

“To the Beethoven Enthusiasts

Like you, I have greatly admired Beethoven

However, with one difference.

Where your admiration first really begins

Mine has already ended.”

A poem by Franz Grillparzer (1870) 41

These quotations may serve as a historical framework from which to expand upon in the
discussion of various developments and opinions throughout Beethoven’s career.

The first text fragment, Goethe’s remark to Eckermann, made just months before Beethoven’s
death, evokes what a discerning listener in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century
expected from music42. Goethe was an avid lover of music who acknowledged Beethoven’s
genius, and Beethoven reciprocated this admiration by setting various works by Goethe to
music. 43 For Goethe, music was an art allied specifically to nature through an inherent
parallelism to human emotions, and aesthetic judgments of music were measurable by the
human capacity for sentiment and feeling.44 What began to trouble Goethe in 1827 was that
new music being composed, including Beethoven’s late quartets, seemed to break the link
between nature (e.g emotion) and art, upsetting the symmetry between music as an art and the
nonmusical emotional experiences of which the listener was capable. Interestingly, these
conflicting tendencies between old and new also hinted to a growing paradox between culture
and politics in the early nineteenth century.

The second and third fragments of text are suggestive of the character of string quartet
performances in the early nineteenth century. By the end of the 1820s in Vienna and Berlin,

Franz Grillparzer, August Sauer, Sämtliche Werke, 11:86 (Wien: Anton Schroll & co, 1887).
Botstein, The Patron and Publics of the Quartets: Music, Culture, and Society in Beethoven’s Vienna,78.
Burnham, Beethoven Hero, 141.
Botstein, The Patron and Publics of the Quartets: Music, Culture, and Society in Beethoven’s Vienna, 78.

small audiences were offered the chance to hear professional performances. 45 Ignaz
Schuppanzigh, leader of the Schuppanzigh quartet who premiered the first of Beethoven’s
late quartets, had returned to Vienna from Russia and had begun a series of chamber music
concerts in Vienna’s inner city.46 By the 1820s the string quartet had achieved a unique status
as a medium for cultural discourse.47

Goethe’s opinion was that with the string quartet, audiences could engage in ‘rational internal
discourse’, conversation and even argument, as opposed to being merely distracted or
entertained by a divertimento.48 Reason and wisdom were prized in the listener and player of
Beethoven’s late quartets, as the complex and subtle development of the music throughout
each work achieved its peak in these quartets. In contrast to Goethe, one of his friends, the
composer and teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter, was of the opinion that the quartet had the ability
to draw us into more abstract or unfathomable regions, ones that were otherwise impenetrable
by any ordinary ‘language’.49

The fourth fragment, written by Beethoven’s friend and colleague Franz Grillparzer, hints at
Grillparzer’s own aesthetic ideals, which mirrored widespread mid-nineteenth century
thoughts on Beethoven’s late quartets as strange and disjointed. 50 This view saw the late
quartets as lesser, distorted echoes of the Beethoven of his early and middle period works.

Politically, the old ways were linked with rationalism and liberalism and the new with the
revival of religion and the prestige of monarchical power after 1815.51 It is important to note
that the Viennese society that Beethoven wrote for and was immersed in, was involved in this
intense and multi-dimensional discourse; this would indirectly have a large impact on the
way in which his works were received and publicized. However, by 1870 a shift in taste had

Potter, Tully. Exploring the Beethoven Quartets on Disc: Many Paths to Nirvana. 2013. URL:
Botstein, The Patron and Publics of the Quartets: Music, Culture, and Society in Beethoven’s Vienna, 80.
Ibid., 81.
Ibid., 80.
Ibid., 81.

begun, as younger audiences began to enthusiastically embrace the late quartets. These
quartets began to take their place as icons of modernism, displaying Beethoven’s progressive
aesthetic, and making a huge leap out of the history of the nineteenth century.

The relationship between music and verbal communication in Beethoven’s late quartets, and
therefore between instrumental music and drama or poetry, was not lost on his
contemporaries.52 His music was interpreted in terms of language and those of the art forms
that used language.53 The aesthetic controversies of the early nineteenth century were framed
by the concept of language as a metaphor of musical communication.54 In 1825, The German
poet and music critic Ludwig Rellstab spoke about the romantic elements of Beethoven’s
work, identifying the communicative aspects of the late quartet op. 127:

“Thank heaven that there is still sufficient closeness between him and us for us to share a
common language for our feelings, even if it is not completely comprehensible….Beethoven
has spoken with us in a way that is awe-inspiring and moves us to the depths. It is a somber
message….the calm expression of suffering resisted by the soul that is deeply wounded but
equally inspired by hope. It is the manly suffering of a Laocoon, which weaves its secret
threads throughout the entire work, even in the profound scherzo where it seems to make
fun of itself and in doing so only moves us to a deeper and more stirring response.”55

The language and aesthetic of the late quartets was seen as something futuristic, and Leon
Botstein56 notes this awareness that the works were not only technically difficult, but novel in
a way that future generations might appreciate, was indeed perceptive. In the decades
immediately after Beethoven’s death, the sense that the late quartets possessed a unique,
progressive, yet common communicative language was lost. Seemingly in prediction of this

Ibid., 80-83.
Burnham, Beethoven Hero.
Kunze, Stefan ed. Ludwig van Beethoven: Die Werke im Spiegel seiner Zeit: Gesammelte Konzertberichte und
Rezensionen bis 1830. Laaber: Laaber-Verlag, 1987. 2:57.
Botstein, The Patrons and Publics of the Quartets: Music, Culture, and Society in Beethoven’s Vienna, 77-83.

occurrence, Sir George Grove explained that Beethoven’s late works – the late quartets in
particular – had been “misunderstood and naturally unappreciated” at the time of their
composition. Over time and with much study however, the works became more highly
valued and by the turn of the century the works experienced a renaissance, until they were
“by common consent of those who are able to judge placed at the head of Beethoven’s
compositions”.57 They were viewed as the paradigm of the crisis of language and the failure
of language to communicate and to enlighten. The quartets spoke to those at the turn of the
century in search of a self-consciously modern sensibility.58

After Beethoven's death, many musicians and critics drew a direct connection between his
physical and mental suffering (deafness, illness, even possible insanity) and what they viewed
as the failure of the late works.59 In his 1870 essay ‘Beethoven’, Richard Wagner displayed a
radically different approach from the perspective of these early critics, proposing for the first
time that Beethoven's late works were in fact his greatest and that his loss of hearing was
beneficial, even vital, to the creative process.60 In so doing he made possible the elevation of
the late works to the status of genius. The immediate impact of Wagner's essay may be seen
in the writings of three important figures: Sir George Grove, Theodor Helm, and Vincent
D'Indy.61 The lasting influence of Wagner's ideas (which have been disseminated in diverse
forms by many authors) has been enormous.

Sir George Grove, "Beethoven, Ludwig van," in A Dictionary of Music and Musicians (A.D. 1450-1880), 1:
(1879): 162- 209.
K. M. Knittel, “Wagner, Deafness, and the Reception of Beethoven's Late Style”, in Journal of the American
Musicological Society, 51: 1 (1998): 49-82.
Roger Allen, “Richard Wagner's Beethoven (1870): A New Translation”, Boydell and Brewer eds.,
(2014), JSTOR URL:

For purposes of providing a concrete historical framework, this chapter will conclude with a
brief chronological outline of the composition of Beethoven’s late quartets.

Op. 127 (completed February 1825)

Op. 132 (July 1825)

Op. 130 (in the first version, with the Grosse Fuge as finale - November 1825)
Op. 131 (May 1826 or possibly a month or two later)

Op. 135 (late September/early October 1826)

Op. 130 new finale (November 1826)

Beethoven passed away soon after the completion of Op. 130, on the 26th of March 1827.62

Steinberg, Notes on the Quartets, 143-145.


The String Quartet of Beethoven’s Time versus the Modern String

Quartet: Historically-minded Performance

Having discussed the historical context, we now turn to the subtly complex issue of trying to
understand precisely how and why string quartet performances, interpretations and recordings
have changed throughout time. In the ever-expanding field of performance practice studies,
the string quartet genre has received fairly little attention, and to the man on the street, the
modern string quartet as we know it today would appear virtually unchanged from the one
known to Beethoven at the time he was writing his late string quartets. However, like any
other type of musical genre, the string quartet has an intricate cultural and social history that,
as we have seen in the previous chapter, provides much insight into the evolution of musical
aesthetics, and therefore into the type of performances and interpretations of Beethoven’s late
quartets. 63

Apart from these socio-political factors, practical and technical changes during the course of
the twentieth century affected the interpretations of these works greatly too, for example – the
development of instruments as well as changing audiences and social and cultural ideals.64
However, the change that may have had the most profound effect was the development of
recording, which will be discussed in detail in the following chapter.65 Furthermore, to better
understand the specific role that Beethoven’s late quartets played in the history of the string
quartet as a genre, more contextual understanding of the development of the string quartet in
general will provide deeper understanding and context.

Simon Standage, “Historical Awareness in Quartet Performance”, in The Cambridge Companion to the String
Quartet, ed. Robin Stowell, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, 127-148.
Robert Philip, Performing Music in the Age of Recording, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 4-

In order to understand the special circumstances of string quartet performance practice, and
therefore the interpretations of Beethoven’s late quartets, Marie Sumner Lott 66 suggests an
exploration of a previously overlooked body of literature written by members of quartets
themselves, including treatises on quartet playing and various other written pedagogical
works. Delving into sources such as these provides an ideal starting point from which to
begin comparing the literature with early recordings made by professional quartets. This
gives us the opportunity to evaluate and analyse the aesthetics of historical quartet

In order to help us understand how the quartets might have sounded before the invention of
recordings, it is useful to use a timeline-like discussion as a way in which to attempt to
answer the following questions: which musicians were performing the quartets; and which
schools of violin or string playing might have influenced the way these performances
sounded? Answering these questions helps us to better contextualise the development of
playing style up until the production of recordings, or, the point whereafter we have concrete
aural historical evidence.

Development of the string quartet

The string quartet as a genre and homogenous idiom came into its own around the 1780s;
Mozart and Haydn had managed to establish the genre in Vienna by this time and the string
quartet was henceforth seen as a perfectly balanced genre that held appeal for the earnest
enthusiast as well as the specialist musician. 68 In the early days of the genre, there was
generally less emphasis on demanding technical writing from composers, as the idea was for
a group of friends, family or colleagues to gather in an informal setting in order to make
music purely for the sake of enjoyment. Soon after though, as Beethoven took the technical

Marie S. Lott, The Social Worlds of Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music: Composers, Consumers,
Communities, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2015.
Tully Potter, “From Chamber to Concert Hall”, in The Cambridge Companion to the String Quartet, ed.
Robin Stowell, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, 41-60.

demands of a string quartet to a higher level, more and more musicians felt the need to form
more permanent groupings in order to be able to perform the works to a better standard.

