Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 -1827)
String Quartets (Complete) Vol. 3
String Quartet in A Major, Op. 18, No.5
String Quartet in B Flat Major, Op. 18, No.6
In 1792 Beethoven left his native city of Bonn to seekhis fortune in the imperial capital, Vienna. Five years earlier his patron, theArchbishop of Cologne, a scion of the imperial family, had sent him to Viennawhere he had hoped to have lessons with Mozart. His plans were frustrated bythe illness and subsequent death of his mother, which made it necessary for himto return to Bonn and before long to take charge of the welfare of his youngerbrothers. Beethoven's father, overshadowed by the eminence of his own father, Kapellmeisterto a former Archbishop, had proved inadequate both as a musician and in thefamily, of which his eldest son now took control.
As a boy Beethoven had been trained to continue familytradition as a musician and had followed his father and grandfather as a memberof the archiepiscopal musical establishment. In 1792 he arrived in Vienna withintroductions to various members of the nobility and with the offer of lessonswith Haydn, from whom he later claimed to have learned nothing. There werefurther lessons from the Court Composer, Antonio Salieri, and, perhaps moreimportant, from Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, an expert in counterpoint. Heembarked at once on an initial career as a keyboard virtuoso, skilled both asan executant and in the necessary art of improvisation. He was to establish himself,in the course of time, as a figure of remarkable genius and originality and asa social eccentric, no respecter of persons, his eccentricity all the greaterbecause of his increasing deafness. This last disability made publicperformance, whether as a keyboard-player or in the direction of his own music,more and more difficult, and must have served to encourage the development ofone particular facet of his music, the use of counterpoint, stigmatized byhostile contemporary critics as "learned". He died in Vienna in 1827.
In his sixteen string quartets, the first set of sixpublished in 1801 and the last completed in 1826 and published in the year ofhis death, Beethoven was as innovative as ever, developing and extending a formthat seemed already to have reached a height of perfection in the later work ofHaydn and Mozart. The earliest mention of a string quartet comes in therecorded request of Count Apponyi in 1795. This had no immediate result, but ithas seemed possible that Beethoven in these years might have been influenced byEmanuel Aloys Forster, a musician twenty-two years his senior, whose teaching ofcounterpoint he admired and recommended to others, while profiting, perhaps,from the example of Forster's own quartets. At the same time Beethoven musthave known the later quartets of Mozart and the work of Haydn.
The first group of string quartets by Beethoven,published in 1801 as Opus 18 with a dedication to Prince Lobkowitz,consisted of six quartets written between 1798 and 1800. The third of these wasapparently the first in order of composition, followed by Nos. 1, 2 and 5 andNos. 4 and 6, the last two not to be found in Beethoven's survivingsketch-books, which in general give a possible idea of chronology and aninsight into his methods of composition.
The String Quartet in A Major, Opus 18, No.5,
opens with a first subject that has something of a lilt to it, as it proceeds.
The subsidiary theme appears in the less usual key of E minor, its counterpartin the third section recapitulation now in A minor. Beethoven places the Minuet
second and includes a contrasting Trio in the same key of A major, but withmelodic interest centred at first on the second violin and viola. The D majorAndante is in the form of a theme and five variations, the first allowingimitative entries from the four instruments in ascending order, the second withtriplet rhythm in the first violin and the third with a rapid second violinaccompanying figure in which the first violin joins, while melodic material isshared between the other instruments. The fourth variation is more akin to achorale setting, with a fifth of considerable ingenuity. The quartet ends witha movement in which the rapid principal theme dominates, a contrast to the sustainednotes of the subsidiary thematic material.
The last quartet of the set, the String Quartet in Bflat major, Opus 18, No.6, allows dialogue between first violin and celloin its first subject, reflected in ensuing dialogue between the two violins.
The F major second subject shifts to the minor, allowing further modulationbefore the end of the exposition, which is followed by a development that makesuse of fragments of the principal theme and a varied recapitulation. The E flatsecond movement is marked Adagio ma non troppo and has an opening themebased on the tonic and dominant arpeggios. A variation of this is followed bymaterial of darker hue, before the return of an embellished version of thefirst theme. This leads to a Scherzo of irregular metre, with a whimsical Trioin the same key of B flat. La Malinconia (Melancholy), a piece to beplayed with the greatest delicacy, we are told, now makes its appearance, servingas an introduction to the final rondo, during the course of which it makes abrief re-appearance, seeking to return yet again, but interrupted by the rapidrondo theme that finally prevails.