Beethoven String Quartet no. 4 in Cm, op. 18 no. 4

performed by the Artemis Quartet (an excerpt of their performance there), or below by the Cleveland Quartet

(cover image by Mona Eendra)

It’s been a while since we’ve seen any of the opus 18 string quartets. We’ve only gotten through half of them but we will remedy that rather soon. As you’ve seen, there’s lots of Beethoven in the mix this year, so if you hate him (or think you do; no one actually does), then sorry, not sorry.

The fourth quartet was actually the fifth to be written. (The six quartets of opus 18 were written in the order 3, 1, 2, 5, 4, 6, which means that we’ve still covered the first three and are beginning on second three. Perhaps we should technically be doing the fifth now and not the fourth, but oh well.) The work, like the others, dates from 1800-01, but there’s some discussion that it is based on earlier material from his time in Bonn. I don’t know.

This work is the only quartet of the six op. 18 quartets to be cast in a minor key, Beethoven’s favorite, Cm. We discussed that ever so briefly in the Cm string trio of opus nine, but what we’ll hear today is a different kind of Cm.

This quartet has a duration of a little over 23 minutes, and like all of the op. 18 quartets, is in four movements, as follows:

  1. Allegro ma non tanto
  2. Andante scherzoso quasi allegretto
  3. Menuetto: Allegretto
  4. Allegro – Prestissimo

It’s not a tragic Cm, at least at first, more a very serious one. It has a nervousness, an intensity of purpose. Robert Simpson, who was not only an outstanding composer but also an excellent, clear writer about music, wrote the liner notes for a Hyperion release (or else they used his comments about this work). He says it is “in trenchant mood” and has “a direct shortness of address, a certain impatience with the finesse of transition, and a clear simplicity of texture, with instantly assimilable melodic intervention.”

Could it be said any better than that?

In this first movement, says Simpson, “the sense of movement is as perfect as a cat’s… we feel strong purpose rather than tragedy or pathos often associated with a minor key.” In contrast with all of this description, the E-flat key of the “second group” is very optimistic, refreshing. Do you hear some similarity between them, though, like they’re two sides of the same coin? As a result, the repeat of the exposition seems less like a repeat and more like a continuation.

I won’t talk a whole lot about all the specifics of the work, but as we discussed with the violin sonatas midweek, there’s such a sense of satisfaction in seemingly simple details, like a meal when everything is perfectly cooked, seasoned, presented: there’s a sense that this is how it should be, but it’s actually difficult to do. You could (and should) give credit to the performers (Artemis or Cleveland Quartets) to how they bring the quartet to life, but ultimately, they’re just doing justice to the composer’s intentions. The final phrases of the opening and longest movement give the kind of crunch and fire we might expect from a fire-and-brimstone Beethoven C minor.

The second movement is not actually a slow movement in the way you may think of it. It’s in C major, and rather lighthearted, or at least light. Simpson says it “anticipates in some ways the second movement of the First Symphony, especially in its fugato beginning.” There is such beautiful contrast here with the close of the first movement, and there’s just an overall feeling of mastery, of such a high level of craft. The ‘fugato’ Simpson speaks of couldn’t be clearer, with the four voices intertwining beautifully without being heavily contrapuntal.

The third movement is at first not very serious, but reveals itself to be more serious than rustic, nervous and pushing forward. There’s even a bit of nervous energy in the hum of the underlying triplets in passages that feel like they should be the contrast. We get a bit of a break with a very dainty trio, but it’s not much.

Simpson says of the final movement that “The finale is one of Beethoven’s rare excursions into the Hungarian style of which Haydn was fond.” It is a simple rondo with a much broader second theme, and roars to a dramatic climax where the minor key emerges victorious. Hungarian and Haydn and all that makes it sound…. fun, but for fun or friendly or enjoyable, you might want to go back to the finale of the first or third violin sonatas. This movement has a rustic sense about it, but things get whipped up into quite a frenzy as the work comes to a roaring finish in deliciously Beethovenian style, giving this quartet work a weighty, epic sense.

The second and third movements seem almost purposely mislabeled. The movement labeled ‘scherzo’-ish (the second) is quite light, the supposed slow movement of the work, while the third, the more passionate of the two, in a minor key, is labeled minuet. I find that interesting.

There’s an almost irresistible beauty to works like this in the same way that something simple like a shoe, or a pair of glasses, or the contour of a car’s hood can be so exquisitely, satisfyingly, beautifully proportioned. There’s an exactness in getting those proportions and that shape and contour exactly right, but the result is not cold and calculated. Rather, it’s natural, warm, inviting, and has perhaps the effect of seeming effortless and natural. It could be the supposed inherent beauty of the golden ratio, a contour that’s appealing to the eye relative to other things around it, whatever, but sometimes something seemingly so simple can strike us as having such beauty, and it’s usually out of some kind of restraint, of refinement.

There are certainly areas, even in this work, where Beethoven lets loose and gets pretty intense, but we see in these early pieces of his a really gorgeous aesthetic, that sense of balance and polish in melody, contrast, mood, texture, etc. and it’s something that I am sure we will continue to discover and appreciate as we discover the rest of his output.

But after five Beethoven articles in a row, we’re going to do something else for now, so stay tuned for that this coming week, but it won’t be all that long before we see LvB again. Thank you so much for reading.

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