Beethoven’s Early String Quartets. Part 1

The music Beethoven wrote during his first few years in Vienna shows a young man first learning the basics of the Viennese style and then trying to make his distinctive mark in it. He deliberately produced works in all of the genres current there, including six string quartets written between 1798 and 1800, published as op. 18. By that time, he had learned the basics of the style of Mozart and Haydn and had started the process of transforming it.

In the sonata forms of the earlier masters, the recapitulation, as we call it now, presented all of the thematic material in the tonic key in a way that provided the movement with symmetry. Sonata form is inherently dramatic, but Mozart and Haydn conceived of it in terms of their comic operas.

Beethoven began to conceive many of his themes in such a way that they could reappear in the recapitulation much louder than in the exposition. The return in the tonic became less a matter of symmetry of form than of triumphal transformation. He was beginning to work on a musical equivalent of tragedy or melodrama rather than comedy. To that end, of course, much else was radical in his sonata forms than just the recapitulations. Here, in order of composition rather than publication, are Beethoven’s first three string quartets

Op. 18 no. 3, in D major

Quite understandably, the first attempt at any new project is likely to be tentative and rely heavily on earlier models. Beethoven’s task in this piece was to learn how to write string quartets, not to make any kind of personal statement. It shows thorough knowledge of Haydn’s latest and best quartets and also draws on aspects of a couple of his London symphonies.

Even in his least adventuresome string quartet, Beethoven explores some unconventional harmonic practices, again showing familiarity with Haydn’s recent work. For example, the slow movement is not in conventional key such as G major (the subdominant, the fourth scale degree). Instead, it is in B-flat major, the sixth scale degree). In the third movement, where the second theme would customarily occur in the dominant (a major key on the fifth scale degree), Beethoven’s is in the mediant (a minor key on the third scale degree).

While the D major quartet has understandably not achieved the level of popularity of the more mature quartets, it is quite beautiful. Quietly cheerful and unpretentious, it exhibits a capacity for flowing melodies and a relaxed lyricism people often don’t recognize in Beethoven’s music.

Op. 18 no. 1, in F major

Where the D major quartet has the effect of quiet lyricism based on melody, that of the F major quartet depends more on rhythm and energy. The first movement attempts to emulate Haydn’s characteristic humor, although Beethoven could not quite bring it off yet. It has more tension and abrupt changes than Haydn’s similar works.

The second movement, Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato, is unusual for a number of reasons. The Italianate style of the movement recalls Mozart, but neither Mozart nor Haydn composed very many slow movements in a minor key, nor did composers often choose 9/8 for a time signature. Early 18th-century composers used “affettuoso” frequently, but by Beethoven’s time the word had gone out of fashion. Later in the 19th century, “appassionato” would become common, but it still unusual when he first used it. Used together, the two words suggest that Beethoven wanted to call attention to how emotional the music is.

Finding the right tone for the movement following such emotional music can be tricky. The Scherzo in this quartet seems somewhat distant and impersonal, and its trio includes an almost grotesque leaping figure. Quite interesting in its own right, it also provides some separation between the intensity of the slow movement and the leisurely rondo. Beethoven must have been pleased with this finale, because he reused some of its most characteristic techniques in later works.

Op. 18 no. 2, in G major

This quartet differs greatly from the preceding one in both mood and structure. Instead of one short theme constantly developing, as in the F major quartet, the G major quartet opens with a series of phrases with no particular similarity that, nonetheless, coalesce into a very convincing theme. One idea cheerfully follows another in a movement with no dramatic contrasts in mood.

The slow movement begins with an ornamented theme presented in a massive and stately manner, with which the fast central section contrasts greatly. Haydn did something of the kind once, but it was certainly novel. The theme of the fast part comes from the cadential phrase that ends the opening part, so the Adagio tempo returns without trouble.

A good-natured Scherzo and a lively Finale round out Beethoven’s closest approach to the urbanity of so many 18th-century quartets. While not as profound as Mozart’s or Haydn’s best work, this unassuming and not particularly ambitious work nonetheless delights for its quiet beauty and charm.

ArchivMusic offers several different recordings of these quartets. Readers can conveniently get to them with the button just to the right of the first paragraph.

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