In 1792, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) left his hometown of Bonn for what was meant to be a temporary stay in Vienna, so he could, as his patron put it, “receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.” Beethoven did study briefly with Haydn, but he abandoned his plan to return home once he saw that he could follow in Mozart’s footsteps and make a living as a freelance pianist. Beethoven’s composing during those first years in Vienna naturally centered on his own keyboard instrument, and he shied away from two genres in particular that were dominated by Haydn: symphonies and string quartets. Beethoven finally came out with his first set of six quartets in 1800, published as his Opus 18, and he released his Symphony No. 1 later in that same breakout year.
Following Haydn’s successful formula, the String Quartet in B-flat Major (Op. 18, No. 6) makes the most of its clear and well-delineated contrasts, and yet there are already signs of Beethoven’s determination to edge toward new extremes, starting with the first movement’s rather brisk tempo of Allegro con brio. In the slow movement, the most heightened expression comes in a dramatic minor-key section marked by unison lines, austere counterpoint and unexpected accents. After the Scherzo—Beethoven’s faster and rowdier answer to Haydn’s signature minuets—the slow movement’s quasi-operatic attitude returns in a slow introduction labeled La Malinconia (Melancholy). Even once the dancelike body of the finale arrives, the melancholy remains close at hand, returning for several short interjections.
After that first decade in Vienna spent mastering the established style and measuring up to Haydn, Beethoven attained a new level of refinement and independence with the works from his so-called “middle period,” including five string quartets. The first three, composed in 1806 and published together as Opus 59 in 1808, are still known by the name of the man who commissioned them: Count Andreas Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to the imperial court in Vienna. Just as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 from 1804 set a new standard for how substantial and rigorous a symphony could be, the “Razumovsky” Quartets pushed the limits of the string quartet genre, especially the first two, each lasting in the range of 40 minutes.
We tend to think of Beethoven’s “middle period” style as one in which the motives are reduced down to bare essentials, but the initial theme of the String Quartet in F Major (Op. 59, No. 1) is actually quite sweet and tuneful, appearing in matched phrases from the cello and first violin over simple pulses from the middle voices. Later that theme breaks into fragments for Beethoven’s typical process of rigorous development. The Scherzo is more representative of Beethoven’s radical evolution as a composer in those years; here the primary motive is stripped of all melodic shape, appearing simply as a four-measure rhythmic pattern. The third movement, marked “Very slow and sad,” is the longest portion of the quartet, constructed in a full-figured sonata form. Rather than reaching a stable resolution in its home key of F minor, it lands on an unresolved chord that moves without pause into the finale. In a nod to the patron who commissioned the quartet, Beethoven built the closing movement around a Russian tune he found in a printed songbook.
© 2019 Aaron Grad.
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