Beethoven’s late string quartets have been regarded with awe and wonder since they were written, with Op. 131 probably leading the pack. Beethoven was said to consider it his own favorite and Wagner was extravagant in his description of the piece in his 1870 essay on the composer. Beethoven completed it in May 1826, making it the penultimate of his 16 completed quartets chronologically, though not in numbering. He may have heard it in a private performance before he died, but it was apparently not played publically until 1835.
Beethoven’s long evolving experiments with directing the flow of an entire work towards its end find perhaps their fullest fruits in Op. 131, cast in seven sections played without pause. These seven sections, however, are basically the four conventional movements with a fugal introduction and two connecting interludes. Despite the minor mode, the shifting chromaticism, and the contrapuntal intensity (and Wagner’s avowal that it is “surely the saddest thing ever said in notes”), the opening Adagio is more contemplative than sorrowing. It ends with an ascending C-sharp octave leap, which is bumped up a half-step to launch the ensuing fleet Allegro molto vivace. This sunny and rhythmically lively section has the tempo and extroverted character of a typical first movement, but none of the tension or drama.
The third section is a brief ensemble recitative that sets up the slow movement, a ravishingly expressive set of variations – in different meters and tempos – on the sequentially yearning theme presented by the violins in tandem. The whirlwind Presto that follows (jumpstarted in a seeming “mistake” by the cello) is in effect the work’s scherzo, a superficially blithe movement that is constantly on the edge of technical disaster, with odd “molto poco adagio” disjunctions and a coda that begins with glassy sul ponticello (on the bridge) whistling.
The brooding Adagio sixth section introduces the furious finale, the only full sonata form in the Quartet. The second theme is derived from the subject of the opening fugue, the latent anger and energy of which now explodes. “This is the fury of the world’s dance – fierce pleasure, agony, ecstasy of love, joy, anger, passion, and suffering; lightning flashes and thunder rolls; and above the tumult the indomitable fiddler whirls us on to the abyss,” Wagner wrote. “Amid the clamor he smiles, for to him it is nothing but a mocking fantasy; at the end, the darkness beckons him away, and his task is done.”
— John Henken