Blog / Tognetti: Beethoven's String Quartets

Tognetti: Beethoven's String Quartets

Posted on 5 May 2016 by Leo Messias


"I'm not sure empirically who the most performed composer is but certainly Beethoven is up there, mainly due to his symphonies and piano sonatas, Moonlight and, of course, The Ninth Symphony and his Fifth Symphony.

The late string quartets are still rather obscure and looked at in a way that sometimes it's hard to get through. For me, although I've performed almost 1700 unique works, including a lot of Beethoven. For me, my most triumphant musical experience has been as a listener, when I was a kid I always looked at these late string quartets as being something that I possibly could never understand nor play because a lot of them are really difficult to perform.

But then I had this epiphany on my first solo trip to Europe, and I had an old Walkman, or it was new at the time, and on it, I had a cassette of Opus 131 played by the old men of the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein, and I played it over and over again as I disembarked the plane from Australia, landing in Frankfurt in the misty seven-degree rather depressing climate and geography of the Rhein-Gebiet in Germany. I had this music playing in my Walkman.

And as I took the train up to Zurich and then changed trains, this music was going around and around in my head, and I started really getting it. I was able to enter the portal into this astonishing strange beguiling music and I felt triumphant that I was able to get it. I'm not going to say I was able to understand it, but I was able to feel it. And I would urge any listener of music to enter this portal because it is the greatest music composed, arguably.

So the history of performing Beethoven quartet in Australia started already in Beethoven's lifetime in 1820s, a few years before Beethoven's death. Already the Australian public was listening to this contemporary, we could almost say futuristic music coming out of the fertile mind of Ludwig van Beethoven, and it seemed that Hobart was one of the first places to encounter Beethoven's music during Beethoven's lifetime, and a fellow called John Dean brought a bookmaker, who went to Hobart from England, brought this music, and they started performing it there. Then he moved to Sydney in 1836, so one presumes that about this time, people started listening to Beethoven's music, and especially the string quartets.

The history of performing Beethoven's string quartets in string arrangements goes back a long way. It seems that Richard Goldner, who was the founder of our very own Musica Viva here in Australia, played arrangements and 17 strings of the string quartets. Predating recordings, people used arrangements in order to access music that they weren't able to otherwise access, mainly through piano but also through string orchestras. It's the way, it's a portal through which one can enter to listen to string quartets in a way that changes the music, I would argue, in a positive way. You can still maintain the intimacy but you're able to create string symphonic colours and sounds out of these arrangements.

So when Beethoven realized that he was going deaf, the anguish he must've suffered, we can all understand. He wrote a letter that was never sent to his brothers Karl and Johann. It was found and published posthumously and it's called the Heiligenstadt Testament, and it really describes in vivid detail his suicidal thoughts as I think a lot of people would have, given the triumph and success that he's had as an artist, and then to realize, to face the fact that he was going deaf.

So 2016 is a celebration, a feast of Beethoven quartets and the Seventh Symphony. I'd love it if you came along with us and triumphed as you enter the portal into the crazy and wonderful vibrant mind of Ludwig van Beethoven."

Richard Tognetti, ACO Artistic Director



JS BACH The Art of Fugue: Contrapunctus I-IV
MOZART Violin Concerto No.5, K.219
BEETHOVEN (arr. strings) String Quartet, Op.130
BEETHOVEN (arr. strings) Grosse Fugue, Op.133 


Richard Tognetti: 2016 ACO Season Introduction ACO Artistic Director Richard Tognetti introduces the 2016 National Concert Season. Click here to watch the full video online. Richard Tognetti 2016 Interview