Ludwig van Beethoven [1770-1827]
Quartet in C minor Op.18/4 
1. Allegro ma non tanto
2. Scherzo: Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto
3. Menuetto: Allegro and Trio
For 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. This was Beethoven’s minor key quartet for opus 18.
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 at a tempo that is fast 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 a climax 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 dance.
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 episode elaborates a gracious and charming tune, the second involves rapidly played triplets introduced on the cello and then played on the other instruments in turn. The main theme followed by the first episode return and the final few bars are marked prestissimo. The rising triplets return to provide a witty ending to this marvellous quartet.