The Viennese violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh plays a very important role in what we know
today about the first performances of the late quartets. Much less is known about the rest of
the musicians that played with Schuppanzigh, although it seems that he would consistently
perform the first violin part while the other parts were often played by interchangeable
members. As mentioned previously, the idea of a fixed or permanent quartet would have been
foreign to the players at this time, which would surely have affected the homogeneity of the
group’s sound as well as articulation and various other techniques. Accordingly, in around
1804-5, Schuppanzigh went on to form a more permanent quartet, which would go on to
premiere several of the late quartets, including Op. 127, Op. 130 and Op. 132.69 According to
the eminent Viennese music writer Eduard Hanslick, this formation of a quartet for the sole
purpose of performing chamber music publicly was a first in history70, and one cannot help
but wonder if it was the complexity and demanding nature of the late quartets themselves that
drove Schuppanzigh to establish a settled group in order to properly rehearse and prepare the
works in a more ‘serious’ way.

In terms of schools of violin/string playing, it is generally known that Schuppanzigh and his
colleagues were heavily influenced by the French school of violin playing that dominated
much of Western Europe from around 1780 until 1830.71 The leading French violinists and
pedagogues such as Rodolphe Kreutzer, Pierre Baillot and Pierre Rode were at the forefront
of this school, going on to produce the first violin methodology in 1803 for the Paris

How might this school have sounded in the context of Schuppanzigh and his colleagues’
interpretations of the late quartets? The French school was often described as elegant-
sounding with highly sensitive ideas about phrasing, but not as virtuosic as some other

Winter, Performing the Beethoven Quartets in their First Century, 7-16.
Eduard Hanslick, 1869. Geschichte des Conzertwesens in Wien, (Wien: Braumüller ), 202-3.
Winter, Performing the Beethoven Quartets in their First Century, 7-16.
Pierre Baillot, Pierre Rode P; Rodolphe Kreutzer, Methode de Violon, (Paris: Faubourg, 1803).

schools of playing. Especially in the late quartets, Beethoven’s highly complex writing was
often verging on the unplayable side, even by today’s high technical standards, and therefore
it is possible that at this early stage in the life of these works, the way in which they were
being played was not always at the highest technical level. We see proof of this in the
numerous letters by Beethoven in which he complained about the way in which
Schuppanzigh was struggling with the quartets, as well as, for example, in the following
writing of the critic Eduard Hanslick: “Herr Schuppanzigh himself has an original, piquant
style most appropriate to the humorous quartets of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven – or,
perhaps more accurately, a product of the capricious manner of performance suited to these
masterpieces. He plays the most difficult passages clearly, although not always quite in tune
... He also accents very correctly and significantly, and his cantabile, too, is often quite
singing and affecting. He is likewise a good leader for his carefully chosen colleagues, who
enter admirably into the spirit of the composer, though he disturbed me often with his
accursed fashion, generally introduced here, of beating time with his foot”. 73 Criticism of
Schuppanzigh’s technique aside, it was nonetheless due to him that two great contributions to
the art of quartet playing were made: the presentation of chamber concert series as a regular
public event, as well as the formation of a permanent string quartet.

Another string quartet that was popular around the same time was led by the Hungarian
violinist Josef Böhm (1795-1876). Generally, technical progress in string playing at this time
was irregular and sporadic, but in Bohemia and Hungary the standards were being advanced
at a much higher rate than in any other parts of the world.74 Although the Hungarian’s early
playing style was influenced by his French teacher, the aforementioned Rode, Böhm’s
extensive career in Vienna led him on to develop his own school of violin playing which was
founded on the works of Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert.75 Here, Böhm plays a very
important role in our timeline, in that he would go on to teach two of the most influential
quartet players who would lead us into the age of recorded evidence: Georg Hellmesberger
(1800 – 1873) and Joseph Joachim (1831-1907).76

Hanslick, Geschichte des Conzertwesens in Wien, 71: 229.
Potter, From Chamber to Concert Hall, 41-60.
Winter, Performing the Beethoven Quartets in Their First Century, 39-40.
Ibid., 39.

What made these two quartets special was that all of the members had worked closely and
personally with Beethoven himself during the preparation and rehearsals for performances.
From correspondence and letters written by Beethoven as well as the musicians, we can glean
fairly precise information on what it was that Beethoven found most important for the
interpretations of these quartets. For example, Böhm described the way in which Beethoven
would often attend rehearsals to make sure that his works were being correctly interpreted:

“[The quartet] was rehearsed frequently under Beethoven’s own eyes: I said Beethoven’s eyes
intentionally, for the unhappy man was so deaf that he could no longer hear the heavenly
sound of his own compositions. And yet rehearsing in his presence was not easy. With close
attention his eyes followed the bows and therefore he was able to judge the smallest
fluctuations in tempo or rhythm and correct them immediately. At the close of the last
movement of this quartet there occurred a meno vivace, which seemed to me to weaken the
general effect. At the rehearsal, therefore, I advised that the original tempo be maintained,
which was done, to the betterment of the effect. Beethoven, crouched in a corner, heard
nothing, but watched with strained attention. After the last stroke of the bows he said,
laconically, “Let it remain so,” went to the desks and crossed out the meno vivace in the four

In terms of performance practice, we can only wonder how it must have felt to play these
works for the first time, without any access to recordings or something pre-existing upon
which to base decision-making processes 78 . The beauty of that situation lies in that the
musical interpretations of the players must have, in some sense, been incredibly personal and
unencumbered. Of course, the players of the time, unless they had personally heard another
quartet perform the works, only knew this way of music-making, and for us as modern
musicians today, the difficulty lies in that it is in fact completely impossible for us to ever
really know how that would have felt. This poses a question which is difficult to answer: as

Joseph Böhm, quoted in Thayer, Alexander W., Forbes, Elliot, ed., Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, New Jersey:
Princeton University Press, 1967, 940-41.
Colin Symes, Setting the Record Straight: a Material History of Classical Recording, Conneticut: Wesleyan
University Press, 2004, 35.

modern musicians, are our interpretations becoming watered-down or made generic by years
of intentional and unintentional reliance on recordings? And, as more time passes, and the
technical demands on classical musicians increases, will we find a way to return or to retain a
more natural way of dealing with the interpretation of works such as those by Beethoven?
This question leads us out of the age of the earliest performances of the late quartets, and into
the age of recording, to be discussed further in the following chapter.

Following this general historical background, we have seen that there are a number of
technical and practical aspects of string playing, and therefore string quartet playing, that
have changed over time due to advances in technical ability/virtuosity and aesthetic tastes.
For example: fingering choices, bowing, intonation, tone colour, use of tempi, text (the actual
printed music with its editorial additions), ornamentation, pitch and even the seating plan of
the quartet.79 As the development of such aspects of violin playing involves a rather long and
complex history, for the purpose of this essay I will only be discussing technical
developments that occurred during and after the time in which Beethoven was composing his
late quartets.

A Brief Overview of String Playing Techniques and Instrument Developments that

Affect Performances or Recordings of the Late Quartets

Instruments and Bows

It is the general consensus that the last major transformations of violins, violas and cellos
occured by 1800, around the time at which Beethoven was publishing his Op. 18 quartets.80
Violins being built during this period now had a longer neck at a sharper angle than the
Baroque model, with a thicker and longer bass bar, thicker soundpost and stronger strings. At
this time, string players were now also almost universally using the more modern concave-

Standage, Historical Awareness in Quartet Performance, 127-148.
David Boyden, The History of Violin Playing from Its Origins to 1761: And Its Relationship to the Violin and
Violin Music, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965, 80-81.

shaped bow which had been introduced around 1785 by the French luthier François Tourte.81
However, one could also say that this picture was overly simplified.

In the first half of the 1800s, the lowest of the four strings on a violin (the G string) as well as
the highest string (E) were wound in gut, rather than in silver or gold as is standard practice
today. The two middle strings (D and A) may not even have been wound with anything until
after mid-century.82 Slightly later, Carl Flesch noted that in the time between the first (1923)
and second (1929) editions of his book Die Kunst des Violinspiels, the metal E string had
almost completely replaced the gut E.83 As gut strings are widely used by historically-minded
performers today, we know that these kind of strings produce a tone that was and is less
powerful but more intimate and transparent than that of steel-covered strings.

Until about 1820, violins did not have chin rests, which meant that the left hand had to
entirely support the instrument. It was at this time that the German violinist Louis Spohr
(1784-1859) invented the chin rest, and by mid-century, the device was a standard fitting,
located on the left side of the instrument under the player’s chin.84 We can deduce then, that
all of the performers of the late quartets were not able to shift positions with the freedom of
modern performers, and that the degree of bow pressure on the strings would have been less,
resulting in a less powerful sound overall.

It seems as though the history of the viola and cello are generally less complete than that of
the violin, although there is no evidence to suggest that their development process was much
different.85 In terms of physical evidence that gives us the closest idea of what ‘Beethoven’s
quartet’ would have sounded like, still in existence today is the quartet of instruments
presented (according to the records of musicologist and musical autograph collector Alois

Winter, The Quartets in Their First Century, 32.
Carl Flesch, Der Kunst Des Violonspiels, Berlin: Ries & Erler, 1929.
Boyden, The History of Violin Playing from Its Origins to 1761: And Its Relationship to the Violin and Violin
Music, 256.
Winter, The Quartets in Their First Century, 29-58.

