In the course of the eighteenth century the string quartet underwent substantial changes. Earlier string quartet music was intended to be catchy and entertaining. However, in Haydn’s lifetime (without Haydn’s active involvement) the quartet became a format for advanced listening.
Ludwig van Beethoven was a kingpin in the further development of the quartet. Although he is often mentioned in the same context as Haydn and Mozart, he belongs in the emerging Romantic style – he and Schubert died only a year apart. Beethoven turned the quartet into a medium for expressing deep emotions and fathoming the soul, and into a genre that challenged musical form and established practice. His later quartets shatter all conventions and rules. Since Beethoven, mastery of the tight weave and sound body of the quartet has been a benchmark of a composer’s artistic skill. Through this development the quartet rose into the same league as the symphony and piano sonata – ambitious genres with an aura of the genius’s playground, possibly more so than any other kind of ensemble music.
In the first years after his arrival in Vienna, Beethoven was primarily known as a piano virtuoso. At the same time he quickly absorbed the musical standards of the time. When he emerges as a composer he clearly demonstrates that he masters the music and has something to add. Beethoven’s style undergoes dramatic development throughout his career, but his innovations appear sporadically. It is interesting to note how new ideas often seem to appear first in the piano sonatas. Beethoven was one of the great improvisation artists of his time, and his discoveries apparently arise out of performance practice. They are then explored in the homogenous format of the quartet, which provides more scope for polyphony, and are finally spread over a large canvas in the symphonies. From there he reverts to experimentation at the piano.
Opus 18 is his first collection of string quartets, published in 1801. They were commissioned by Prince Lobkowitz, one of three patrons who sponsored Beethoven. Quartet no. 3 was in fact composed first. The playful, ingratiating music demonstrates how well Beethoven already mastered the tradition passed on from Haydn and Mozart. In the fifth quartet he continues the dancing character of the first movement into the second, itself exceptional in being an energetic scherzo rather than the conventional slow cantabile, which follows in the third movement (though this was modelled on a quartet by Mozart). The fourth movement is a masterpiece of polyphonic invention, presenting more of the rhythmic intensity so typical of Beethoven’s music.
Beethoven’s last string quartets from 1825–26 break all the bounds of contemporaneous convention: the total duration, the length of movements, the harmonic logic and how the elements are connected. The music has symphonic proportions, and the rich weave of the parts has symphonic ambitions. These features anticipate both the late Romantic style and that of the present day. The radical quartets were in their time perceived as both chaotic and ‘mad’, and were considered well nigh unplayable. Today however they are regarded as milestones in the classical music heritage. Opus 131 has seven movements and is the longest. Its shortest movement is a miniature lasting less than a minute; the longest lasts almost a quarter of an hour. As in many of Beethoven’s works the music vacillates from introverted to furious, with several elements of robust humour and meditative vivre-de-joie. The typical Beethovenesque ‘through struggle to victory’ dramaturgy is in this case, with its conclusion in the minor, more an expression of reconciliation with life and destiny.
Text: Morten Eide Pedersen
English text: Roger Martin