An artist’s final year can be an annus mirabilis. Take Mozart and Schubert, both of whom were at the height of their powers and musically prolific even as they passed over. But what of Beethoven?

Beethoven Beethoven on his death bed. Photo © Alamy

Certainly the late works show no slackening of his creative invention or any flagging in his enthusiasm to redefine Classical forms. Yet plagued by illness and family crises, and with his contemporaries struggling to comprehend the unknown regions into which his imagination was increasingly leading him, 1826 might well be described as Beethoven’s annus horribilis.

The auguries were a mix of good and bad. The year 1825 had seen Beethoven making international headway with the London premiere of the Ninth Symphony. The reception though was frosty, prompting the composer to remark to Carl Czerny that he intended to ditch the choral finale in favour of something orchestral (which mercifully he never did). His creative life, meanwhile, revolved around a series of late string quartets, three of which would fulfil a commission from the seemingly wealthy Russian Prince Nikolai Galitzin. As would become increasingly the case, however, Beethoven’s health decided to...