Fuchs) to Beethoven in 1800 by one of his long-term patrons, Prince Karl Lichnowsky (1756-
1814) at the request of Ignaz Schuppanzigh.86


The main aspect of a string player’s fingering technique that had changed by the turn of the
eighteenth century was the use of una corda, a technique that involves playing a phrase or
melody up and down one string rather than using multiple strings in lower positions.87 This
technique was commonly used to add colour, warmth, and an equality of tone to the sound
produced by a player, and also to avoid the use of open strings, which could often sound
harsh and break the line of a melody.88 By the end of the nineteenth century, the fingerings of
violinists Ferdinand David (1810-1873) and Andreas Moser (1859-1925) had become more
frequently used, which meant more frequent and casual portamenti and generally large shifts,
as the second and fourth positions were often avoided. 89 With the increased use of
portamento came a variety of portamento types, and as with the use of vibrato, there were
always those who frowned upon its overuse in general. 90 Not considering the personal
preferences of individual players, it seems that in the eighteenth century portamenti and una
corda playing were generally considered as special effects, whereas they became more of a
standard practice in the nineteenth century.91 This could also have largely been a result of the
more virtuosic and technically demanding repertoire enforcing a more extreme left-hand
flexibility among string players in general. For example, Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Solo
Violin (composed between 1802 and 1817) contain multiple passages which require the una
corda technique to persist almost the entire way through the movement/s.

On permanent display at the Beethovenhaus in Bonn. These instruments are said to be a Giuseppe Guarneri
violin (1718), a Niccoló Amati violin (1667), a Vincenzo Ruger viola (1690) and an Andrea Guarneri cello
(1712). These nineteenth-century attributions are now questioned, although no one has made a detailed study.
Standage, Historical Awareness in Quartet Performance, 127-148.
David Milsom, “Portamento”, The Oxford Companion to Music, Oxford Music Online, 2007. URL:
Standage, Historical Awareness in Quartet Performance, 127-148.

In terms of Beethoven’s late quartets, we find direct evidence of this technique in the Finale
movement of Op. 127, where the fifth bar of the first violin part contains a direction from
Beethoven: ‘Sul 4to’ (often also written as Sul G, or una corda). This indicates that the player
should perform the passage only on the G string; a passage that could easily and would
normally be played in first position across the D and A strings of the violin. As well as this
example, we can even find earlier evidence of Beethoven’s very obvious use of una corda in
the fiendishly fast and difficult last movement of the middle-period quartet Op. 59 No. 3,
where he writes a passage that is passed through each member of the quartet, a running theme
that moves through several positions on one string for the sole purpose of the huge difference
in sound that it creates. This is one of several string playing techniques used in the late
quartets that displays Beethoven’s move toward a more extreme style of writing that was
completely ahead of its time.


Beethoven’s markings for articulations in his string quartets included frequent use of
directions such as sforzando, cantabile, sostenuto and tenuto, markings which would
previously have been used less frequently by composers before him, such as Haydn and
Mozart.92 These directions called for a more powerful style of bowing, correlating with the
demands and freedom brought about by the newer Tourte-inspired models of bows mentioned
previously, which had heavier tops and bottoms as well as a wider breadth of hair.93

In terms of marked bowings in Beethoven’s late string quartets (this applies to all of his early
and middle period string quartets as well), it is clear that he was pushing the boundaries of
right-hand technique at the time. Even today, for quartet players at the peak of their careers
and abilities, the technical demands of the late quartets in particular still draw attention for
their extremely challenging articulation and bowing material. For example, in the first edition
of the quartet Op. 127 (which was approved by Beethoven himself), there are multiple
passages, especially in the second and third movements in which the first violinist has to play

Robin Stowell, “Developments in Instruments, Bows and Accessories” in The Cambridge Companion to the
String Quartet, ed. Robin Stowell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)19-36.

lengthy melodic passages under one bow-stroke. This kind of bowing indication would not
have been possible on an earlier model of bow, and Beethoven, as a true innovator, was
clearly pushing the limits of what the newer bows could do.

Today, very little seems to have changed since Beethoven’s time in terms of usage of
bowings. The only variation that seems to have occurred around the middle of the twentieth
century is that string players began to take more liberties with the printed bowings. This is
audible in certain recordings made between the 1950s – 1980s (see Chapter Three), and
becomes less prominent toward the current day. This current restraint could be seen to be a
result of more modern ideals that encourage historically informed practice and the almost
religiously fervent use of the original/composer’s or first edition markings.

Tone colour and Vibrato

Tone colour, although a very personal and subjective topic, can be analysed to some extent in
terms of the technical means by which varying colours are achieved. Of course, string players
who are more intuitive than analytical may often produce a plethora of colours without
thinking about how, but it is useful for this study to understand the technical aspect in order
to be able to clarify what has changed throughout time and why. For example, tone colour
may change as a result of fashions and aesthetics, as well as technical advances. Overall
though, it can be said that the factor which influences tone quality the most in string playing
is the use of vibrato, as it is the most personal expression of a player’s musical personality
and artistic style.94

Use of vibrato (the periodic fluctuations of amplitude, frequency and timbre) is also one of
the aspects of interpretation that has varied fairly widely throughout time, which is clearly
audible in the recorded evidence to be discussed in the following chapter. Vibrato is one of
the aspects of playing technique that is barely affected by any changes in recording
technology, and therefore provides a particularly useful element to study in terms of change

Standage, Historical Awareness in Quartet Performance, 127-148.

of playing style.95 There are widely varying opinions on how much/frequently vibrato and/or
speed or amplitude of vibrato should be used, as it is largely an issue of personal taste and
musical preference. Through careful study of recordings of quartet playing through history,
we can see that the style of vibrato usage went through various stages as musical taste
changed through the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty first century. Early recordings of string
playing give clear evidence of a noticeable shift of taste that occurred: the relatively straight
nineteenth century tone which was coloured by an occasional use of narrow vibrato quickly
gave way to the more intense and pervasive twentieth century use of vibrato on almost every
note.96 This is evidenced in almost all of the recordings of Beethoven’s late quartets, as the
earlier recordings use marginally less vibrato than ones made in the middle of the twentieth
century. The use of vibrato becomes more sparing as time moves on toward the most current

Mark Katz has interestingly proposed that, while changes in artistic taste certainly played a
part, one of the main reasons for changing vibrato usage was due to the introduction of
recording. 97 Although it is impossible to confirm this, one could definitely argue that the
coincidence of timing here makes for a strong case. Katz offers a number of reasons for his
argument, and he would surely be correct in assuming that it was a combination of several
factors rather than just a single cause that allowed such changes to occur. Considering that
string instruments’ sound production was (and still is) often referred to as similar to that of
the human voice/sung music, we could surmise that, just as singers discovered towards the
end of the 19th century that vibrato helps to distinguish a solo line from its accompaniment,
string players might have developed this sensibility also. This may also have helped violinists
to project more in halls and against orchestras of ever-increasing in size in the late-nineteenth
to mid-twentieth century. Secondly, Katz argues that violins would have registered better in
early recordings if the use of vibrato was wider and more continuous. Thirdly, he also
mentions that vibrato may have been used to disguise poor intonation. It is important to note

Peter Johnson, “The Legacy of Recordings” in Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding, ed. John
Rink (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) 204-5.
Mark Katz, “Beethoven in the age of mechanical reproduction: The violin concerto on record” in: Beethoven
Forum: 10 (2003), 38-54.

that Leech-Wilkinson99 reminds us here that although Katz may be right in this regard, there
is not quite enough evidence in recording sources to support much generalisation here. While
it is not an aesthetically pleasing argument for more continuous vibrato, it cannot be
discounted, due to the fact that we have some evidence at least in the imprecise intonation
clearly heard in many early recordings of orchestral works. We must however remember that
intonation heard in these recordings may also have been affected by lack of precision in tone
accuracy of the recording technology of the time.

Leech-Wilkinson again argues against Katz’s general proposal regarding vibrato style related
to the beginning of the recording age. It could also be that the dates do not really line up; the
change may also have already happened before recording began. Only in the oldest
performers, born before 1850, do we hear the old style. Among younger players it was
already disappearing, and the generation born after 1870 did not seem to use it at all. That
generation would have developed their own personal styles in the 1890s before commercial
recording began, and long before recordings became common enough to influence players.
The more conventional explanation for the new more ‘demonstrative’ style, that orchestras
had become larger and louder and so ways had to be found for soloists to penetrate through
these bigger sound textures, may be good enough, but without recorded evidence to prove the
change, it is impossible to know for sure. Lastly, Katz suggests that violinists may have
placed more weight on vibrato because it gave them a means of differentiating their own
sound from anyone else’s.100 A counter-argument might be that violinists still use continuous
vibrato but never tire of arguing that nowadays everyone sounds the same. 101 There is no
doubt, though, that in the early decades of continuous vibrato they did not, so again Katz may
well have a point.

As we can see, use of vibrato is a highly personal and somewhat controversial issue. Written
advice on the application of it generally offers logical principles, for example, guidance on

Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, The Changing Sound of Music: Approaches to Studying Recorded Musical
Performances, London: CHARM, 2009, Chapter 5.
Mark Katz, Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music, Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1970, 95-7.
Itzhak Perlman in Bruno Monsaingeon, The Art of Violin NVC Arts 2001, videotape, 4' 01"–4' 36".

where and how to use it. The problem however is that these suggestions are based solely on
the personal ideas put forth by certain high-ranking pedagogues such as Louis Spohr, Joseph
Joachim, Leopold Auer and Carl Flesch.102

The perception of vibrato is also greatly subjective. For example, famed violinist Yehudi
Menuhin was of the opinion that the French Capet Quartet (founded in 1893) played with an
intolerable tone on account of what he thought was a total lack of the use of vibrato.103 In
fact, recordings of the Capet Quartet playing Beethoven’s late quartets show that all four of
the players use an almost constant vibrato. What seems likely here is that by comparison with
Menuhin’s teacher, George Enescu, who used a wider vibrato, the Capet Quartet’s seemingly
‘straight’ tone did not match up with the modern ideal tone that was coming into fashion.104
In a similar case, the composer Eric Coates was disappointed after hearing violinist Joseph
Joachim play in the early years of the twentieth century, stating that his playing was ‘cold’. 105
He thought that “a little more vibrato might well have covered up [his] lack of intonation” –
although by that time Joachim would indeed have been a very elderly violinist, it is probably
also the modern taste for a sweeter tone that led Coates to his criticism.106

It is by comparing and correlating these early twentieth century recordings with the writings
and instruments of the nineteenth century and late eighteenth century, that we can attempt to
rediscover what the vibrato usage and tone-style in the first performances of Beethoven’s late
quartets may have sounded like. Another important influence on tone quality requires us to
again mention the material of the strings. As we have seen, gut strings were in general use
until the 1920s. 107 As a useful time-marker, by approximately a quarter way through the
twentieth century, the transition from gut to metal strings was complete. Therefore, it can be
deduced that not only the first performances of the late quartets (as mentioned before) were
performed on gut strings, but certain early recordings too. Due to the fuzzy nature of the
sound quality of early recordings, it is not always possible to hear the change from gut to

Standage, Historical Awareness in Quartet Performance, 127-148.
Yehudi Menuhin, Unifinished Journey, New York: Knopf, 1977.
Standage, Historical Awareness in Quartet Performance, 127-148.
Eric Coates, Suite in Four Movements, London: Heinemann, 1953.
Stowell, Developments in Instruments, Bows and Accessories,19-36

steel strings, although gut strings are still widely available today and many musicians choose
to perform Beethoven on them as it can be seen as more ‘authentic’.

