The history of Beethoven’s late quartets has usually been told by separating (and redeeming) the composer’s aesthetic priorities from the difficulties encountered by the works’ early performers, publishers, and listeners. This article weaves together Beethoven’s interests with those of his publisher Maurice Schlesinger and the violinist Pierre Baillot, whose ensemble first performed the late quartets in Paris between 1827 and 1829. I navigate the traffic among these parties to reassess what was difficult about this music and, on this basis, test new routes to explore early nineteenth-century string quartet culture. One issue these different agents faced—whether in presenting the quartets to the Viennese public (Beethoven), selling them in Paris (Schlesinger), or performing them (Baillot)—was that the late quartets seemed to call for a new kind of ensemble rehearsal. The genre’s proverbial sociability, historically supporting an almost immediate and shared grasp of the performers’ interplay, was compromised in Beethoven’s late quartets by a loss in topicality. The erosion of topical references and familiar textures in these quartets made it harder for performers to predict how to coordinate their moves. Musical topics, I argue, functioned as a means of communication not only with listeners but also among performers within an ensemble. In contrast, the sociability of Beethoven’s late quartets had to be patiently engineered through dedicated rehearsals, a step that distanced this music from past quartet cultures and shaped a new notion of making music together.

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