Beethoven String Quartet no. 6 in B flat, op. 18, no. 6

performed by the Artemis Quartet or below by the Alban Berg Quartett

(cover image by Shane Stagner)

Well, here we are, the final installment of the groundbreaking op. 18 quartets.

Op. 18 no. 6 is the only one of the set with the ‘correct’ spot in the order of works. It is the last in the set, and was the last to be composed. All the others were shuffled around a bit (e.g. no. 3 was composed first, etc.)

And also…. the works aren’t groundbreaking in the sense of being innovating, which I suppose is what that word means, but specifically to his career, they were breakout pieces. After he’d written a series of piano trios, string trios, violin sonatas, and a piano concerto, among other works, he published six string quartets that showed beyond any shadow of a doubt he had pretty solid mastery over the quartet form and tradition as handed down from Haydn and Mozart.

And we’ll hear a bit of both of them (or at least their legacy) in today’s work, as well.

I won’t go so far as to say ‘we get the first glimpses of the most mature Beethoven’ or ‘this is his first…’ anything, but these are magnificent works, even if the later ones are even greater. Today’s sixth quartet is the crown jewel in this bundle of a half-dozen already excellent quartets.

The work, as with all the op. 18 quartets, is in four movements, as follows:

  1. Allegro con brio
  2. Adagio ma non troppo
  3. Scherzo: Allegro
  4. La Malinconia: Adagio – Allegretto quasi Allegro

The final movement, in the recording by the Artemis quartet, is divided into two tracks, the adagio first part and the subsequent allegretto, which I find odd, because in total it’s still only about an eight-minute movement or less.

The first movement is in sonata form, and I used the word ‘groundbreaking’ above, but this first movement is certainly not that. Beauty doesn’t have to be, though. As with the fifth quartet (composed fourth), this movement is marked by simplicity, a straightforwardness that tips its hat to Mozart. There’s a jovial dialogue between violin and cello in the first theme, and this movement is easy to follow. ‘Mile markers’ like the repeat of the exposition, beginning of the development, and recapitulation are very easy to spot, like seams in this work, and there’s no coda to end this movement. It’s full of charm.

The second movement is also quite simple, but as Robert Cummings at AllMusic states, “his simplicity has a sophistication,” or perhaps if that word seems stuffy or elitist to you, I’d describe it as a ‘refinement.’ This movement is in ternary form, with a yet again charming first theme and a more lugubrious central contrast. This kind of sublime simplicity is like the perfection of Italian food: there are only a few ingredients, but they are perfectly fresh, immaculately prepared and presented, creating an illusion of effortlessness. The original theme returns with a brief coda and we can savor the results of Beethoven’s craft.

The third movement shows that we have suitable contrasts not only inside movements but across movements as well. The playfulness and sense of freedom of the scherzo is heightened against the mood of the second movement, and things like syncopation and a dash of humor make this very small third course quite delectable. Even the abrupt manner of its conclusion is charming.

The three previous movements seem like setups for the finale, not only of this quartet, but this entire set. It is a very fine example of the tension that can be created by contrast and use of themes and all those technical things we talk about a lot. But tension and conflict don’t have to be antagonistic. The subtitle of this movement (and apparently, for some, the entire quartet) is La Malinconia, or ‘melancholy.’ The opening adagio is certainly somber, the most serious thing we’ve heard in the work so far.

Like some sort of musical doorway effect, we realize we’ve moved into a new environment, and while we haven’t actually entirely forgotten everything that came before, it does seem wildly different. Here we seem to be hearing true Beethoven, beyond the winks to his teachers. This adagio establishes a mood that the allegretto suddenly breaks, and we are off on a tug-of-war between these themes, and it could be in this juxtaposition that there’s a sort of crystallization of Beethoven as the composer he would eventually become. There is a distinct ratcheting up of energy, momentum generated through revisits back and forth between these two themes, getting shorter and yet more intense. This finally culminates in a slowed down presentation of the allegretto theme with a surprise prestissimo finish, the fastest marking LvB used. It’s an explosion of excitement and the overall effect is so well achieved.

It might be bittersweet, though, realizing that after the opus 18 quartets, it wouldn’t be until the op. 59 quartets that we’ll have another listen at his next installments in the form. Thankfully, though, we already have them, and we’ll get around to them before very long. First, though, please stay tuned for some excellent music we have coming up to round out the month. At the time of this post I am on vacation, the first I’ve had in far too long, but the advantage of scheduling months ahead is that you can write almost that far ahead. We’re working up to something monumental in another month or so, and I’m very excited about it. Thanks so much for reading.

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