The early performers of the quartets of Beethoven

by Martin Saving

The quartets of Beethoven made new technical demands on the performers, and the practice of the previous century of putting together ad hoc groups to perform the music, or keeping the performance private gave way to an increased feeling amongst performers and patrons of a need for groups to rehearse regularly. More or less permanent quartets were formed, funded at first by aristocrats but increasingly by the income from public concerts, suddenly giving a new audience access to chamber music: the middle class. This was also the age of the emergence of perhaps the most important player in making Beethoven’s quartets part of our musical heritage: the quartet-playing amateur.

There follows a line-up of some of the most important quartets and quartet players of the 19th century. Some members of the groups listed, interestingly, form a more or less unbroken lineage of “adopted” members or teacher-pupil relationships well into the 20th century. The information is mainly biographical; in a future blog post I hope to include some eyewitness accounts of the playing of some of the early quartets. The list is obviously far from complete, especially regarding the late 19th century quartets. I apologise in advance for the inevitable plethora of dates.


The Schuppanzigh Quartet

Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830, pictured left), unusually, started his musical career as a viola player, but switched to the violin in his teens. From about 1793 he lead at informal quartet concerts arranged by Prince Lichnowsky, and a few years later he would belong to a more regular group set up by the prince (sometimes referred to as the Lichnowsky Quartet, in other accounts the Beethoven Quartet), although the players changed frequently. The most common configuration seems to have been Schuppanzigh, Louis Sina (1778–1857, of French origin), Franz Weiss (1778-1830) on the viola and Nikolaus Kraft (1778-1853) on the cello. The age of the players was at this time extraordinarily low and ranged between 14 and 17 years. It was this group that most probably played the Op.18 quartets for the first time soon after their completion, in 1801-02. Schuppanzigh became a trusted friend of Beethoven and in 1794 the composer is said to have had violin lessons with him three times a week.

In 1804-1805 Schuppanzigh formed his own quartet, probably the first professional string quartet. It constituted, in addition to himself, of his 15-year old pupil Joseph Mayseder (1789-1863) on second violin, Anton Schreiber (?-?) on viola and Anton Kraft (1752-1820; the father of Nikolaus) on cello. They performed in a private house and later in a restaurant for at most three seasons. It was most likely this group that gave the premiere of the Op. 59 quartets in 1807 and Op. 95 in 1814 (as well, possibly, as the Op. 74 quartet).

In late 1808 Count Razumovsky commissioned Schuppanzigh to assemble “the finest string quartet in Europe”. Razumovsky himself seems to have shared the position of second violin in this group with Sina, Weiss played viola and Joseph Linke (1783-1837) cello. The quartet performed in the private setting of Razumovsky’s court until just before the count’s palace was destroyed in a fire in 1814.

After leaving for St. Petersburg, where he was an advocate of Beethoven’s music for six years, Schuppanzigh finally returned to Vienna in 1823 where he reformed his old quartet, this time with a new second violinist: Karl Holz (1798-1858) who was also to play in the Böhm quartet (see below). The new group gave the first performances of several of Beethoven’s last quartets including Op. 127, Op. 130 and Op. 132. Joseph Linke was part of a group that gave the première of Op. 135 after Beethoven’s death. (Ignaz Schuppanzigh was also the dedicatee of Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Quartet.)


The Böhm Quartet

The Hungarian violinist Joseph Böhm (1795-1876, pictured right) assembled a quartet in 1819 consisting of three of the previous members of the Schuppanzigh group: Holz, Weiss and Linke. After the first unsuccessful performance of Op. 127 by the Schuppanzigh Quartet, the Böhm Quartet learned the piece under Beethoven’s close supervision and performed it to great acclaim. When Ignaz Schuppanzig returned to Vienna in 1823, the quartet disbanded. Joseph Böhm went on to teach Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), Jenő Hubay (1858-1937), Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst (?1812-65), and Jakob Dont (1815-88).


The Jansa Quartet

In 1834, shortly after the death of Ignaz Schuppanzigh, usual suspects Holz and Linke were “adopted” by the violinist Leopold Jansa (1795-1875) to form a new quartet. In 1849, after many changes in personnel and a long inactive period during the late 1830s and early 1840s, Jansa left for London and Joseph Hellmesberger (1828-93) took over as leader and the quartet changed its name (See the Hellmesberger Quartet below). The Jansa quartet gave the first Viennese performance of Op.131, in 1835.


The Möser Quartet

The German violinist and composer Karl Möser (1774-1851) played as a youngster in a private quartet set up by the regent Friedrich Wilhelm II. From around 1813 to 1843 he presented a regular chamber music series in Berlin. His group performed Beethoven’s Op. 132 as early as 1828 and made the Op. 18 quartets popular. (Möser also participated in performances of orchestral arrangements of at least one of the late quartets.)