In closing, it is worth mentioning that modern recordings in which players are using gut
strings may not be an exact re-creation of how the instruments would have sounded in the
eighteenth and nineteenth century. In 1935, the variable quality of gut made for unreliable
strings that could easily snap during tuning. 108 These earlier strings were also more
susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity which would have caused them to go ‘out
of tune’ much more easily and frequently.109

Tempo and Tempo Rubato

The issue of tempo in Beethoven’s late quartets is as complex as with many of his other
works that do not contain metronome markings. Firstly, the choice of a basic tempo or pulse
of a movement or section is a fairly complex process. Finding the right speed for a certain
work is as much an intuitive choice as it is a skill. Even for string quartet players with a
natural sensitivity for tempo choices, it is a combination of skill honed through experience as
well as thorough knowledge of the work at hand. This ‘skill’ includes the player’s evaluation
of factors such as the harmonic intensity or speed of the work, the character or occasion of
the piece, the choice of time signature, size of hall, as well as the movement heading
indications and various other performance directions. 110 Usually, we can assume that a
quartet would take the following into consideration when approaching initial tempo choices:
an examination of particular phrases, figures and passages within the movement;
consideration of intertextual matters, such as comparison with other movements for which
Beethoven has given the same markings; character of the movement, and so on.

It is unfortunately mainly speculative to discuss which tempi Beethoven would have preferred
in his late quartets. What can be gauged from various correspondences between Beethoven

Standage, Historical Awareness in Quartet Performance, 127-148.

and his colleagues though is that he regarded tempi as something primary to the desired
musical expression.111 He was also known to inquire first and foremost about tempi after a
concert of his music that he could not attend.112 Unlike the vast majority of his other large-
scale works (including all of his other string quartets), Beethoven does not indicate
metronome markings in the late quartets.

Text and Editions

The first edition of Beethoven’s late string quartets was made by the Schott editing house in
Mainz.113 Beethoven himself had approved of this edition, and although a small handful of
later editions exist, none of them seem to stray too far from the original markings found in the
Schott edition. 114 Hans Moser wrote in 1905 that: “The modern practice … of ‘editing’
recognized classical and standard works cannot be too severely condemned as a Vandalism
[sic]”.115 Moser produced editions of Beethoven’s late quartets that contained an outline of
his editorial policy, which had similar aims to that of a modern critical edition.116 This edition
was based on the then current practice of the Joachim Quartet, one of the leading string
quartets of the time.117 According to Winter, this was a suitable editorial choice in the case of
Beethoven’s late quartets, due to the nature of their leader Joseph Joachim’s training.
Joachim had been taught by Joseph Bӧhm who, during the 1820s in Vienna, had been closely
associated with the new chamber music of Beethoven.118

Ludwig van Beethoven, Streichquartett No. 12, Op. 12, First Edition: Mainz: Schott, n.d. Plate 2426.
Martin, The Quartets in Performance: A Player’s Perspective, 120.
Standage, Historical Awareness in Quartet Performance, 127-148.
Winter, The Quartets in Their First Century, 53.

A Critical Discussion of Beethoven’s Late Quartet Cycle: Interpretation,
Ideology and the Age of Recording

Firstly, to define and illustrate the timeline of the ‘recording age’ referred to in this chapter,
included below is an almost certainly incomplete list of notable ensembles that have recorded
the late string quartets by Beethoven (as a cycle or individually), incorporated into definitions
of the four main periods of recording technology that we will be dealing with in this chapter.
At the time of writing, it has as yet proved impossible to source accurate information
regarding the exact methods of recording for each of the examples listed in the tables below.
The recordings have been placed in the tables according to date of production (where
known). This table does not necessarily guarantee that each of the recordings listed were
produced using the recording technology of the title of their respective table-heading; the
table-heading suggests the most commonly used recording technique during each time-
period. There are some recordings which had been recorded and produced over a longer
period of time and therefore have a ‘cross-over’ status in terms of the recording technology
parameters. Such recordings will be placed in the time-period table according to the start-date
of the recording process. A few of the quartets mentioned below may appear more than once
if they have recorded more than one notable cycle or individual late quartet.

1900 – 1925: ACOUSTIC ERA (principal recording media: acoustically recorded shellac


1911-12 Klingler Quartet Unknown

1924 Léner String Quartet English Columbia

Peter Johnson, “The Legacy of Recordings” in Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 198-99.

1925 - c. 1945: ELECTRICAL ERA (principal recording media: electrically recorded

shellac disc)120

1925-30 Capet Quartet Columbia Records

1933-41 Busch Quartet Various/Unknown

1944 Schneiderhan Quartet Austrian Radio/Orfeo

1950s Barylli Quartet Westminster

1950s Konzerthaus Quartett Westminster

1952 Vegh Quartet Les Discophiles Francais

1952 Griller Quartet London Records

1953 Hungarian Quartet EMI

1941-60 Budapest String Quartet Bridge


1945 – 1975: MAGNETIC ERA (principal recording media: from 1945-54, acoustically
recorded shellac disc; from 1954-c. 1960, monophonic vinyl LP; from c.1958-1975,
stereophonic vinyl LP )121

Circa 1950s Barylli Quartet

1952 Vegh Quartet Les Discophiles Français

1953 Hungarian Quartet EMI

1958-61 Budapest String Quartet Sony

1958 Hollywood String Quartet Testament

1960s Hungarian Quartet EMI

1960s Juilliard String Quartet CBS Studios

1968-9 Quartetto Italiano Decca

1969-1981 Suske Quartet Brilliant Classics

1970s Cleveland Quartet RCA

1972 Vegh Quartet Telefunken/ Naïve-Astrée

1975-present: DIGITAL ERA (principal recording media: digital recording i.e Compact

1976 Lasalle Quartet Deutsche Grammophon

1980s Alban Berg Quartet EMI

1981-1988 Taneyev Quartet Boheme

1984-89 Vermeer Quartet Teldec


1985-98 Gewandhaus-Quartett New Classical Adventure

1986 Melos Quartet Deutsche Grammophon

1987 Lindsay String Quartet ASV

1987 Talich Quartet Calliope

1989 Alban Berg Quartet EMI

1989 Orford String Quartet Delos

1990s Cleveland Quartet Telarc

1990 Guarneri Quartet RCA

1993 Tokyo Quartet RCA

1994 Medici Quartet Nimbus

1994 Kodaly Quartet Naxos

1996 Peterson Quartett Capriccio

1996 Vanbrugh Quartet Intim Musik

1996 Alexander String Quartet Arte Nova

1997 Emerson String Quartet Deutsche Grammophon

1997 Yale Quartet Vanguard

1999 Hagen Quartett Deutsche Grammophon

2002 Alexander String Quartet Foghorn Classics

2003-6 Borodin Quartet Chandos

2004-6 Colorado Quartet Parnassus

2005 Takács Quartet Decca

2005-6 Endellion String Quartet Warner Classics

2006 Prazak Quartet Praga/Harmonia Mundi

2006 Leipziger Streichquartett MDG

2006 Smetana Quartet Supraphon


2007-8 Wihan Quartet Nimbus

2008 Koch Classics Orion String Quartet

2009 Amadeus Quartet Deutsche Grammophon

2010 Tokyo String Quartet Harmonia Mundi

2011-13 Belcea Quartet Zig Zag/Outhere Music France

2013 Penderecki String Quartet Marquis

Development of Recording

In order to continue building a holistic view of these performances or recordings, one must
also take a closer look at the general history surrounding the start of the recording age. The
technology of sound recording has profoundly transformed modern musical life, and directly
affects the way in which modern string quartets have come to experience the late quartets of

There are very few of the ultimately earliest recordings of classical music that survive today.
The very first classical recordings were most probably made by the pianist Josef Hofmann in
1887, in Thomas Alva Edison's New Jersey laboratory. 123 At first, these kinds of early
recordings were an insignificant and expensive part of the musical experience of a small
minority. 124 At first, recordings were expensive to produce, and in order to gain an initial
market, so-called ‘accessible’ or more popular classical works such as famous opera arias
were produced rather than the works of Stravinsky or Schönberg, for example.125

Gregor Benko, ‘The Incomparable Josef Hofmann’ in International Piano Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 7. Spring
1999, 12.
Philip, Performing Music in the Age of Recording, 4-10.
Timothy Day, A Century of Recorded Music: Listening to Musical History, 5-7.

The recording industry grew and became more successful and the quality of the technology
improved too, especially with the invention of electrical recording in 1925, and playing music
on the Gramophone became a popular and widespread pastime. 126 Eventually, in first world
or developed countries, with the invention of LPs (Long-playing Record) and then Compact
Discs, listening to recordings became the cheaper and easier alternative to attending live
concerts for the majority of the public. We can imagine how this may have influenced
modern listeners. For example, having become so accustomed to the extreme levels of
‘perfection' or accuracy on contemporary recordings, due to the fact that listening to
recordings has almost replaced attending concerts, have we as listeners (whether musically
educated or not) become overly critical of live performances? Whether or not this is entirely
the case, the extreme criticism of natural human error in the modern concert environment has
affected the way in which modern musicians approach a performance, and therefore also the
way in which the late quartets of Beethoven are played today.

It is impossible to exaggerate the way in which the ever-expanding availability of recordings

and internet resources such as Youtube or Spotify have changed the way in which we, as
musicians or audiences, experience music. For example, Robert Philip 127 describes how
different the experience of Brahms and his late-nineteenth century contemporaries might
have been; imagining an unfamiliar world in which music only existed in the moment in
which it was being played. A consequence of this fact is that audiences of Beethoven's late
quartets, for example, would have had to actively seek out the music; whether by finding
performances to attend or by playing it themselves, the music did not come to them at the
press of a button.128 As well as this, musical performances before the recording age were not
only an aural experience they often are today. These performances existed only in
conjunction with physical aspects such as social interaction and direct visual communication
between musician and audience, making the listening experience much more immersive,
personal, and immediate. One can argue in this current age of ‘virtual reality’, that this would
ironically have been a truly interactive experience.

