I first came across Beethoven’s string quartets as an undergraduate, invited for a musical evening at the home of one of my History teachers at the University of New England. I listened uncomprehendingly. Classical music was still new to me, and so far I was in the thrall of big orchestral sound, like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and Grieg’s Piano Concerto. This music was very different, spare and odd.
Mr Stargardt asked me what I thought of the quartet that he had played. I was honest enough to say that I didn’t understand it. ‘Ah,’ he replied. ‘You are perhaps just too young. One day these quartets will speak to you, and you will grow to love them.’ He was right. Ten years later, in Oxford, I had the opportunity to listen to them, recorded some on my new tape recorder, and played them again and again. They are old and valued friends, and, like Bach’s cantatas, they represent to me one of the great bodies of work in the whole of Western art.
In the writing of them Beethoven had the great luxury of a readily available group of string players, the house quartet of the Russian Ambassador to Vienna, Count Andrey Razumovsky, who was one of Beethoven’s noble patrons. Imagine being able to have a house quartet! Of course the Esterhazy’s had a house orchestra at their country estate, and Joseph Haydn to compose for it. But somehow a house quartet seems even more refined.
The leader of the quartet was Ignaz Schuppanzigh, whom Beethoven had known since his arrival in Vienna. Schupppanzigh’s quartet is arguably the first professional string quartet in the history of music, and he was a prominent musician in Vienna, serving as a conductor as well, controlling the orchestra in the first performance of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. He was always well-fleshed, and grew obese as he grew older. Beethoven referred to him as ‘fatso’, and composed a comic piece in celebration of his girth – ‘In Praise of the Fat One’, for full chorus and three solo male voices, the first line of which is ‘Schuppanzigh ist ein Lump’ (Schuppanzigh is a rogue).
Now while the Margrave of Brandenburg, to whom Bach dedicated his six varied concertos, is undeservedly famous — he apparently never even looked at the Brandenburg Concertos, and had no interest in retaining Bach on his staff — Count Andrey Razumovsky is altogether more interesting, and properly famous. To start with he was a descendant of one of a pair of Russian court singers whose capacity to service two royal princesses, later Empresses Elizabeth and Catherine, gave them high status and protection. Andrey was trained to be a naval officer, but moved to diplomacy in later life, finishing in Vienna. He was an accomplished musician himself, a good violinist and even a good cellist, on one account. He was related through marriage to two more of Beethoven’s patrons, Counts Lobkowitz and Lichnowsky. He built a fine palace and lived in the most luxurious way, but he took good music and Beethoven very seriously. Would that there were more like him!
Apart from giving Beethoven his house quartet, and on at least one occasion, giving him accommodation as well, the Count commissioned three new string quartets, published as Beethoven’s Op. 59, and they now bear his name. He asked Beethoven to include a Russian theme in each, and the composer obliged in two of them. The Schuppanzigh quartet did the preparatory work and gave the first performance, as they did for most of his quartets, but they found the music difficult, as did the audience. Beethoven simply shrugged at the criticisms. ‘They are not for you, but for a later age,’ he is reported to have said. We are part of that later age, and to me they are exciting works, with unpredictable changes of texture and emotion. They may well be the most often played of all his string quartets.
Think well of Count Razumovsky. He was Russia’s principal negotiator at the Congress of Vienna, though the Tsar himself came to Vienna and elevated Razumovsky to the rank of Prince. Razumovsky put on a great gala reception at his palace (which he had paid for out of his own pocket), but at the end of it all a fire broke out and burned much of the building down. He was a broken man, and was forced to live much more simply thereafter. He had to dismiss the Schuppanzigh Quartet, though they kept together and maintained their association with Beethoven. And of course, he was no longer able to be the kind of patron to the composer that he had been.
But his name and his memory live on. Alexander Thayer, in his biography of Beethoven, tells us that Razumovsky was ‘less famous, perhaps for his diplomacy than for the profuseness of his expenditures, and for his amours with women of the highest rank’. Perhaps some of his ancestry continued there. A toast to a most unusual man! We should be grateful to him because of his generosity and love of music.