Some reflections on an enigmatic question
The last works of composers often take on a special meaning in the eyes of posterity: think only of Mozart’s Requiem or Bach’s Art of the Fugue. But even the composers’ last statement in a particular genre often inherits a mystical aura that wouldn’t necessarily have been so radiant or obvious had the composer lived on to compose more (they did not seldom leave this world young). This is all very well, of course: we musicians often tend to produce better and more heartfelt results when associating a work with a dramatic narrative from the creator’s life. We are romantics, and we need to be. And works representing the composer’s last statements in a genre are certainly often something extraordinary, representing the pinnacle of the artist’s wisdom and technical ability. But there is a faint possibility of sentimentalising a piece that the composer did not necessarily know to be his last. So what about Beethoven’s Op. 135: profound swansong – or something else entirely?
There are indeed some indications that Beethoven didn’t intend his Op. 135 quartet to be his final one, but the first of a new set*. Some commentators have seen it as a pendant to Op. 131, the pair of which would be a representation of the dualism of tragedy on one hand and comedy and acceptance on the other. In any case, it presents something of a conundrum for quartet players. It has at a first glance little of the all-enveloping-statement-of-life-and-death character of Schubert’s last chamber work, his String Quintet, but is in some ways more like an intermezzo, unpretentious and fairly humble in scale. But what an intermezzo! Wonderfully Haydnesque in its clarity and wit, it boasts one of the most glorious slow movements Beethoven ever wrote. And the key to the true character of this enigmatic work might lie in the interpretation of its last movement, over which Beethoven famously wrote two short musical motifs and a title:
(The resolution reached with difficulty: Must it be? It must be! It must be!)
The “Muss es sein?” theme is initially presented in a Grave by viola and cello, and repeated in increasing intensity before the short introduction quietens down and is suspended on the dominant in a pianissimo. In a terrific and sudden change of mood the violins set off with the “Es muss sein!” motif (an inversion of the “Muss es sein?”), now Allegro in the parallel major key. It is partnered by a falling and rising legato theme that bears a close thematic relationship to both the slow movement and the subsequent second theme, which is uncomplicated and good natured (Kerman calls it a “fairy march”). The development combines material from the exposition, and goes from an exuberant to an introverted and slightly troubled atmosphere, before the introduction returns, but this time fortissimo, and now accompanied by a violent tremolo in the violins (apparently one of the first times this effect, that would be highly popular during the rest of the century, had been used). This time the “Es muss sein!” motif appears after a gradual loss of energy, piano, at a point where the music seems uncertain where to go, before regaining confidence. The Allegro returns, dolce. The coda is a version of the second theme, now pizzicato and pianissimo, before the “Es muss sein!” motif reappears, first hesitantly, and then in a triumphant fortissimo.
So the question invariably arises: Must what be? What follows is a summary of the propositions of some noted commentators, and finally some thoughts of my own.
Radcliffe (Beethoven’s String Quartets,1965) irreverently lists some previously suggested interpretations:
Suggestions have included ‘Must I die?’, ‘Must I go to the trouble of writing another movement?’, ‘Must I pay my laundry bill?’, ‘Must I let you have more money?’ (to his cook). And there is a further possibility that Beethoven, realising perhaps that one theme was a melodic inversion of the other, added the words later.
Beethoven’s infamous secretary Anton Schindler reports that the question was asked by Beethoven in response to his housekeeper’s demand for more money, but he also offers the alternative explanation that it was a request from Beethoven for more money from his publisher.
In a famous anecdote told by Beethoven’s friend Karl Holz (who also was a member of the Schuppanzigh Quartet), a musical amateur named Ignaz Dembscher is reported to have asked Beethoven for the parts for Op. 130 in order to perform the quartet at one of his chamber music soirées. But because Dembscher had failed to attend the première of the work, Beethoven refused. He was however prepared to reconsider if Dembscher paid the fee of fifty florins for the Schuppanzigh subscription concert retrospectively. Dembscher is reported to have asked “Muss es sein?”. Beethoven’s answer was in the form of a four-voice canon on the text: “Es muss sein! Ja, ja, ja, ja! Heraus mit dem Beutel!” (It must be! Yes, yes, yes, yes! Take out your wallet!). The canon was composed at about the same time as finishing Op. 131, in July 1826.
Moritz Schlesinger, who published Op. 135 in September 1827, wrote in a letter in 1859:
Regarding the enigmatic phrase Muss es sein? that arises in the last quartet, I think I can explain its significance better than most people, as I possess the original manuscript with the words written in his (Beethoven’s) own hand, and when he sent them he wrote as follows; ‘You can translate the Muss es sein as showing that I have been unlucky, not only because it has been extremely difficult to write this when I had something much bigger in my mind, and because I have only written this in accordance with my promise to you, and because I am in dire need of money, which is hard to come by; it has also happened that I was anxious to send the work to you in parts, to facilitate engraving, and in all Mödlingen (he was living there then) I could not find a single copyist, and so have had to copy it out myself, and you can imagine what a business it has been!…’ I remember the letter very clearly, and without possibility of doubt; unfortunately it disappeared in 1826, when my house was burnt down.
Op. 135 was, however, not finished in Mödlingen but in Gneixendorff, so the contents of that Beethoven letter might be not entirely exact. The “something much bigger” Beethoven states he had in his mind might very well refer to the suicide attempt of his “adopted son” and last real emotional tie to this world: his nephew Karl. The youngster was recovering in hospital during the sketching of the quartet. The apparent contrast between the work and the circumstances under which the composer wrote it, brings another of his quartets to mind: the Op. 74 “Harp” quartet, which Beethoven composed under terrible suffering during the siege of Vienna.
