Writing of Beethoven in his seminal work The Classical Style, pianist and polymath Charles Rosen claims that, “He was perhaps the first composer in history to write deliberately difficult music for a great part of his life.”
In one of the chapters in this endlessly fascinating new book of essays on Beethoven’s music, Robin Wallace presents “nearly all” the early reviews of Beethoven’s last string quartets. As Wallace writes, “It has often been asserted that works like the late string quartets were nearly incomprehensible to Beethoven’s contemporaries.”
Reading these reviews, you quickly realise this was clearly not the case. Difficult, certainly; incomprehensible, no. For example, writing in 1826, J. Adrien-Lafasge observes that “In Vienna, very accomplished quartet players are supposed to have abandoned this quartet as all too difficult. Later, however, after they took it up again and studied it, they declared it the most perfect work of this great composer.”
Despite a certain contempt bred by familiarity with selected works (maybe the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, Für Elise, the Moonlight Sonataetc.), Beethoven remains a “new” composer for us...