performed by the Artemis quartet, or below by in a fantastic performance by the Ariel Quartet
And here we are at Beethoven’s first quartets. Like Haydn’s op. 1 and others after, Beethoven’s no. 18 is a collection of six quartets, published in 1801 in Vienna, a commission from Beethoven’s employer’s friend, one Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowitz. Don’t let the low numbers fool you; these are really incredible works.
As the op. 18 Wikipedia page states, “They are thought to demonstrate his total mastery of the classical string quartet as developed by Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Mozart,” with this website cited as the source. It further says that “due to the musical dynamism and the powerful contrasts [the first] is considered the greatest work of the six.”
I don’t know; if that’s so, it’s not because the others are bad, per se, just that this first one is especially great, an excellent beginning to what feels like a really solid collection of quartets.
It’s also worth noting at this point that quartets 1-6 were, unsurprisingly not written in that order. Wikipedia tells us that the order in which they were written is 3, 1, 2, 5, 6, 4, making this no. 1 the second of the quartets to be written. Interestingly, that sequence shows that the early and late halves are still the early and late halves, as the quartets were published in two books of three quartets each. Actually, the only ones that moved out of sequence are 3 and 4.
I was really (really!) impressed by the above Ariel Quartet’s performance of the quartet, and had a look at their website (liked above) and YouTube channel. Their introductory video is below, and in one part, one of the members explains their fascination with the Beethoven string quartet cycle:
While the whole video is (brief and) enjoyable, the relevant quote starts at 0:52. He speaks about how, through the quartets, Beethoven “liberates himself and goes to something completely modern,” and it is this journey that I am very excited to begin. So let’s begin.
There are some openings that have staying power. Not only do they make you say “oh, that’s nice.” It’s not just a pretty tune, but more like the beginning of a story, something that throws a question mark your way and makes you curious to listen. Beethoven’s first four bars do this for me. It makes a quick, exciting statement, and then stops…. twice. And then the end of the phrase comes. There’s some kind of delay, suspense, even though the whole thing happens within eight bars. That’s our first theme. It’s crisp, lively, crunchy, enjoyable. The second subject maintains our dotted eighth with sixteenth notes from the first subject, but is more lyrical and flowing, no dramatic pauses, more unison movement across instruments. There’s a repeat marked in the score for the exposition, which finishes in crunchy, forte C major chords.
The development is, while brief, equally glorious. It is transparent yet fulfilling in that it’s not so ‘developed’ or mutated as to be obscured or unidentifiable. We’re still clearly in the Classical era here, people, but Beethoven is hard at work on changing that. So we have our identifiable little bits of the previous themes, and a wonderful climax is reached with cello and second violin doing fast sixteenth note runs with first violin up in the stratosphere (sort of) before the confident, commanding return of the first theme in the recapitulation, with first violin an octave higher, and cello an octave lower. There’s also a wonderful little coda, dramatic, playful, just creative, that rounds out this splendidly enjoyable first movement of Beethoven’s first (actually second) try at the string quartet.
In stark contrast with the cheery, inviting first movement, we’re at the D minor second movement, a dark, deeply felt funereal thing. Wikipedia says “According to Beethoven’s friend Karl Amenda, the second movement was inspired by the tomb scene from William Shakespeare‘s Romeo and Juliet.” There’s a middle section of the movement that isn’t necessarily brighter, but at least less melancholy; it sounds more like comfort and relief, a breath of less stale air in a time of sadness, with the minor key always hiding in the background. There are four bars of chords followed by long pauses that lead us from f to ppp and the opening material of this movement. It’s not just minor key, it is at times bitter, stormy, angry. These first two movements alone not only make up more playing time than many of Haydn’s earliest works, the emotional ground they cover is stunning. It’s easy to get lost in the second movement and its twist and turns, drama perhaps fitting for a movement inspired by Romeo and Juliet. How do you anticipate the movement ends?
The following two movement are noticeably shorter. The scherzo is half the length of any of the previous movements. It’s bouncy and lighthearted, but not without soul. It sounds more like something a young Mozart might write than anything else so far, with bouncy, offbeats and jumps that mark the humorous beginning of the trio. The trio in this case is not the quiet repose from a lively scherzo, but a good-natured jaunt.
The final movement continues the buoyant energy of the scherzo in a manner that reminds me of the first movement. Our brief, crisp pauses are back to add a jocund freshness to the final movement, but not without passing through a few hints of minor keys. There’s crunch and contrast, delicacy and heft, thickly-played unison sections, and it’s a well balanced, rounded out end to a really filled-out, solid quartet. Wikipedia says of the finale:
The theme of the finale is almost directly borrowed from the finale of his earlier string trio, Op. 9, No. 3 in C minor; the themes are very closely related. The principal theme of the first movement echoes that of Haydn‘s Opus 50, No. 1 quartet.
So maybe he’d test driven this theme before. We’ve talked about the earliest string trios (and his earliest published works, op. 1), but not those yet, so maybe that’s part of the charm here. Who knows?
In any case, Beethoven’s first string quartet is a serious work in the sense that it demands attention. We haven’t yet gotten to the masterpieces that Mozart or Haydn would contribute to the string quartet repertoire, but Beethoven’s first is an indication of the great heights to which these masters brought the quartet. We will get there eventually.
There’s a certain substance to everything we’ve covered of Beethoven’s, where something that seems simple or insignificant or straightforward keeps giving more to enjoy the more you look, more detail, and you see the genius that this man had, and it blows my mind.
To think that we have been graced with fifteen more string quartets of Beethoven, all the sonatas, the trios, everything… as with Mozart, it’s sometimes a bit overwhelming for me, that there’s so much more music left to learn about, but looking at it another way, what a wealth of music we have to enjoy, a treasure trove of symphonies and sonatas to savor, and to have just touched the beginnings of what truly is a journey to something “completely modern.” Stay tuned.