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17 Works, 9 Hours, 10 Days: My Beethoven Quartet Marathon

I recommend completism. It’s a fine antidote to the fragmentation bomb of culture we live in and a chance to encompass an artist in totality. And when it comes to total immersion, there is nothing like Beethoven. As George Bernard Shaw wrote, Bach’s theme is religion and Mozart’s is characters, but “Beethoven was the first man who used music with absolute integrity as the expression of his own emotional life.”

A traversal of the string quartets is like watching that emotional life unspool — across a musician’s despair at losing his hearing and arriving at total deafness, through the titanic and ultimately crushing struggle with his sister-in-law for custody of his nephew, and illnesses galore. You hear Beethoven in his late 20s, when he wrote the six Apollonian Opus 18 quartets; in the second half of his 30s, with the three meaty Razumovsky quartets of Op. 59 and the individual works of Op. 74 and Op. 95; and during the last two years of his life, when he wrote the searching, sometimes staggering late quartets (Op. 127, 130, 131, 132, 133 and 135) and little else.

“With Beethoven,” Mr. Norgaard said, “you have the full story.”

My listening marathon gave me an acute awareness of the extraordinary range of sensations Beethoven depicts. Joy. Rage. Slyness. Gravitas. Grief. Snickering. Despair. Holiness. The quartets fit neatly into the standard, if flawed, conception of Beethoven’s early, middle and late periods. No other genre that he wrote in has the same arc through his biography and his artistic development. Not the piano sonatas, not the symphonies. (The Ninth Symphony came before the late quartets.)

They start, in Op. 18, as exemplars of what quartets first stood for: “the art of musical conversation,” in the phrase of the musicologist Joseph Kerman, and compositions especially aimed at amateur musicians playing for one another. This art reached its height with Haydn and Mozart.

Beethoven, apparently full of respect for their accomplishment, waited until his late 20s to take on the form, accepting a commission for the Op. 18 quartets. And he worked hard at them: The opening theme of the first required 16 pages of sketches.

Count Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna and a violinist, commissioned the three middle period quartets of Op. 59. He asked for a Russian tune in each, and Beethoven obliged in the first two. The Razumovsky quartets mark a leap. They became works to project to an audience: a “determined musical shouting” that acquired the “heroic discourse of the symphony,” as Kerman puts it. Yet intimate moments abound.

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