Philip, Performing Music in the Age of Recording, 4-10.

In The Studio: The Acoustic Era

In order to better understand the history of performance recording, we also need to

understand the development of music production. For example: which materials may have
been used, the way in which musicians approach the recording process, the room in which the
recording was made and various other variables. Philip129 argues that although one can easily
judge a recording without knowing about any of that, it may be misleading and inaccurate to
do so without this general knowledge.

The early recording studio (as generally used in the acoustic era of recording, from 1877-
1925) in which Beethoven's late quartets would have been recorded was rather different to a
modern studio, with conditions quite unlike those of a concert hall. Before the development
of electrical amplification in 1925 (signalling the start of the electrical era of recording),
recordings were made by mechanical means, with the sound being gathered by one or
multiple horns.130 Then, the sound was transmitted to a machine which cut the wave-form
into soft wax on a cylinder or disc. Because there was no electrical amplification, all of the
musicians had to be contained within a small room in close range to the horn in order to be
audible.131 A recording session would typically begin with a series of tests to establish which
type of horn and stylus would be used (the small pointed part of a record player that touches a
record), the dynamic range possible according to the equipment, as well as to find the optimal
distance between the performers and horn.132 When all of these tests had been completed, the
performance could begin when the sound engineer was ready. During the performance, the
musicians would have had to take extreme care not to make any mistakes, extraneous sounds
or gestures that created too much noise, as there was no possibility of post production editing
as we know it today. Apart from these difficulties, pre-electric recording had yet other
limitations. The range of frequency and dynamics was still rather restricted and as a result of

Katz, Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music, 41-43.

peculiar responses from the recording equipment, musicians had to play in an adaptive way in
order to equalise the sound result.133

Electrical Era

Many of the constraints associated with the acoustic recording process disappeared when
electrical recording took over in 1925. 134 It was research in radio, or ‘wireless telegraphy’,
during the Great War that resulted in the first workable amplifiers and microphones to be
used in the electrical recording process, and which led recording companied to pursue the
possibilities of electrical recording.135 Almost immediately, the sound quality of recordings
became much clearer and closer to the actual sound of the instrument or voice at hand. Bass
frequencies not heard before on records gave weight and body to the sound, and treble
frequencies introduced a definition and detail that had previously been missing, with sibilants
produced in a clearer, more realistic way. 136 The main downside to this type of recording
process was in its length limitations. Until the magnetic era of recording, beginning with the
invention of the Long-Playing Record in the late 1940s, a longer piece of music had to be
recorded in several sections.

Magnetic Era

Magnetic tape, which had been used for film sound since the early 1930s, allowed sounds to
be captured without breaks, and long uninterrupted durations of recording were possible:
pairs of tape machines could go on recording non-stop. This technology developed as a result
of sound engineering work done during World War Two, by an engineer working for Decca
who needed to access a much higher range of frequencies in order to listen to sonar buoys so
that the RAF Coastal Command could distinguish between Allied and German submarines.137
The recorded sound of this technology was much richer and critics commented particularly

Philip, Performing Music in the Age of Recording, 26-30
Timothy Day, A Century of Recorded Music: Listening to Musical History, (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 2002) 16-19.
Ibid., 16.
Ibid., 19.

on the improvement in the sound of string playing. Unlike recording waxes, tape could be set
up very quickly and started at the touch of a button. Also, tape could be edited – unwanted
material could be removed and preferred material, from another performance, could then be
added. 138 This technology also came with the added benefit of ease of duplication, and
therefore low production costs. The introduction of stereo discs (recorded in stereophonic
sound, achieved by using two or more independent audio channels through a configuration of
two or more loudspeakers in such a way as to create the impression of sound heard from
various directions, as in natural hearing) in 1958 furthered the already-growing success of the
commercial recording industry. Stereo allowed for the possibility of more significant editing
and creative intervention in the production process.

Digital Era

From the late 1960s, broadcasting organisations had begun to experiment with digitizing
sound. Digital sound differed greatly from any of the preceding recording technologies in that
it provided an incredibly high clarity of definition as well as a brilliant and accurate
reproduction of the sounds it was recording. Therefore, in the studio setting, any peripheral
noises such as squeaking shoes or floorboards, or clicking instrument keys would have been
recorded much more clearly than on analogue recording for instance. That being said, the
greater ease with which sound engineers could deal with digitally recorded sound far
outweighed the difficulties associated with the higher sensitivity of the recording
technology. 139 Recordings could now be edited to an entirely new and more sophisticated
level; balance, acoustic effects, reverb, and highly accurate methods of splicing allow for a
plethora of options in the post-production editing process of most modern digital recordings.
The introduction of the Compact Disc had a profound impact on the recording of classical
music in another sense too – due to the digital nature of the technology, and combined with
the globally increasing usage of computers and the internet, classical music (and indeed all
music and various audiovisual material) could be shared and distributed at an exponential

Ibid., 20-21.
Ibid., 22-23.

String Quartet Performance Practise

The various decisions that come to form performances and recordings of chamber music are
often supported by clear rationales given by the players themselves. This is the case in the
genre of chamber music more than most other kinds of music - if the chamber musician wants
to realize their own musical ideas then they must be able to convey and persuade their
partners in a clear manner.140 This makes the genre of a string quartet particularly useful in a
study of performance practise, as is argued by Robert Martin, writer and cellist of the Sequoia
String Quartet, who believes that the soloist musician (except in the context of teaching ) has
no major need to verbalise their ideas frequently, thus proving the useful nature of a string
quartet as a medium for studies in this area.141

What makes the late quartets so interesting to play, and to research from the point of view of
a historically minded modern quartet, is the incredible depth and intensity of the works. One
could argue that it was Beethoven’s circumstances at the time that shaped the fairly extreme
development in his style in his last years – this is more likely than it having been catalysed by
Beethoven wanting to break free from the classical style in which he found so much freedom.
To consider how Beethoven was experiencing sound at the time is much discussed, although
more has been written purely about the profound, emotional experiences of his deafness than
his musical experience of it.

Beneath the surface of the discussions that take place in any rehearsal of Beethoven’s late
quartets lies a further complex layer of conscious and subconscious decision-making. The
members of the quartet have heard the passages that they are playing in multiple recordings,
and some may have recently listened repeatedly to a favourite recording, although others
prefer to avoid listening to recordings at all while studying a work. 142 Martin143 argues that in
all cases of the recordings of the late quartets, there are recollections of live and recorded
performances that categorically influence the players. He follows by saying that “they try

Martin, The Quartets in Performance: A Player’s Perspective, 111-113.
Ibid., 115.

hard to ignore these influences, to make decisions with fresh ears and open minds; there is a
natural striving for something that will distinguish their performance. But at the same time,
the performance traditions surrounding the Beethoven quartets have an undeniable hold on
most players.”144 We should also note that the influence of recording on our wider musical
practices is only just starting to be recognised, as historically speaking, the age of recorded
evidence of musical performances is still fairly young.145

In comparison, Nancy November 146 feels that writers such as Martin hold a somewhat
restrictive ideology towards performances of Beethoven’s late quartets in the recording age.
November argues that a discographical study of Beethoven’s string quartets gives rise to
numerous counter examples to the normalising trends that scholars of recording history have
stressed in the past.147 She believes that innovation and variability of interpretation are central
to the practice of performing these works in the recording age, and that recordings of
Beethoven’s late quartets offer qualitative and quantitative evidence that spans an eighty-year
history. Perhaps surprisingly, homogeneity and restraint are often found in historically
informed Beethoven performance. In general, though, the various ‘voices’ of mainstream
string quartets have increasingly opened, rather than closed, these works’ hermeneutic

As previously discussed, the ideas of received tradition and historical evidence are prominent
in the mindset of a string quartet during the process of rehearsing or performing a late string
quartet by Beethoven. 149 In her 1991 article ‘The Power of the Performer: Interpreting
Beethoven’, Janet Levy150 argues that the specific interpretive choices of performers can and
frequently do have a substantial impact on listeners’ understanding of the works that she
discusses. Of the questions raised by this thoughtful study, the one that will be pursued
briefly here is the extent to which Levy’s findings apply to Beethoven’s late string quartets,

Johnson, The Legacy of Recordings in Musical Performance, 209.
November, Commonality and Diversity in Recordings of Beethoven’s Middle-Period String Quartets.
Martin, The Quartets in Performance: A Player’s Perspective, 115.
Janet Levy, “The Power of the Performer: Interpreting Beethoven” in The Journal of Musicology Vol. 18,
No. 1 (2001): 31-55.

which she does not mention. More specifically, the degree to which performers make
significantly new interpretive choices in these works will also be discussed.

By contrast, November once again puts forward another view to that of authors such as
Martin. November mentions that one might conclude from some of the most influential
discussions surrounding the Beethoven string quartets, that one of the dominant features of
the performance of these works in the recording age is in fact the lack of varied
interpretation. 151 It could even be said that this reflects powerlessness on the part of the
performers. Here, though, November provides a criticism of this view. By having surveyed
practices and interpretations made in the recording age, it can be argued that in general these
recordings show evidence of considerable interpretive activity on the part of performers.

Furthermore, various scholars of recording history imply that it is only in the age of recording
- i.e., in the second century of Beethoven string quartets in performance - that we have heard
the definitive realization of ‘purity’ in performance. Michael Chanan152 summarizes what he
considers to be a central paradox. Although we can now re-hear and study performances in
minute detail thanks to recordings, these same recordings are, according to Chanan, leading
to the elimination of precisely those expressive details - as determined by traditions of score
reading - that would attract our interest: “The real problem,” he writes, “is the eventual loss
of the tradition that governed the score’s interpretation. The paradox is that recording has not,
as one might at first suppose, detained this process, but seems instead to have accelerated it,
reducing the idea of a traditional style of performance to a chimera.” Chanan’s view differs
from Winter’s (quoted previously) in that he is speaking about a loss rather than a dominance
of performance traditions. November 153 mentions that the effect he describes is similar,
because performances are, in his opinion, becoming more restricted, more “faceless,” and
therefore less open to being comprehensively interpreted by performers. Once again we can
see that in Martin’s outlook the performance traditions associated with the late Beethoven

November, Commonality and Diversity in Recordings of Beethoven’s Middle-Period String Quartets.
Michael Chanan, Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recorded Music and its Effects on Music, London:
Verso, 1995, 11.
November, Commonality and Diversity in Recordings of Beethoven’s Middle-Period String Quartets.

quartets exert a powerful, even moral force such that there are ‘correct’ solutions that are
understood by performers and audiences alike.154 As Terry Eagleton has argued, an ideology
is best identified and understood in terms of its effects.155 This particular ideology seems to
exert a restraining influence, an undeniable hold on the practising string quartet. Therefore, it
seems that its effects are felt most strongly by those who would otherwise have been the most
likely innovators.156

Levy observes an interpretive flexibility in her case studies that seems incongruent with the
situation that Martin describes for the Beethoven quartets. 157 In examining this possible
discrepancy, one must assume that there is a considerable difference between the string
quartet and the other genres in terms of the performers’ attitudes to the appropriate level of
interpretive variety. It seems then that this difference results partly from the fact that
Beethoven’s orchestral and solo works have long been understood to involve one principal
interpreter (the conductor, solo violinist, or pianist) each of whom is expected to produce a
personalized version of the piece.

