only now have I learnt how to write quartets
Beethoven wrote to a friend as he worked on his six Opus 18 quartets composed
from 1798 to 1801. He was writing a set of six quartets in conscious emulation
of Mozart and Haydn whose greatest quartets had been published in sets of six
and always included one quartet in a minor key.
The opening theme begins with two declarative
phrases played by the first violin in its lowest register. The theme proceeds
with a series of upward leaps over two octaves with a throbbing cello
accompaniment. The effect is dark, dynamic and dramatic. The second theme is introduced by the second violin
reversing the order of material in the first theme by beginning with an upward
leap. The first violin accompanies the second violin with a delightfully
encouraging motif now in a major key. The mood has brightened but the drama and
drive remain. The development alternates between the two main themes and the
movement concludes on a note of defiant optimism.
The second movement could not be more different.
While the first movement strides boldly into the new century, the second
glances back to the previous one.
Beethoven’s marking for this movement is not exactly precise. It is
customary to play it fairly fast at least for a slow movement. Scherzoso means playfully or jokily, but
this is not the kind of Scherzo that
Beethoven used to replace the minuet in traditional third movements, no this
joke is a joke all on its own.
The movement is in three time and all the main
themes are based on canons although the movement as a whole is in sonata form.
The canon was an old musical form, which goes back to the Middle Ages. The joke
here is the clash between the canon and the more modern sonata form. The
opening canon begins with three repeated notes, played first by the second
violin, followed in turn by the cello, first violin and finally the viola. For
a second subject, Beethoven uses a different canon, beginning as before with
three repeated notes. Here each instrument enters more quickly starting with the
cello and working upwards to the first violin. The heart of the movement is the
development where the canon forms are largely dropped, but the themes
themselves are developed. The climax to this process is when the three repeated
notes are played by all four instruments together in a descending scale. The
canon idea has been abandoned as all four instruments play in unison. The
effect is magical, beautiful and charming. Towards the end of the movement
Beethoven allows the beat to become more prominent nearly turning it into a
For the third movement Beethoven returns to C minor
and the darker world of the first movement. The Minuet has a syncopated surging rhythm to which it would be very
difficult to dance a minuet. The shimmering Trio
provides a delightful contrast.
The final movement is a full on Hungarian rondo.
After the main theme is introduced and played several times, there are two
episodes after which the main theme returns with increasing elaborations and at
faster and faster speeds. The first provides a moment of comparative calm, the
second involves rapidly played triplets introduced on the cello and then played
on the other instruments in turn. This comes as close as string instruments can
get to honking. The main theme returns once more and the final few bars are
marked prestissimo. The rising triplets
return to provide a witty ending to this marvellous quartet.