Misunderstood in their own day, what is it about Beethoven’s late string quartets that keeps players and audiences coming back?

Legend has it that when the Italian violinist Felix Radicati complained that Beethoven’s Opus 59 Quartets were “not music”, the composer responded: “Oh, they are not for you, but for a later age.”

In hindsight such words feel prophetic, with countless string quartets performing and recording cycles of Beethoven’s String Quartets all over the world.

Easily divided into three distinct groups, the String Quartets provide neat snapshots across the composer’s career. In the early quartets – the six quartets of Opus 18 – Beethoven is seen as perfecting the Classical form, particularly as exemplified by the work of Haydn – lauded as the ‘father’ of the string quartet – and Mozart. Count Ferdinand von Waldstein’s oft-quoted letter telling the composer that “with the help of assiduous labour you will receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands” is often wheeled out, but it doesn’t quite do justice to the unique voice Beethoven was already cultivating in his late 20s when he published these first quartets.

Takacs Quartet The Takács Quartet. Photo © Robert Torres