The string quartet, on the other hand, has become increasingly linked with an ideal of ‘pure’
or ‘true’ composition since the eighteenth century.158 The genre was considered a touchstone
for ‘true’ contrapuntal writing and a testing ground for compositional skill. 159 This ideal
brought with it a concomitant downplaying of the role of the performers, especially in
German discourse on the string quartet after 1800.160 Since that time, the genre has been held
up as the purest of pure music, a genre in which the personalities of all four performers must
accordingly give way to the expression of the work itself.

Martin, The Quartets in Performance: A Player’s Perspective.
Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction, London: Verso, 1991.
November, Commonality and Diversity in Recordings of Beethoven’s Middle-Period String Quartets.
Levy, The Power of the Performer: Interpreting Beethoven, 31-55.
Johan Quantz, Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen, Berlin: Johann Friedrich Voß,
November, Commonality and Diversity in Recordings of Beethoven’s Middle-Period String Quartets.

However, one needs to note a problem with this assumption of difference in performance
approach according to genre. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the string
quartet was considered a kind of music that could mediate between genres - specifically
between orchestral and solo works.161 It was also thought to represent and enact collective
utterance, as is apparent from the popular metaphor of the string quartet as
conversation.162More generally, in the case of the performance of string quartets, there is a
need throughout the genre’s history to maintain a distinction between ideas or theories about
how string quartets should be performed, on the one hand, and the ways in which performers
actually do perform string quartets, on the other. As we shall see, there is a significant
distinction to be made between the discourse about string quartet performance, which reflects
what we would like or perhaps need to believe about this genre, and the actual practices of
performing string quartets. As November163 continues to argue, innovation and variability of
interpretation are central to these practices in the recording age.

It is important now to consider the establishment of a discourse about string quartet

performance that is at variance with performance practices. Beethoven’s late string quartets
make appropriate case studies in this context because, as stated before, these pieces are
arguably the most strongly associated with the above-mentioned ideals of the chamber music
genre. November states that there seems to be a clear indication of restrictive directives for
the performance of string quartets in 1810, in other words, right before the time in which
Beethoven would begin to write his late quartets.164

The author of an article for the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, Wilhelm Conrad Petiscus,
demanded homogeneity, clarity, and precision of composition for the string quartet, and “the
purest, most perfect performance” (der reinsten, vollkommensten Vortrag), which would
allow for the realization of these ideals in sound.165 At the same time he was complaining

Mara E. Parker, The String Quartet, 1750–1797: Four Types of Musical Conversation, Ashgate: Aldershot,
November, Commonality and Diversity in Recordings of Beethoven’s Middle-Period String Quartets.
Conrad W., Petiscus,“Über Quartettmusik” in Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, Vol. 33 (1810): 519-20.

about egotistical performers, and thereby giving evidence for a lack of ‘purity’ or selflessness
in the performance of string quartets in his day.166 Winter167 observes the diffusion of the idea
of selflessness in performance in the later nineteenth century, especially in the Austro-
German tradition. This can be related to the ideal of ‘purity’ in that it emphasizes sound as a
pure play of tones rather than an embodied and personalized phenomenon. After 1870, praise
for the performers’ rejection of individuality is found in reviews within such influential
writings as the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik and the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. 168 A
contemporary reviewer of the Frankfurt String Quartet, for example, had these ideals firmly
in mind:

“A strong desire, great understanding, a loving quest after the highest artistic goals, the
selfless renunciation of individual personality when it concerns the great, noble whole—
these are the characteristics that mark the Frankfurt Quartet as the best in Germany and
make them worthy ambassadors of the great masters Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart.”169

The characteristic of being ‘characteristic-less’ was also said to mark other Austro-German
quartets such as the Cologne Quartet and the ensembles led by Joseph Joachim and Arnold
Rosé. Joachim, an influential exponent of chamber music, founded an important string
quartet in Berlin in 1869, which gave an annual series of concerts, including programs
devoted entirely to Beethoven’s string quartets. 170 Andreas Moser commented on the
subordination of the individual to the whole in this ensemble, and on Joachim’s careful
attention to the accurate rendering of the character of the work. 171 Joachim lived long enough
to make some recordings, but unfortunately none of these are from the string quartet

November, Commonality and Diversity in Recordings of Beethoven’s Middle-Period String Quartets.
Winter, Performing the Beethoven Quartets in Their First Century, 29-59.
Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. 88/2 (1892), 19. Trans. Winter, R. in “Performing the Beethoven String
Quartets,” pp. 53.
Tully Potter, Exploring the Beethoven Quartets on Disc: Many Paths to Nirvana. 2013. URL
Andreas Moser, Joseph Joachim: ein Lebensbild, Berlin: B. Behr, 1898.

At the end of the day, the methodology for preparing to perform or record the Beethoven late
quartets would obviously differ depending on the needs and aims of the individual quartet. As
a modern string quartet preparing for a recording or performance, it would seem that several
things are required at once: awareness of the performance practice complexities mentioned
above, with a solid knowledge of the past, whilst remaining conscious of the fact that these
works are live performance art (recordings being something different entirely) and exist in
the moment of performance only. This way of thinking allows the quartet to focus themselves
in the present time, place and performance or recording situation rather than looking at the
work as a product of review and generalisation over hundreds of years.

Opus 127: Early, Late, and Contemporary Recordings of the First ‘Late Quartet’

I have selected the quartet Op. 127 as an example around which to discuss and compare
differences in the technical and interpretative aspects of various recordings. The reason
behind choosing this particular Opus, is that it was the first of the set of ‘late quartets’ that
Beethoven wrote and it therefore attracted particular attention from musical scholars at the
time. These will prove useful as primary sources from which to gather information regarding
the style of playing over a large span of time.

Even at a point in musical history far removed from Beethoven’s time, and yet also unaware
of the developments to come, the performance practices audible in early recordings still
display many commonalities that link the performance practices of the early 19 th century with
those of today.

Three recordings of the quartet Op. 127 were selected in order to illustrate some of the main
differences to be found throughout the age of recording. The number of three recordings was
chosen, as any number greater than this would be better suited to a lengthier discussion. The
three recordings should represent clear differences (and even possibly the lack thereof) as
well as evolutions that have occurred as a result of practical, geographical and aesthetic
differences as discussed in the previous chapter. The three chosen recordings are by the

Busch Quartet, the Quartetto Italiano and the Belcea Quartet. The process involved in
selecting representative recordings was based on the following considerations: firstly, there is
a time-span of around twenty to thirty years between each chosen recording, which means
that time period specific characteristics of each recording should technically be at their peak.
The Busch recording of Op. 127 is recorded in fairly high-quality audio for its time and is
generally viewed as one of the most respected recordings of its period.

Table 1. Selected ensembles chosen to illustrate the development of playing styles across
a large timespan

String Quartet Recording Information

Busch String Quartet: Adolf Busch, Gösta 1936-37, Studio Recording in London,
Andreasson, Karl Doktor Remastered by Dutton Labs UK in 2008

Quartetto Italiano: Paolo Borciani, Elisa Pegreffi, 1968, Decca Classics Productions
Piero Farulli, Franco Rossi

2011-2013, Zig Zag/Outhere Music

Belcea Quartet: Corina Belcea, Axel
Schacher, Krzystof Chorzelski, Antoine Lederlin

Table 2. Variations in overall tempo and length of movements

1. Movement: Maestoso - Allegro Duration

Busch 6:50

Italiano 6:57

Belcea 6:48

2. Movement: Adagio, ma non troppo e molto


Busch 16:44

Italiano 15:24

Belcea 16:52

3. Movement: Scherzando vivace - Presto

Busch 7:38

Italiano 8:36

Belcea 7:42

4. Movement: Finale - Allegro

Busch 6:33

Italiano 7:04

Belcea 7:06

Interestingly enough, all three of the quartets played the first movement at almost exactly the
same tempo: Busch’s total timing being 6:50, Italiano 6:57 and Belcea at 6:48. The Busch
quartet overall retained a stable tempo, with relatively little use of tempo rubato, which is
surprising, as the general trend at the time was fairly pro-rubato usage. Although it is
unknown from which edition the quartet were working, listening to their recording with the
first edition score shows that they remain very accurate to the text, observing precisely the
tempi changes and dynamics, as well as articulation and bowing. In terms of tone colour and
Portamenti, the Busch quartet use distinctively audible shifting between positions, especially
so in the first violin part.

The Busch Quartet’s early 20th century recordings are prime examples of the ‘received
tradition’ style of playing common at the time. Their vibrato is wide, continuous and slow,
contributing towards a throbbing, trembling tone that one would not usually come across in a
modern recording. This style of vibrato was most likely used as an expressive means, as in
the slow movements in general where they vary the speed according to tempo and character
changes throughout, lending a sense of urgency, drive and sometimes even destabilisation to
the work. Portamento is used prominently by the first violinist to emphasise expressive

passages. Adolf Busch uses clearly audible portamenti to highlight sorrowful slides in to
troubled tonal regions, creating an opulent and lush atmosphere most common to the early
twentieth century violin playing schools.

