He quarreled with Schindler and other friends about the small share (420 florins) they gave him of the 2,200 taken at the concert; he charged them with cheating him; they left him solitary now except for the occasional presence of his nephew, whose attempt at suicide (1826) topped the inspired bear’s cup of grief. It was in those years that he wrote the last five of his sixteen quartets.
The spark for these labors had come in 1823 from the offer of Prince Nikolai Golitsyn to pay “any sum demanded” for one, two, or three quartets to be dedicated to him. Beethoven agreed, for fifty ducats each. Those three (Opp. 127, 130, and 132), and Opp. 131 and 135, constitute the terminal quartets whose mysterious strangeness has ensured their fame. Opus 130 was privately played in 1826, to the avowed delight of the listeners, except that the performers found the fourth movement beyond their powers; Beethoven wrote a simpler finale. The rejected movement is now offered as “Grosse Fugue,” Opus 133, which a Beethoven scholar bravely interprets as expressing the composer’s final philosophy: Life and reality are composed of inseparable opposites—good and evil, joy and sorrow, health and sickness, birth and death; and wisdom will adjust itself to them as the inescapable essence of life. Most highly praised of the five, and considered by Beethoven to be his greatest quartet, is Opus 131 in C Sharp Minor, finished on August 7, 1826; here, we are told, “the mystical vision is most perfectly sustained.”48 Heard again recently, it seemed to be a long weird wail, the pitiful moaning of a mortally wounded animal. The last of the five, Opus 135, states a motto for its final movement: Muss es sein?(Must it be?), and gives the answer: Es muss sein.
On December 2, 1826, racked by a tearing cough, Beethoven asked for a doctor. Two of his former physicians refused to come.49 A third, Dr. Wawruch, came, and diagnosed pneumonia. Beethoven took to his bed. His brother Johann came to watch over him. Nephew Karl, with Beethoven’s blessing, left at the call of the Army. On January 11 Dr. Wawruch was joined by Dr. Malfatti. He prescribed frozen punch to help the patient sleep; Beethoven relished the liquor in it, and “abused the prescription.”50 Dropsy and jaundice developed; urine collected in Beethoven’s body instead of being excreted; twice he was tapped to release the fluid; he compared himself to a geyser.
Resolved to make no use of the bank shares—totaling ten thousand florins—which he had hidden for Karl, and faced by rapidly rising expenses, Beethoven wrote, on March 6, 1827, to Sir George Smart of London:
What is to become of me? What am I to live on until I have recovered my lost strength and can again earn my living by means of my pen? … I beg you to exert all your influence to induce the Philharmonic Society to carry out their former decision to give a concert for my benefit. My strength is not equal to saying anything more.51
The Society sent him a hundred pounds as an advance on the receipts of the proposed concert.
By March 16 the physicians agreed that Beethoven had not long to live. They and brother Johann asked his consent to summoning a priest. “I wish it,” he answered. His occasional bouts with God had been forgotten; his letter of March 14 shows him ready to accept whatever “God in His divine wisdom” might decree.52 On March 23 he received the last sacrament, apparently in a docile mood; his brother later reported that the dying man had said to him, “I thank you for this last service.”53 Soon after the ceremony Beethoven said to Schindler, “Comoedia finita est”—referring apparently not to the religious service but to life itself;54 the phrase was used in the classic Roman theater to announce the end of the play.
He died on March 26, 1827, after three months of suffering. A few moments before his death a flash of lightning illuminated the room, followed by a sharp clap of thunder. Aroused, Beethoven raised his right arm and shook his clenched fist, apparently at the storm. Soon thereafter his agony ended. We shall never know what that last gesture meant.
The post-mortem examination revealed the complex of internal disorders that had darkened his life and his temper. The liver was shrunken and diseased. The arteries of the ears were clogged with fatty particles, and the auditory nerves were degenerated. “The pains in the head, indigestion, colic, and jaundice, of which he frequently complained, and the deep depression which gives the key to so many of his letters, would all follow naturally from the chronic inflammation of the liver and the digestive derangements to which it would give rise.”55 Probably his love of walking and the open air had moderated these ailments, and had given him most of the painless hours in his life.
His funeral was attended by thirty thousand persons. Hummel the pianist and Kreutzer the violinist were among the pallbearers; Schubert, Czerny, and Grillparzer were among the torchbearers. The tombstone bore only the name BEETHOVEN and his dates of birth and death.