Beethoven’s late string quartets: They sometimes clear the room, but I love them

(Photo: Public domain)
Photo: Beethoven duotone illustration

In the 1960s my mother put up with a lot of dreadful music. She bought me a trumpet and insisted I play it for an hour every day.

She endured my wobbly scales, arpeggios and Al Hirt impersonations with a smile.

She loved Perry Como and Nat King Cole, but never blinked an eye as my rock and roll collection grew and took over the family stereo.

She even began to like The Beatles, The Byrds and a few Rolling Stones songs. But she drew the line at Neil Young. I still remember her voice the day she yelled from the kitchen, “Turn. That. Off! That poor young man can’t sing.”

(She actually used much more colorful language than that.)

Most music fans have at least one group, composer or piece they adore that their friends and family won’t listen to -- or, more to the point, can’t stand.

That’s how I feel about Beethoven’s late string quartets.

These are personal favorites of mine practically guaranteed to clear the room, but they also represent some of the most deeply satisfying music I’ve found.

Even among Beethoven fans I often hear, “I have to get around to listening to those one of these days.”

It’s worth the effort. This is the private voice of a man who changed the course of music. And what an adventurous voice it is.

There is no question this is difficult music -- for listeners and performers. The musicians who gave the first performances of the "Grosse Fuge," one of the late quartets, complained that it was too difficult. Beethoven supposedly said, “What do I care about you and your f---ing fiddles?”

These quartets (Nos. 12 through 16 plus the "Grosse Fuge") are titanic, profound and terrifying. But they’re also laced with sublime melodies written by a deaf genius well aware of his place in history.

Oceans of ink have been spilled describing their importance. Here is a 60-second glimpse of the contrast and beauty I’m talking about, taken from String Quartet No. 15 in A minor. I’ve always imagined Beethoven gazing out a window on a not particularly good day, lost in sad thoughts, when suddenly the clouds part and the sun breaks through...


I highly recommend either the Takacs String Quartet or the Emerson String Quartet recordings of these pieces.

Just don’t plan on playing them at parties.

Here's the Elias String Quartet performing the "Grosse Fuge":