Beethoven’s Early String Quartets. Part 2

Op. 18 no. 4, in C minor

As I wrote in the introduction to the first article in this series, sonata form is inherently dramatic, but where Haydn and Mozart conceived theirs in terms of comic opera, Beethoven, even in his early works, often sought a more melodramatic or even tragic effect. His music in C minor always displays great dramatic tension.

The opening movement of this quartet is less stormy than many of Beethoven’s C minor movements. The dark but lyrical opening theme flows congenially enough, but Beethoven subjects his material to a number of new harmonies and textures. In fact, this sometimes menacing and passionate movement exhibits a richer texture than the first movements of any of the other op. 18 string quartets.

Oddly enough, this quartet has no slow movement. Its second movement is the scherzo that had become fairly typical for string quarts; the third movement comprises the older minuet that had long formed third movements of symphonies. Both rely heavily on fugal procedures. The scherzo has a light and playful mood, helped along by counterpoint that pointedly breaks lots of rules. In fact, to anyone who understands all of the conventional techniques and rules, it is even funny, like much of Haydn’s music. The minuet returns to the passionate and somber mood of the opening. In fact, Beethoven enhances the disquieting aspect of the movement by instructing that the reprise of the first part be played at a faster tempo.

The quartet concludes with a Haydnesque rondo. The lively main theme, played several times, alternates with a lyrical first episode and a rather ill-tempered second episode. The final appearance of the main theme cheats the listeners’ expectation not once but twice. It begins at a very fast tempo as if it intends to build to a climax. Instead of the climax, it appears to head towards a quiet ending in C major. Again, it switches gears and the quartet ends loudly with a brusque reminder of the central episode.

Op. 18 no. 5, in A major

Beethoven follows the most forceful quartet of the set with the quietest. The opening movement is conventional and almost old-fashioned, except that the second theme is in a minor key instead of the expected major and when the listener expects the opening theme to return after the development, Beethoven delays it. What sound like a scale passage in the cello descending to the tonic key winds up half a step too high, and it takes several measures for everyone to wind up in the right place.

The apparent simplicity of the second movement (a minuet) conceals excellent contrapuntal workmanship. By this time in his career Beethoven felt comfortable enough in his technique and craft that he had no need to call attention to it. The occasional loud or heavily accented passages do not contribute to a stormy mood, as in the C minor string quartet, but rather to a cheerful good time. The third movement, a theme and five variations, likewise exudes fun and, at the end, toys playfully with distant keys before returning gradually to the tonic.

The quartet ends with another sonata movement. Beethoven weaves various textures very skillfully. He allows himself a dramatic moment in the development before ending the quartet very quietly.

Op. 18 no. 6, in B-flat major

Conventionally sonata movements (whether in a piece called a sonata, symphony, string quartet, or whatever else) have the greatest emotional weight in the first movement. In his sixth string quartet, Beethoven experimented with moving the weight to the end. Therefore, the first movement is lively and pleasant, but almost trivial. He provides just enough incidental niceties of texture and modulations to keep it from being boring.

The slow movement, somewhat more substantial, displaying some very resourceful and deft changes in texture. Elegant and graceful, it still lacks really distinguished thematic material. The scherzo shows still more character and originality, with then-unconventional rhythms, the collapse of what seemed to be an exhilarating climax, and other touches of rough comedy.

All of that sets the stage for the finale, subtitled La Malanconia (Melancholy), a sonata form with a slow introduction. The opening adagio immediately begins to explore some weird chromatic, almost atonal harmonies, punctuated with many abrupt changes from soft to loud and back again. Beethoven follows this with a quick dancelike movement. It is curiously conventional, but at the point where it ought to end, Beethoven brings back the eeriness of the adagio. The slow and fast ideas alternate for a while before the fast one wins out. As it unsure it has shaken the slow idea, the quartet gets faster and faster from there to the end.

Conclusion

Except for the one in B-flat major, each of these string quartets rely heavily on particular quartets of Haydn and Mozart as models, although the whole set also shows lessons Beethoven had absorbed from some of their lesser contemporaries. In each case, he falls short of his models. During his early period, he had mastered the basic techniques he used, but had still not quite gotten the hang of the subtleties.

The most experimental of the set, the last quartet, is in many ways the least satisfactory, but it shows great imagination and ambition. At this time of his career, he was a very good composer. Greatness would come once his command of the subtleties matched his ambition.

Again, I call attention to the link for ArchivMusic. If you want a recording of these quartets, or any other classical music, it’s a wonderful source.


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