It reads like irony from a master of the art. Reflecting on a performance of the Quartet in C sharp minor, op.131, George Bernard Shaw characterized Beethoven’s formidable late quartets as ‘. . . simple, unpretentious [and] perfectly intelligible . . . ’. Yet Shaw was serious in his contrarian estimation, preferring the valedictory works to the ‘wayward caprices of self-conscious genius’ which, to his ear, were the quartets of Beethoven’s middle period.
‘Are they always to be avoided’, asked Shaw, referring to the quartets commencing with op.127, ‘because the professors once pronounced them obscure and impossible?’ For decades, regrettably, the answer was yes. We thank Joseph Kerman for this sobering statistic: ‘. . . in the twenty-five year period after Beethoven’s death, Vienna – that great musical center – can boast a grand total of no more than seven public performances of any of these works.’
Tastes, however, change. In 1928, just a century after the composer’s death, music aficionado J. W. N. Sullivan wrote in his Beethoven biography that ‘In the last string quartets spiritual experiences are communicated of which it is very difficult to mention even the elements. And yet it is just this music that most moves us and impresses us as containing the profoundest and most valuable experiences that any artist has yet conveyed . .