As mentioned by November, a new approach to performances and indeed performance

practice was emerging in the age of the gramophone, which took effect clearly in the sphere
of Beethoven quartet practice.172 This predominantly rich sound and use of constant vibrato
as well as expressive portamenti etc. discussed earlier is an approach that may well be
understood as a consciously heightened stance on the part of the performers, predicated on
the need for clear communication in a period where new media and communication was of
increasing importance. Of course, this approach most certainly also developed out of
expressive trends from late nineteenth century performance, perhaps most especially the use
of tempo rubato by leading interpreters such as Richard Wagner.173

In terms of live performance, there was motivation to attract wider audiences for the middle
and late quartets as they were still perceived as too complex and had not yet reached canonic
status in the repertoire. For example, in 1927, Thomas Dunhill’s article on Beethoven’s
quartets in The Musical Times observes an urgent need for the quartets to “win friends” in a
the critical climate of an age “which too often imagines that it is the correct thing to stifle
emotion, eliminate climax, and render art as level and impersonal as possible”.174

The Busch quartet’s recording of Op. 127 once again is a particularly good example of the
use of tempo rubato common at the time. The players tend to use rubato to define and
articulate large-scale structures, for example in the the first movement before the start of the
development section. Generally, the main structural points are signalled to the listener by
rubato just before the point of closure or transition. This is especially pronounced in the slow
movement, for example where a ritardando is marked as the second subject is introduced.

November, Commonality and Diversity in Recordings of Beethoven’s Middle-Period String Quartets.
Dunhill, The Music of Friends: Some Thoughts on the String Quartets of Beethoven.

Another unifying aspect of this early recording is an overall legato approach to bowing as
opposed to sharp, spiky articulation, as discussed earlier in a comparison between early and
late 20th century performance practices. This prevalence of legato in the early twentieth
century is also related to the new approach to vibrato at that time. The role of the bow as
discussed previously had increasingly begun to be taken over by vibrato by the early
twentieth century, so much so that in 1910, Siegfried Eberhart stated that “the individual
characteristics of different artists are . . . recognisable only when vibrato is employed”.175
Eberhart may well have been drawing on Carl Flesch’s idea later published in The Art of
Violin Playing, that “the vibrato represents the most delicate expression of our general
psychic constitution, or our congenital temperament.”176 The implications of this approach to
vibrato for bowing are displayed in the Busch recording. The players tend to maintain steady
bow pressure throughout the opening in the introduction while using continuous vibrato. A
well-connected style is precisely what one would expect players around 1800 to produce
when playing a heavily slurred Adagio movement. The Busch Quartet exemplifies an early
twentieth century approach, as distinct from that of the early 1800s, in their use of almost
seamless bow changes and constant bow pressure to create broad, smoothly connected
phrases; thus they emphasise the long line of the musical paragraph rather than the shorter
musical motifs. Even the pizzicati are soft and rounded in these recordings. Tempo rubato
becomes less prominent in quartet playing of the later 1930s and 1940s, which seems to be an
indicator of changing aesthetics. For example, in a recording from 1938 by the Roth Quartet,
they take the slow movement at a moderate tempo and do not deviate as widely as the Busch
interpretation. This could be seen as part of a general mediation of metrical nuances in
recordings of the Beethoven quartets from this era.177 However, new performance practices
were being established at this time, some of which would begin to develop from the post-war
period into the more fully fledged HIP (Historically Informed Performance Practice)
movement which we know today.178

Siegfried Eberhart, Violin Vibrato: its Mastery and Artistic Uses: Practical Suggestions for Correct
Technical Development and Good Violin Tone Production, New York: Carl Fischer, 1911.
Flesch, Der Kunst des Violinspiels.
November, Commonality and Diversity in Recordings of Beethoven’s Middle-Period String Quartets.
John Butt, Playing With History: The Historical Approach to Musical Performance, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2002.

Quartetto Italiano: the ‘Middle Period’ Recording

By this time, there is naturally a monumental change in recording equipment which allows us
to hear finer details in every aspect of the performance. The most prominent difference in
playing style from the outset is that the Quartetto Italiano’s interpretation is much heavier and
more aggressive than that of the Busch’s. Recording technology aside, the articulation here is
clearly more ‘defined’ in that the quartet tend to use a faster attack of the string, much more
bow pressure, resulting in a more emotional sounding interpretation. A more varied approach
to articulation and even, prevalent vibrato was developing in the mid to late twentieth century
which, amongst other changes, ensured the persistence of diversity in playing styles.

Interestingly enough, although the overall playing time in comparison to the Busch Quartet
differs by only seven seconds, the Italiano’s use of rubato is distinctly audible, especially
when leading to harmonic or key changes. In terms of vibrato usage, it is not as excessive as
one might expect for an interpretation from the late 1960s, as the trend in violin playing at the
time generally involved a large and highly romantic vibrato, regardless of the style of music
being played.179 Here, the vibrato is not excessive, although it is almost continuous, without
much variation in amplitude of the vibration. There is much less portamento or audible
shifting between positions in general when compared with Busch, and this may be due to the
changing of left-hand technique: increasing demand on string player’s abilities to play more
‘accurately’, for example. In terms of textual fidelity, this recording also remains very true to
the written directions. Almost all the bowings are original, although as in the Busch
recording, some of the longer tied-bowings are split into smaller groups in order to prevent
running out of bow and sacrificing the sound production. Overall, it is fascinating to hear
how much the left-hand technique and use of portamenti had changed in a matter of only
thirty years.


Belcea Quartet: the ‘Contemporary’ Recording

Although Historically Informed Performance Practice (HIP) has been alive and active in
certain forms even from the start of the twentieth century, the particular surge of
contemporary research and debates focusing on the practices of the mid-late twentieth
century are what become most relevant to us here. In order to differentiate between the
Italiano recording and Belcea’s, we need to become aware of the most recent advances in
HIP. From the start of this recording, the shift back towards a less legato style of bowing can
be seen as one of the most significant influences of this movement, as well as the increase in
use of lower positions (the inverse of what was discussed in Chapter 2) and open strings. In
contrast with the two earlier recordings, the Belcea Quartet tend to use generally more varied
vibrato; mostly less vibrato is used, especially in sections involving long chords. This allows
the chords to produce more overtones, as the vibrato oscillations are not interfering with the
sound production. The articulation of the right hand and bowing is also more variable here,
with a tendency towards a more crisp attack of chords and short notes with dotted
articulation. The combination of this articulation with the use of less vibrato creates a very
interesting texture to the overall performance, displaying a powerful and sonorous world of
sound which contrasts quite dramatically with the softer, more lyrical sostenuto passages.

In general, this recording is the most liberal in terms of emotional range and dynamic
contrasts. Of course, one needs to take into account that the production of this recording is by
far the highest quality and most modern of the three, therefore capturing more details than the
others might have.


The Study of Performances and Recordings

After discussing the physical and musical technicalities of differing interpretations of the late
quartets throughout time, there is a more general question that presents itself at the core of
this study: as we have seen in the previous chapters, performances and recordings of the late
quartets tend to show relatively little evidence of performers making any major changes to
Beethoven’s text at all. So why exactly do performers of the late quartets take Beethoven’s
text so seriously in the first place? Why has it become the norm for musicologists to place so
much importance on the work as opposed to the performances themselves? To answer these
questions, one must delve back in time in order to understand how Western Classical
musicology itself has viewed the process of analysing performance.

First of all, the idea of studying the performances themselves presents us with a few
complexities. How can one study something which is inherently unpredictable and difficult to
qualify or quantify in a scholarly way? To study musical performances is to study musical
gestures themselves. 180 As musicologist Daniel Leech-Wilkinson proposes, it seems that
musicologists held the long-standing belief that works of music endure whereas performances
are ephemeral.181 However, in concurrence with the viewpoint of this thesis, he states that a
performance is much more ‘the work’ than we have traditionally supposed - that performance
traditions influence the ways in which we think about works over long periods of time, and
that performers have things to teach us about pieces of music that are just as interesting and
valid as the most technical analyses and studies.

It is important to note however, that the musicological field up until now has not always
viewed performances in this way. In general, musicologists have served a prescriptive,
educational purpose, instructing performers to play a work either in accord with an analyst’s

Day, A Century of Recorded Music, 149-152.
Leech-Wilkinson, The Changing Sound of Music: Approaches to Studying Recorded Musical
Performances’. Chapter 1.2.1.

view of it, or finding ways for performers to reproduce an historical performance practice that
is ‘appropriate’ to the work.182

Although it was not always necessarily so, the idea that performers had something to teach
musicologists did not hold much importance up until fairly recently. Interestingly but not
surprisingly, the rise of musicology (from around 1900) coincides with relatively rapid
changes in general attitudes toward music. Scholarly concern regarding a piece of music’s
inherent nature took over from a focus on its effect in performance, and at the same time,
interest in music of the past was burgeoning. Musicological focus was moving towards
centring itself around study of the great works of art, created by the mind of a genius artist,
rather than the study of a sequence of pleasing sounds, such as was the focus of the Baroque
period, where the main aesthetic demands on compositions was to express or inspire the
‘affections’ (emotions such as anger, love, joy or fear) through musical means 183. As a result
of this, focus was placed on a musical performance’s direct effect on the listener more than
on the composer’s work as a piece of artistic creation for the sake of high art itself. Therefore,
as Leech-Wilkinson184 supports, we can see that musicological evolution had diverged into
two main areas; the first, in order to explain how music itself had reached this elevated state
(music history) and the second, to help musicians to discover the technical aspects behind a
work of ‘genius’. This shift away from focus on performers towards the composer and his/her
works brought with it a number of commercial and intellectual advantages, the one most
relevant to this discussion being the concept of music as founded in a notated text.

From the late Middle Ages onward, the globalisation and transmission of music through
personal contact and travel was greatly aided by the notation of music, making it easier and
easier for pieces of music to be transmitted ‘accurately’. As a result, musicians had more
precise textual information upon which to base their interpretations of a work, and therefore
the focus on what a composer had written became more and more important. Musicologists

Burkholder, Palisca, Grout., A History of Western Music, 180 -
Leech-Wilkinson, The Changing Sound of Music: Approaches to Studying Recorded Musical
Performances’. Chapter 1.2.1.

then increasingly saw one of their most important functions as ensuring that published scores
accurately presented the precise notation of the composer at hand. As a consequence,
performers in the twentieth century were increasingly expected to follow that notation strictly
and without deviation, and analysts increasingly believed that by studying the written notes
they could reach an understanding of the essence of the work.

