The three quartets of Beethoven’s op. 59 are known as the Razumovsky string quartets, because they were commissioned by Andreas Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to the Austrian emperor. The first two of them quote Russian themes, and the third has a theme that seems to have a Russian flavor. These quartets are also the first three of the five string quartets from Beethoven’s middle period.
Six of Beethoven’s nine symphonies (no. 3-8) dominate the works of the middle period. As radically different as they are from any earlier symphonies, his string quartets and piano sonatas are more radical still. They often demand symphonic power.
Listeners accustomed to sonata form expect to hear three sections: an exposition of the basic thematic material (which establishes one key, moves to another, and repeats), a development or working out section based on fragments of themes, and a recapitulation in which all of the themes appear again whole, but all in the first key. Sometimes, sonata movements had a coda (or tail) to tie up any loose ends.
Already in his early quartets (op. 18), Beethoven experimented with the formal patterns he had received from Joseph Haydn. Although six years separate the op. 59 quartets from his earlier set, he continued to develop his personal approach to form and structure. What might seem like a wide stylistic gulf between op. 18 no. 6 and op. 59 no. 1 when considering only the quartets turns out to be the result of a gradual evolution of his style.
The F major quartet begins with a flowing melody, but he basic tonality does not become firmly established until it finishes. Then it reappears transformed into a new melody. The second theme, in the dominant key of C major, matches the first in flowing melodic interest. Therefore, the traditional contrast in character between the first and second themes is replaced with contrast between the main themes and the various transitional passages with their short chords and stark dynamic juxtapositions.
Ordinarily, the exposition of a sonata form ends on a contrasting key and then repeats. This one transitions back to F major and the opening melody as expected, but the tonally unstable harmonies that characterize sonata developments appear abruptly. Besides appearing earlier than expected, the development lasts longer. It seems to be headed back to the tonic and the recapitulation some time before it actually arrives. Instead of presenting all the previous material in the original key, the recapitulation veers to a distantly related key for a while and presents familiar themes with new accompaniments. The movement’s climax comes at the beginning of the coda. By this time Beethoven’s codas have become longer and more structurally important than any previous codas.
The second movement sounds like a scherzo. It’s the right meter, tempo, and character, but it turns out to be another sonata movement, again without a repeated exposition. Beethoven introduces short episodes of melancholy, but they are never allowed to overshadow the good-humored overall mood.
The third movement, marked Adagio molto e mesto, again is a sonata without repeat. It opens in a desolate mood, very different from the first two movements. It moved without pause into the Finale. By having the first violin play florid but rather undistinguished passage-work over slow harmonic movement back to F major, Beethoven allows the movement’s tragic mood to dissipate slowly.
The Finale introduces a Russian theme. A theme and variations would seem appropriate for this movement, but it is once again a sonata form, this time with a proper repeated exposition. The original folk tune had a rather elegiac character that didn’t suit Beethoven’s needs, so he ignored it and used it as the basis for a particularly energetic and brilliant movement. He offers a nod to the original mood near the end of the movement before vigorously sweeping it away.