Beethoven String Quintet in E flat, op. 4

performed by the Endellion String Quartet and David Adams, viola, or below by the Zurich String Quintet

Composed in 1795, Beethoven’s op. 4 was originally an octet written for pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns. That work was given the opus no. 103 due to its late publication date, not composition date. The octet was finished in 1792, but not published until either 1834 or 1837, both years given by Wikipedia (in different articles). It came into the string quintet form in 1795, and it is this form which we will be discussing today. Why?

The op. 4 Wikipedia article mentoins a few differences between the original octet and the quintet, but since we haven’t discussed the octet, nor have I even listened to it, we will treat the subsequent quintet as an original work. In fact, Hyperion calls it “a radical rethinking and expansoin of [the octet] … which was written in Vienna in 1793 where there was an insatiable demand for jolly alfresco wind band music.” It also says that he “made it suaver and more sophisticated.”

It’s yet another step Beethoven takes toward the intimidating string quartet form, the one with which Haydn and Mozart had done such amazing things. We will discuss this idea further in some articles next weekend, but you can understand how uneasy the young composer might be to begin to write a quartet still in the shadows of the great masters. There’s only a sort of technical difference here in the quintet, with the addition of a viola and the extra voice it provides, as we already have the standard four-movement form here. The critical difference lies in what Richard Wigmore (from whom come the Hyperion notes) mentions happened between 1792 and 1795, “his intensive contact with Haydn’s latest symphonies and string quartets,” helping the composer to mature and refine his abilities.

The distinction between the maturity of opus numbers 3 and 4 seems distinct, to me. From the beginning, the opus 4 is bright, crisply clear, full of detail to enjoy, but not at all cumbersome. It also seems perfectly natural for the five strings; there seems to be nothing to suggest that it was originally written for eight winds. The opening figure of notes, or what Wigmore calls a “wriggling semiquaver motif,” appears throughout the first movement without getting old. We are reminded of the imagination the composer had and what he could do with such simple ideas.

We have two clear themes, an exposition repeat, exciting and Beethovenian development, with a delayed reappearance of the opening figure at the recapitulation. Listening to this first movement alone, one might think it odd that the composer waited as long as he did to compose his first string quartet. He certainly seems more than capable here. And do we hear Haydn? What a sweetly beautiful close to the first movement!

The second movement is described as “a relaxed serenade written against the background of a siciliano.” We could talk about the interesting choice of a siciliano, or the “harmonic surprises, of a kind Beethoven surely learnt from Haydn,” but it’s much easier to talk about how beautiful and expressive the work is. It’s not a dance movement, nor is it a mournful slow movement, but a perfect, intoxicating yet understated melody. It’s really exquisite. I remember finding some movements of the op. 3 (or 8?) a little tedious, but everything here is truly irresistible.

The third movement is marked minuetto più allegretto, which seems like an understatement. The movement is notated in 3/4, but is extremely fast, essentially a scherzo. Apparently the original was marked this way, but lacked the second trio that we hear, which is actually a quartet, that second viola not speaking at all in that section. e

The finale also benefits (I assume) from some reworking. Do the figures of this opening remind you of the “wriggling semiquver” of the first movement? It’s certainly as bouncy and light and exciting, if not more so. We have a sonata-rondo form, but expanded here also, with “the frolicking main theme now expanded from twelve to twenty-eight bars.” It’s a short, quick movement, with plenty of charm. Wigmore mentions more pages from Haydn’s book in the way Beethoven hints at but delays returns of themes, but the music doesn’t need any qualifying statements.

The things that stand out most for me, just from reading, since I haven’t listened to the original work, are how Beethoven not just adapted the work for quintet, but added to it, made it more substantial. This says to me that he had increasing confidence with larger forms, with working out material in a satisfying way, not to mention how perfectly it’s suited to an ensemble of five strings. How exciting this is!

It’s elegant, lively, exquisitely written music, full of breathtaking charm but also impressive maturity for such an early work. We’ll hear more preparation for his first published quartet series next weekend, but no one could make the argument that he needed any of the extra practice after hearing this piece. It’s handsome, confident, elegant. I’ll be honest, there are moments of the opus 3 that make me think I could really go without a repeat, or the rest of the movement, not bad, just… good enough, but I feel that this quintet is handsome, bold, and well-presented, just exquisite.

We’ll maybe at some point, eventually, get to the original op. 103, but there’s tons more from Beethoven’s pen I’d rather address. I feel, although this article was short, that singing the praises of such an early work, before even his first string quartets, might seem silly, but there’s something almost indescribable about the beauty and power of Beethoven’s work, as described below:

“You look at opus 1, the three trios. Everything is there.”

Uchida argues that even as early as the first opus numbers, another less revered form in which Beethoven gives us gems, the piano trio, his music already displays what she calls “a peculiar spirituality,” which is such a beautiful way to describe the feeling that this music is irresistibly beautiful, that something about it draws you in as you listen, not that it’s in any way unattractive at any point, but that appreciation for it only increases in a peculiar way I’ve found perhaps only with Beethoven at this point.

In any case, her entire six-minute interview, while not focusing on this work, or even very much on Beethoven’s early output, is still a delight, as Uchida always is. I’m excited to get back around to some more Beethoven, and we’re slowly but surely going to make our way through all of his earliest output. At this point, of the first ten opus numbers, we have everything but 5, 9, and 10, and we’ll be addressing most of those this week, so do stay tuned, and thank you for listening.

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