Beethoven String Quartet no. 3 in D, op. 18 no. 3

performed by the Artemis Quartet, or below by the Belcea Quartet

Here we are, finally halfway through Beethoven’s Haydn-inspired (or at least influenced) installment of the six quartets, his first six, published as op. 18. As a matter of fact, this third of the set was actually the first to be composed, despite the next two in the order of composition, later numbered one and two, coming before it in published order.

Wikipedia cites All About Beethoven when it says “[The op. 18 quartets] are thought to demonstrate his total mastery of the classical string quartet as developed by Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Mozart.” Maybe the composer realized the wonderful, gleaming genius of the second-composed quartet, and made it the first for that reason. In any case, and wholly subjectively, I find the third quartet to be very beautiful indeed, but not a breathtaking, historical masterpiece, any more than the other works he penned. In short, it doesn’t stand out as much to me as the first two, but is still masterfully written.

The first movement is in sonata form, with a shorter second subject in relation to the introduction and first subject, and a repeat that the Artemis Quartet observes. It’s a pleasant movement, in cut time, marked allegro. It seems the composer saves any real punch in the movement for the closing phrase after the second subject and the very beginning of the development, where there’s a minor-key shadow cast over the scene. After this follows a somewhat truncated recapitulation with a little coda. He loves his codas, as we shall see. It begins by echoing the melody from the very opening, as well as some other final statements, with lots of accidentals, to wrap up the first movement in D major.

The second movement is in a sort of abbreviated sonata form, with a development section that’s more an extension or variation of the first subject, acting kind of as a recapitulation. After this comes the second subject again, the close to those two, and a lengthier coda. This serves as our slow movement. The part writing is beautiful, the andante con moto is paced slowly enough that we can enjoy the interwoven voices, but never drags. The second subject is more impassioned, and gives the movement more movement! The coda is easily identifiable from the sudden shift to triplet 16th notes in the 2/4 meter, before quoting the earlier themes and dying off (‘smorzando‘) to lead to something more lively.

The third movement is marked allegro, and is a very straightforward scherzo with trio. The scherzo is made up of a jolly, even lilty, melody that bounces up and down in a cheerful but not rambunctious manner. There’s a subtle, Haydnesque smile to the quaintness and subtlety here. The minore part of the movement is the trio, marked by quick eighth note runs that slither around the quartet before returning to the A and B parts of the scherzo, and this is the only movement without any kind of coda.

The finale, marked presto, gives us yet another sonata form movement, complete with two subjects, closing, clear development section, recapitulation, as well as the composer’s penchant for a little coda to end the work. This is at least for me the most exciting, inspired movement of the entire work. Everything up to this point has been well crafted, of course, but it feels Beethoven lets his hair down a little bit, lets go and writes a movement with all the expert structure and classical idiom of the previous movements, but with a breathtaking injection of energy and drive. The development is spectacular, and as brief as it is, it is full of tension and the enormous release that comes upon the moment of the recapitulation is delicious. Beethoven can’t help but give us a little fireworks-filled coda to round out this exciting movement and the quartet overall, but instead of a big bang or thrash of excitement, the whole thing kind of stumbles to a halt, with a few near-inelegant burps from the quartet. It would seem almost a letdown if it weren’t such a comical, tongue-in-cheek way to end this work, and it leaves me very pleased.

I’m not so sure that in a work like this, the composer would have been sitting down and wracking his brain to make some epic statement on humanity, or lay out some manifesto of art, so there’s not much sense in making a whole narrative out of it and analyzing what each turn of events in the work means. However, we get a good glimpse of the composer’s mastery of the quartet form, the style of writing from Haydn and Mozart, and what the composer himself was able to do with it. We’ve only got more than a dozen left to go, so there’s certainly plenty more to enjoy. He definitely had a good start. Stay tuned for a bit more Beethoven in the coming week.

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