Romain Rolland, Nobel-prize winner, biographer of Beethoven, and writer of Jean-Christophe (which is partly based on Beethoven’s life) said in a much quoted passage about the riddle:
It is a common tendency of the German mind to wring a sententious and general signification out of the ordinary word in some daily use (I noted this in Jean-Christophe): so – your good German, when his servant brings him the mustard after dinner is over, and when he says – simply enough – ‘Too late,’ he catches himself and adds philosophically (I have heard him!) ‘Too late: as ever in this life!’ Beethoven re-read that “Es muss sein!” under a much more general interpretation. And the trivial response evoked the serious question, in an altogether different tone of voice – a question that surged from the very depths of the Beethovenian soul: ‘Should it be? Must it be?’ Must what be? – all that you desire; all that commands your thought and weighs upon it; ‘the difficult decision,’ the order of Destiny, the acceptance of life…
Kerman (The Beethoven Quartets, 1966) suggests the comedy, which is so apparent in the Allegro, already starts in the “Muss es sein?” introduction, imagining characters from commedia dell’arte:
To my ear the image is operatic enough: a recitative for Pantalone, punctuated first by dubious stirrings (Mélusine perhaps?) and the by blustering chords in the upper instruments (the Spanish Captain Spavento?). The scoring suggests an opera orchestra, but in a gauche way that has to be understood as parodistic (or self-parodistic: Beethoven could have been thinking of the Ninth Symphony) … None of this is very funny, perhaps – with Beethoven, the broader the joke the less effective – until Es muss sein! timidly acknowledges the piteous roar in the low instruments … To this comedy the Allegro offers no serious answer. As one of those deft demonstrations of analytic philosophy, the question is rephrased and shown never to have amounted to a true question in the first place.
de Marliave (Beethoven’s Quartets, 1928) thinks along similar lines:
[T]he mysterious preface was enough to intrigue the curiosity of listeners and critics, who see in it as a result a meaning that it does not possess. The argument shares the defect of all such attempts to set a ‘programme’ to absolute music.
And says about the finishing bars of the coda:
It is though Beethoven is laughing at himself and at his audience for taking this little motif so seriously, and making such a mystery out of his whimsical Muss es sein? which was no enigma at all!
Sullivan (Beethoven – his spiritual development, 1927) suggests that the motto
is a summary of the great Beethovenian problem of destiny and submission. But Beethoven had found his solution to the problem, and he treats the old question here with lightness, even the humour, of one to whom the issue is settled and familiar. There is no real conflict depicted in this last movement; the portentous question meets with a jovial, almost exultant answer, and the ending is one of perfect confidence. The question raised here is, indeed, seen in the light of the profound peace which dominates the slow movement of this quartet. If we may judge from this quartet [….] it would appear that at the end of his life the inner Beethoven who expressed himself in music, was content.
However, Lockwood (Beethoven – the Music and the Life, 2003) offers more extensive thoughts on the subject. He encourages us to take Beethoven’s question seriously, and highlights the fact that Beethoven struggled with its exact wording: he initially hesitated between “der gezwungene Entschluss” (the forced decision) and “der harte Entschluss” (the hard-won decision) before settling for the one we know. He asks:
What is the meaning of the inscription? We do not know, and are not meant to know in any specific sense, what is being asked and answered. We cannot miss the feeling that something basic is afoot, but we cannot define it in words or concepts. That may be the point. As in the Ninth Symphony’s cello-bass recitatives and at various points in other late works, Beethoven is driving instrumental music to the limits of speech, making instruments ‘almost speak’ …
He points out that, according to Karl Holz, Beethoven used to speak in an “imperial style” and speculates that:
It is not far-fetched to imagine Beethoven asking and answering the question ‘Must it be?’ to himself and perhaps to others, expecting no explanation and giving none.
Some final thoughts
Regardless of whether Beethoven intended Op. 135 to be his final statement or not, and in spite of any possible textual explanations of the “Muss es sein?” riddle, I find it hard to see its over-all effect as anything other than profound. The two last movements especially together give a strong sense of coming to terms, and if the quartet is an intermezzo, it gives an impression of being one between this life and the next. And, contemplating the very end, what better way to go than with a bang?
The two Graves in the last movement, with their “Muss es sein?” motif, do perhaps give a certain theatrical impression, and maybe they also seem to induce the feeling of being slightly too serious for their own good (this is obviously in no way a criticism of Beethoven!), but as a player, when actually playing them, I find it hard not to take them seriously, whatever the question might mean. As soon as the answer appear in the Allegro, the question is immediately put in a new light, but it can, for me, only in hindsight be regarded with a smile.
The Allegro has by some commentators being characterised as either “ironic” or “forced”, but in my eyes the completely honestly good-natured second theme certainly excludes the former idea, even if the recurring “Es muss sein!” statements have a certain touch of jauntiness. If it is forced, it is in the most humorous way. And the little coda marks the ending (and indeed the whole piece), twinkly-eyed and humorous as it might be, with honesty and kindness.
“For Beethoven, as for the greatest literary artists, above all his beloved Shakespeare, comedy is not a lesser form than tragedy but is its true counterpart, the celebration of the human in all things.”
But all of the above is of course only words. Let us now listen to the music.
* In fact Op. 135 was Beethoven’s last complete quartet: he went on to write the alternative movement for Op. 130 after it. A sketch from 1826 for a quintet in C major survives.
Sources: Beethoven’s String Quartets (Radcliffe), Beethoven’s Quartets (de Marliave), The Beethoven Quartet Companion (ed. Martin Winter), Beethoven – his spiritual development (Sullivan), The Beethoven Quartets (Kerman), Beethoven – the Music and the Life (Lockwood), Preface to the Henle score (Cadenbach). Many thanks to Ivan Moseley.