This evolution lead to the conclusion that the accurate reproduction of a composer’s text
produced an accurate representation of the composer’s intentions, which was then heavily
debated at the end of the last century 185 , as musicians began to see music as more of a
representation of a culture than a self-contained autonomous art form. Interesting to note, is
that in most cultures of the world, and in most musical subcultures in the West, music only
happens in performance itself. Apart from those who study Western Classical music, what
people generally mean by ‘music’ is something that one actively practices or does and listens

It is at this point in musical history, and as a result of these evolving ideas, that more in-depth
academic studies on the specific role of performance in classical music had begun to be
made. Even though a few scholarly studies of recorded performances were made before
modern times (perhaps the first analysis of a performer’s style from recordings was made in
1916 by Eugene Riviere Redervill who examined Fritz Kreisler’s vibrato)187, there is still
relatively little written about how music works through performance; in relation to the time-
scale and amount of study done in other areas of musicology, we can see that academics are
in fact coming rather late to this area - it seems to have taken a very long time for musicology
to get around to studying performances. Why does it seem to make sense now, when for so
long it did not? Firstly, as previously discussed, the idea that music exists independently of
performance (although a staple of musicology and the philosophy of music) is giving way to
radical change as we begin to understand more about the psychology of music and science of
the human brain. For most musical cultures in the world the fact that music exists

Louis P. Lochner, Fritz Kreisler, New York: Macmillan, 1950, 272-3.

independently of performance is nonsensical. For Western Classical music it was a concept to

us only because of notation. The more we believe that notation encodes the work, rather than
simply providing sketchy performance instructions, using which a performer can ‘make’ the
work, the more inclined we are to believe that works exist in some abstract yet ideal form
independent of any performance.

Another major obstacle in the study or analysis of performances according to Leech-

Wilkinson, is the way in which we talk about sound itself. Mitchell and MacDonald 188, in
their writings on the linguistic limitations of describing sound, agree with the latter, stating
that it seems almost impossible to speak about or describe sound in a clear way other than in
scientific terms.

In every other art form, we have found a way to verbalise with language, a set of descriptive
words that can fairly accurately describe what our senses are observing: if one looks at a
painting, we can describe what our eyes see as dark, light, red, blue, textured or smooth etc,
whereas with sound we are left with frustratingly simple parameters such as loud or soft. The
only way in which we can verbalise the sounds we hear, is by using vocabulary stolen from
the other senses, such as sight, touch and emotions (soft, spiky, aggressive, exciting, dark,
cold, and so on), which is helpful but by no means specific enough for concrete analysis.
Here, it is interesting to note that Leech-Wilkinson also makes a case for the way in which
the slightly restrictive mentality of musicology can help in this area - when one is trying to
explain precisely how sounds work in relation to one another, musicology has become very
good at analysing this by restricting its attention to the things specified in notated scores.189

Mitchell, H; MacDonald, Raymond A. R. 2018. Linguistic limitations of describing sound: Is talking about
music like dancing about architecture? URL:
Daniel Leech-Wilkinson. The Changing Sound of Music: Approaches to Studying Recorded Musical
Performances, 2009.

Understanding Period Specific Changes

In previous chapters, changes in performance style have been discussed with regard to string-
instrument specific developments, as well as musical historical ones. I would like to expand
upon these aspects in a different light in this chapter, delving into a slightly more complex
philosophical discussion that will provide another viewpoint from which to analyse these

Musical performance is an extremely fertile environment for the exchange and modification
of habits of human expression. Because music is similar to vocal and other kinds of human
communication (especially as we know that string instruments are often likened to the human
voice), the sounds produced as a result have the ability to communicate strong feelings such
as calmness, excitement, love, anger and anguish. Therefore music is capable of being
influenced by the way in which those states of mind are expressed in the wider world; we
could say that musical performance style is dependent on much wider changes in socio-
cultural outlook than one would usually imagine. Leech-Wilkinson illustrates this point of
view with a well-explained example: he imagines a scenario in society in which, for example,

“triumph was felt to be a tainted emotion and the public expression of it somehow
innapropriate, i.e, after militaristic triumphalism had led to nuclear holocaust, grandiosity
could play very little part in current performance style. Because music can model grandiosity
fairly easily, this would obviously have consequences for choice in music for a performance;
much of the music of Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner and Verdi would sound rather different.
By contrast, if if society were to take violent exception for a while to television it would have
no stylistic impact on music-making whatsoever: music can’t model television, because
although TV transmits styles of human communication it does not generate them: it’s a thing,
indexing a technology but not a person in the way that, as Watt & Ash have shown, music
indexes the movements and emotional experiences of humans to the extent that it is perceived
as behaving as if it were a person.” 190

Daniel Leech-Wilkinson. The Changing Sound of Music: Approaches to Studying Recorded Musical
Performances. 2009 Chapter 7 Paragraph 6.

Yet another question arises within this discussion: when analysing performances or
recordings, how do we know the difference between a universal convention and a time-period
specific feature? For example, in his late quartets, Beethoven does not indicate rubato or any
other instructions to slow down at certain phrase-ends, but on most recordings browsed
through during the research for this thesis (regardless of the date of recording), there was a
tendency to slow down at these unmarked phrase-endings, or to articulate them by altering
the sounding lengths of notes. Often, players and listeners alike are not even aware that this
slowing-down is occurring. For argument’s sake, in the case of such a use of rubato, one
could also compare the effect with parallels found in the natural human environment around
us, such as the slowing down of motion that occurs when an activity of some sort comes to
and end. Can we say then, that the slowing down of a phrase ending is a consciously learned,
period specific trait in string playing? In order to continue the development of our
understanding of performance development and playing styles, it is therefore important to
question each musical trait that musical scholars have assumed to be used by a musician a
result of period-specific impulses or influences.

Interpretations of Recorded Performance: Legacy and Influence

As we have seen, recordings clearly offer a plethora of information about changes in
interpretation of the late quartets throughout their ‘lifetime’ so far, and now we must begin to
question how the listening experience offered by recordings affects our interpretations of
musical performance. The task of verbalising or articulating an analysis of recordings holds
the same difficulties as that of analysing a live performance, as discussed previously in this
chapter. The one main difference between analysing live performance versus a recording is
that, in a recording, one can rewind, replay and adjust a recording in any way we choose to
suit our method of analysis. With live, unrecorded performance, there is only the passing
moment in which to assess what we are hearing, with memory providing the only reference
point on which to base an opinion. The best accounts of recordings of the Beethoven late
quartets remains those of certain critics and musical scholars who have developed as
sophisticated language as is currently possible for dealing with the listening experience.191

Peter Johnson, John Rink, ed., “The Legacy of Recordings” in Musical Performance: A Guide to
Understanding, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002: 208.

Much of this critical work is often disturbed by, for example, reviews on the internet which
try to determine the so-called ‘definitive’ recording or the ‘best buy’, which of course does
not make any sense objectively speaking. 192 Johnson 193 argues against the latter kind of
mindset, rather saying that comparing recordings is an excellent method of celebrating and
exploring the fascinating diversity of interpretations and personalities revealed by the archive
of recordings that we have.

Further Research Possibilities

In future research into this area, work that combines both quantitative studies of recordings
drawn from a particular period, and the investigation into qualitative studies of individual
groups’ discussions and responses, could be highly valuable in opening up the research area
that is string quartet performance practice. The principal point on which this research is based
also requires further exploration, including the area of biographically informed Beethoven
performance.194 Of particular relevance to this kind of research is the question of why the
discussion surrounding the performance of string quartets tends to contradict what generally
seems to happen in string quartet performance history.

Particularly ideal for further study would be to research, expand and create a database or list
of all recordings made of the late string quartets, including as much specific information as
possible regarding the recording technology used, date of production, date of release, etc. A
collection of all available critical reviews of recordings of the late quartets could also be
gathered, in order to gain further understanding into the performance analysis aspect as
discussed in Chapter 4 of this essay. Although most of these reviews are simply available
online and are not peer-reviewed scholarly material, they provide much insight into the way
in which critics or musical writers view performance. One could also go on to compare and
contrast these reviews of recordings with reviews of live performances, even starting from the
time of the premieres of the late quartets. The aim of such further research would be to

November, Commonality and Diversity in Recordings of Beethoven’s Middle-Period String Quartets.

provide something that does not yet exist in academic writing regarding these works: a sort of
‘compendium’ that contains fairly complete information regarding 1: the history of each late
quartet; 2: a compilation of reviews of the works listed by date and 3: a thorough database of
each recording of the works, including all possible information on the players and the process
involved in the recording process. A work of this kind could prove very useful to a modern
string quartet or indeed anyone one interested in gaining knowledge about the recorded
history of these works in one document.


As we have seen, there have been vastly differing opinions on various performances and
recordings of Beethoven’s late string quartets throughout musical history. The opinions of
various writers and pedagogues of the nineteenth and twentieth century mentioned in this
essay have provided a fascinating time-line along which we can gather vital information
regarding musical taste and passing trends, as well as the more prominent musical
developments which came to stay.

I have come to conclude that, interestingly enough, the earliest recordings do not differ as
greatly from the most contemporary ones as I had expected at the start of my research. The
reason for this leads one to deduce that Beethoven’s work is so clear in intention and is so
timeless (in the last quartets almost reaching a point of abstraction), that the players almost
automatically do not feel the need to create any superficial personal interpretation of the

One could come to conclude that the closest a quartet can get to a ‘correct’ interpretation of
the Beethoven late quartets is an interpretation performed with some sort of musical integrity
– meaning that they should have gained a solid background of historical knowledge, enough
so that informed decisions can be made regarding bowings and editorial markings.

In the current year of 2018, we have reached a point in time in which the greatest amount of
knowledge ever available to the practicing musician is easily accessible from any part of the
globe at virtually no cost. It is by understanding the historical context of these great works
that we can begin to understand how to play them. These monumental late quartets of
Beethoven have and will continue to attract the fascination of musicians and audiences for the
rest of time, and as with all of the greatest artistic and philosophical achievements of
humankind, the pull of these pieces does not only lie in the complex musical forms and
chords that can be analyzed down to a micro-granule. Rather, it is the timeless melodies and
arresting harmonies that attract us to these works – they speak of the basic ups and downs and

raw nature of human existence. The late quartet cycle ends where humour and the depths of
seriousness meet: Beethoven, seen by the world as a defiant character, full of anguish, ends
his musical life with the laughter of Op. 135 and the new finale for Op. 130.195 It is through
these works that as listeners and players alike, we can experience in some abstract form the
beauty that Beethoven somehow managed to produce towards the end of a difficult life. As
Nietzsche wrote –

“Whosoever has built a new Heaven has found the strength for it only in his own Hell.”196

Nancy November, “Performance History and Beethoven’s String Quartets: Setting The Record Crooked,”
Journal of Musicological Research Vol. 30, Issue 1. (2011): 10-22.
Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. 88/2 (1892), 19. Trans. Winter, R. in “Performing the Beethoven String
Quartets,” pp. 53.

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