The Müller Quartet (The Müller Brothers)

The Müller Quartet (right) consisted of four brothers from Braunschweig [Karl Friedrich (1797-1873), Gustav Theodor (1799-1855), Theodor August (1802-1875) and Georg Ferdinand (1808-1855)]. They performed, among other pieces, Beethoven’s Op. 59 quartets in 1833, and they seem to have set a new technical standard in quartet playing, judging by the rave reviews. They played all the Beethoven quartets, but preferred not to perform the late quartets in public, although they gave the public premiere of Op. 131, in 1828.

From 1855 to 1873 the group (pictured left) consisted of the sons of Karl Friedrich. The cellist, Wilhelm Müller (1834-1897) went on to play in the Joachim Quartet.






Louis Spohr

Louis Spohr (1784-1859, pictured right) was perhaps the most prominent violinist in the early years of the 19th century. He was a keen chamber musician and a composer of quartets in the quatuor brillant style, where the first violinist takes on a virtuosic and soloistic role in the quartet. He came to Vienna in 1812 and got to know Beethoven. He was an enthusiastic proponent of the Op. 18 quartets, but never quite accepted the composer’s late works in the genre.


The Gewandhaus Quartet

In 1808, probably inspired by the Schuppanzigh Quartet in Vienna, the section leaders in the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig came together to form a quartet. This consisted initially of Heinrich August Matthäi (1781-1835), Bartolomeo Campagnoli (1781-1835), a Herr Voigt and Justus Johann Friedrich Dotzauer (1783-1860). After Matthäi’s death, Ferdinand David (1810-73) was appointed new leader of the orchestra by Mendelssohn, its conductor at the time.

The Swiss-born David (pictured left), a student of Louis Spohr, was to become one of the most influential German violinists of the 19th century. He was professor at the Leipzig Conservatory from 1843, where he taught amongst others Joseph Joachim, who was to play in the orchestra/quartet for a brief time. The chamber concert series David presented at The Old Gewandhaus was the first to be performed in a formal concert hall.

The Gewandhaus Quartet is said by some sources to have given the première of Beethoven’s Op.74 Quartet.

Karol Lipiński

The Polish virtuoso Karol Lipiński (1790-1861, right) settled in Dresden in 1840 and led a quartet which, until 1860, performed all of Beethoven’s late quartets, except the Grosse Fuge.


The Baillot Quartet

In Paris, the violin virtuoso Pierre Baillot (1771-1842, pictured left) became a much admired leader of a quartet formed in 1814 specifically to bring the Op.18 quartets to the French public. When they performed Op. 131 and Op. 135 in 1829 however, he was met with fierce opposition. (Baillot was also sent the Op.127 quartet by Galitzin soon after the dedicatee had received it from Beethoven.)




The Society for the Last Quartets of Beethoven

In 1835 Pierre Chevillard (1811-77), a Belgian cellist active in Paris, formed the Society for the Last Quartets of Beethoven, and this eventually formed into a regular group which toured in the 1850s, performing at an extraordinarily high standard according to eyewitnesses. From 1849 it was lead by Jean Pierre Maurin (1822-94), teacher of Louis Capet (1873-1928) of Capet Quartet fame.


The Hellmesberger Quartet

The Hellmesberger Quartet was founded in 1849 when Joseph Hellmesberger (right) took over as a new leader in a quartet formed earlier by Leopold Jansa, and the group played together until a few months before the leader’s death, after which Joseph’s son Joseph Jr. took over for the next fourteen years before the disbandment of the group in 1901. Joseph Hellmesberger Sr. counted among his students Leopold Auer (1845-1930) and Arthur Nikisch (1855-1922). The personnel changed, but at one time it included the cellist David Popper (1843-1913) and Adolph Brodsky (1851-1929) who later was to lead the Brodsky Quartet, an interesting connection with Manchester and Britain. Two members, Julius Egghard Jr. (?-?) and Sigismund Bachrich (1841-1913), were later to be part of the Rosé Quartet.

The famous critic Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904) attributed the popularisation of Beethoven’s late quartets in Vienna largely to the Hellmesberger group.


The Joachim Quartet

Formed in 1869 by Joseph Joachim (pictured left), this group was to be perhaps the most famous quartet of its time. Joachim had been a student of Joseph Böhm, a protégé of Mendelssohn, and had performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto under Mendelssohn’s baton at the tender age of twelve. He had also notably played for a short while in a “prodigy quartet” with Joseph Hellmesberger Jr. The Joachim Quartet may have been the first quartet to perform in actual full-length quartet recitals. In 1903 he became the first violinist of distinction to record for the gramophone.

