Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet No. 14
Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method
Duration: 35–40 Minutes
Time of Creation: 1825–1826
World Premiere: 05 June 1828 (Halberstadt)
Table of Contents
Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 in 5 Sentences
The form of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 is, as so often in Beethoven’s late work, highly experimental and caused quite a bit of confusion even at the time of its composition (see, for example, the quote below). This confusion has actually not been completely resolved to this day, as Beethoven did not make clear divisions of the movements in his autograph – today the work is usually divided into seven movements. Although the work on String Quartet no. 14 was overshadowed by the suicide attempt of Beethoven’s nephew Karl, Beethoven showed a great amount of humor (unusual for Beethoven) in his correspondence with his publisher: Beethoven sent the finished work to the publisher with the comment that he had “stolen” the piece from various works by other composers, but then replied to the shocked query of the publisher that this had, of course, been a joke 😊 Beethoven himself is said to have considered his String Quartet no. 14 as one of his best works, and Franz Schubert is said to have wished for the quartet on his deathbed.
Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.
4 Highlights from Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14
Highlight 1: first movement – a polyphonic work of art
Beethoven is one of the not-so-few composers who became more and more polyphonic in their later works (that is, they layered more and more independent individual voices on top of each other). Mozart, by the way, is also such a case (Jupiter Symphony) and Bach anyway (The Art of Fugue, The Musical Offering). Thus, the first movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 is an artful fugue:
Highlight 2: fourth movement – art of variation
After Beethoven has shown in the first movement that he can write fugues, he devotes himself in the fourth movement to another sub-discipline of composition: composing variations! While the theme remains easily recognizable in the first variation and at the very end of the movement, it is very much changed in between:
Highlight 3: fifth movement – a wink of the eye
I have already written in the short introduction that Beethoven showed humor in his correspondence with his publisher while he was working on his 14th string quartet. There is also a joke in the music itself: the sole, somehow “truncated” beginning of the cello in the fifth movement is quite strange. Especially because it is followed by a melody that could have been taken from a nursery rhyme, except that the tempo and accompaniment don’t quite want to fit, and the whole thing somehow “dribbles out” several times… only to start again! This is quite reminiscent of Haydn’s humor (e.g. in his Symphony No. 104), but also of the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9:
Highlight 4: seventh movement – without words
The last movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 formally goes so far beyond the structures “typical” of the Viennese Classical period that it can hardly be adequately captured in words. A sonata main movement, a rondo? Or somehow both? (That would be a so-called “multiple function form” as in Liszt’s B minor sonata, for example). A detailed description of the problem would lead too far here. So, best: just listen! 😊
3 Questions and Answers about Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14
Question 1: When was Beethoven's 14th String Quartet first performed in Vienna?
The first Viennese performance of Beethoven’s 14th String Quartet took place in 1835. At that time, Beethoven had already been dead for eight years. Karl Holz, who had still discussed his confusion about Beethoven’s composition with Beethoven himself (see the quote below), also participated in the Viennese performance.
Question 2: To whom did Beethoven dedicate his String Quartet No. 14?
Beethoven dedicated the work to Joseph von Stutterheim, who looked after Beethoven’s nephew Karl in the military.
Question 3: What is special about Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14?
First of all, the form is special: Today, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 is usually divided into seven movements, but this does not emerge in such clarity from Beethoven’s autograph. Also noteworthy is the key: C-sharp minor did not occur in the Viennese Classical period (Haydn used this key only in one piece, Mozart in none) and also Beethoven had previously used this key only in his Moonlight Sonata.
2 Recommended Recordings of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14
Recording 1: The Danish String Quartet (live, 2016)
In this recording with the Danish String Quartet, it’s nice to see what chamber music is all about. Pay attention to how all the members of the quartet transfer most of the responsibility for tempo to the cellist, who takes the lead:
Recording 2: Jasper String Quartet (live, 2013)
There is also a rousing performance from the Jasper String Quartet: