Razumovsky’s faulty flue

According to my Starbucks order, it’s now officially the holidays. Of course, I’m not one to judge, but appropriate planning should have begun by now. Christmas will be a high priority for many of you. For our American friends, Thanksgiving is a major hurdle yet to be cleared. Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are also fast approaching. But allow me to caution you not to neglect the logistics for a successful New Year’s Eve. The consequences could be dire.


Many of my past New Year’s Eves have been a bit of a bust. This is in no way intended as a slight to the wonderful people with whom I’ve celebrated; I suspect it has more to do with the frustration of my unrealistic expectations. Think back to New Year’s Eve of 1999 when Y2K was supposed to spectacularly dismantle the modern world. If you’ve been similarly disappointed, I hope you’ll take comfort in the fact that it could always be worse.


Allow me to dust off the true story of a particularly disastrous New Year’s Eve of 1814 in Vienna. Count (and later Prince) Razumovsky, a Russian diplomat stationed in Vienna, was planning a fête to beat all fêtes. Heads of state from all over Europe, including the Tsar and Tsarina, were in town for the Congress of Vienna, and the Prince invited them all. The guest list was so long, in fact, that Razumovsky had to build a temporary wooden extension on his palace to accommodate the plethora of glitterati. Sometime in the middle of the night—fortunately after the guests had departed—a fire started in a flue rigged up to heat the extra room. The palace suffered extensive damage, and much of Razumovsky’s invaluable art collection was destroyed.


Thankfully, posterity records the name of Prince Razumovsky for better reasons than his terrible party karma. On that fateful evening, one of the invitees on the guest list who most certainly did not attend was Ludwig van Beethoven. The Prince had good reason to invite him, though by then the composer was completely deaf and not much fun at parties.


Razumovsky was a generous and discerning philanthropist, and a little under ten years before the disastrous night in question, he commissioned Beethoven to write three string quartets. These number seven, eight and nine in the sixteen of Beethoven’s quartets, comprising the bulk of what’s known as the Middle Period Quartets.


The string quartet—that is to say, chamber music for two violins, a viola and a cello—was still a relatively new form in the early 19th century. Haydn and Mozart had been early champions of the genre, but as was the case with nearly every form he took on, Beethoven brought about a revolution. In the quartets, and especially the last five so-called “Late Quartets”, Beethoven crafted a vehicle of such raw and penetrating expression that in many ways, it has never been surpassed. If you listen to the cavatina from his String Quartet No. 13, you get a glimpse into the depths of his very human soul.


Prince Razumovsky clearly knew a good thing when he saw (or heard) it. For that, we owe him a great deal. This holiday season, when you’ve had enough of nauseating renditions of Christmas carols in the mall, go home, sit by the fire and queue up a recording of a Beethoven string quartet. But first, check your flue.