The quartet (pictured below) would always plan their programmes of Beethoven’s quartets chronologically, starting with an early quartet, continuing with one from the middle period one and ending with a late work.


The Rosé Quartet

Arnold Rosé (1863-1946), Joachim’s heir apparent, was a student of Carl Heissler (1823-78), one of the violists of the Hellmesberger Quartet. He rose to fame as leader of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, working closely with Mahler (his brother-in-law) and Brahms. In 1882 he founded the Rosé Quartet, who largely based their repertoire around Beethoven, and he is said to have opened every season in his chamber music series with the credo “I believe in Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven”. The Rosé Quartet recorded a number of Beethoven’s quartets.


Other early quartet performers

Joseph Mayseder, the aforementioned pupil of Schuppanzigh, led a quartet between 1817 to 1860 in Vienna.

In Saint Petersburg, the amateur cellist Nicholas Borisowitch Galitzin (1794-1866) commissioned Op. 127, Op. 132 and Op. 130, and was a member of a private quartet. Galitzin went on to propagate the Beethoven quartets tirelessly.

In Paris the quartets of Beethoven started to become more frequently performed during the 1830s. A chamber music club, the Société de musique classique, which included the mysterious viola virtuoso Casimir Ney (Louis-Casimir Escoffier, 1801-1877) championed Beethoven’s quartet works from the late 1840s and onwards. The Bohrer Quartet, which included the brothers Anton (1783-1852) and Max Bohrer (1785-1867) performed the Op. 59 set, Op. 127, Op. 130, Op. 131 and Op. 132 during 1830 and 31.

The Flonzaley Quartet (1902-1928) made many early recordings of Beethoven’s quartets.

During the years after Beethoven’s death it became increasingly common for amateurs in small German and Austrian towns to perform in private and to some extent in public, but leading virtuosos like Ernst also made noteworthy appearances in ad hoc groups. Fixed, permanent groups remained rare in the mid-19th century, but Beethoven’s quartets quickly became a part of the German musical tradition and its canon. The Beethoven Quartet Society was founded in London in 1845, with as its chief mission the study of the late quartets of Beethoven. The Mendelssohn Quintet Club in Boston was instrumental in making Beethoven’s quartets known in America, starting in the 1850s.

By the end of the nineteenth century the professional, touring quartet had become the norm, but with it a widely spread tradition amongst amateurs to perform Beethoven’s quartets in private.





Sources: The Beethoven Quartet Companion (ed. Winter, Martin), The Cambridge Companion to the String Quartet (ed. Stowell), Beethoven’s Quartets (de Marliave), Österreichisches Biographisches Lexikon 1815-1950, Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (von Wurzbach). Many thanks to Ivan Moseley.

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5 Responses to “The early performers of the quartets of Beethoven”

  1. Anne Mischakoff Heiles says:

    Thank you for this wonderful summary! I’d like to share a small part of it with a one-time course for senior citizens on the magic of chamber music.

  2. Eduardo García says:

    Please Martin!
    could you send me this wonderful picture of the Joachim Quartet? the second violinist is Karel Halíř!

    I would need your mail!

  3. Eduardo García says:

    Dear friends, congratulations for your work. But I miss the Halir quartet, where is it?
    He played second violin in Joachim quartet from 1897 to 1907.
    Thank you very much,
    best regards from Prague,
    Eduardo García

    • Martin says:

      Dear Mr Garcia,

      Sorry, I hadn’t come across the Halir Quartet before! It’d be interesting to know more. I’ll try to do some research…

      • Eduardo García says:

        Dear Martin,
        we organize teh Halíř Festival in the Czech Republic and Germany. In the IV. Festival Halíř will play the Cuarteto Casals. They will repeat in the Beethoven Haus in Bonn the concert that played the Halíř quartet on 16 may 1909 in the Beethoven Haus Bonn. They played op.74 and op.29 from Beethovenn. On 5 may 1896 in Berlin played together the Joachim quartet and the Halíř quartet, they played Spohr octet op.87 and from the next year Halíř played too like second violin in Joachim quartet until 1907. He played simultany in the two quartets and we have a concert in London 2.4.1903 in Broadway concerts of the Halíř quartet and a month later 1.5.1903 in James Hall a concert of the Joachim quartet!
        if you send me your mail I could send you some pictures!
        best regards,
        Karel Halíř was a really good violinist, but nobody knows about him.We are doing this festival to get the person and life of Karel Halíř.He was born in Vrchlabí, 120 km north Prague, where my wife and my daughters were born too!

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