The string quartet for two violins, viola, and cello lies at the center of Beethoven's musical legacy, and this inheritance comes to us from each period in his life.
Early 6 Quartets F, G, D, C minor, A, B-flat Op. 18 1798-1800 Middle 3 Quartets F, E minor, C (Rasumovsky) Op. 59 1805-06 1 Quartet E-flat Op. 74 1809 1 Quartet F minor Op. 95 1810 Late 1 Quartet E-flat Op. 127 1822-25 1 Quartet B-flat Op. 130 1825-26 1 Quartet C# minor Op. 131 1826 1 Quartet A minor Op. 132 1825 1 Quartet B-flat ("Grosse Fuge") Op. 133 1825 1 Quartet F Op. 135 1826
EarlyThe six string quartets of Op. 18 were written over a two-year period, during which the composer had some second thoughts; as a result there are two versions of the Quartet No. 1 in F. Beethoven must have approached this genre with uncharacteristic uncertainty. Haydn's last and greatest string quartets were being written in the same small town at the same time Beethoven was taking his first steps with his. When writing string quartets, Beethoven could not rely upon his ability to improvise or to invent new textures with his ten fingers at the keyboard. His problem, that of integrity of the voices, seems to stem from his lack of dependence on formal counterpoint, although he utilizes it for motivic development and animation of the texture.
Beethoven's individuality is evident in these early quartets in the character of the themes, the frequent unexpected turns of phrase, the unconventional modulations, and some subtleties of formal structure. Each of the quartets in the set has great attractions, but critics have noted that they do not achieve the balance between technique and expressive aim found in other works of the time. Their textures are often richer than anything in Haydn or Mozart, and Beethoven from time to time finds it necessary to write Adagio movements in which the ornamentation is of a florid extravagance resembling that of Bach.
Formal orthodoxy is offset in the Sixth Quartet (B-flat) by a harmonic experiment which is ahead of anything in its time. The last movement is entitled "La Malincolia" (Melancholy). In consists of a slow introduction (melancholy) followed by an Allegretto that is interrupted twice by a weakening "melancholy." The Allegretto, which has presumably "conquered" melancholy, concludes this set of quartets.
MiddleThe three String Quartets of Op. 59 are dedicated to Count Rasumovsky, the Russian Ambassador to Vienna. As a compliment to the Count, Beethoven introduced a Russian melody as the principal theme of the finale of the first quartet, and another in the third movement of the second. These three quartets, composed in the summer and autumn of 1806, occupy an important position in Beethoven's work -- they are the first to exemplify the composer's mature style and characteristic manner of expression in this medium. They are full of the emotional fire, boldness of formal treatment, and striking originality that characterize Beethoven's second period.
In the quartets of Op. 59, as well as in the Eroica Symphony, the sonata form is expanded to unheard-of proportions by the multitude of themes, the long and complex developments, and the extended codas which take on the dimensions and significance of a second development section. Along with this expansion, Beethoven intentionally conceals the formerly clear dividing lines between the various parts of a movement. They demand more from players and listeners than other works of the time, and it is likely that their failure to receive the acclamation which he thought was their due led Beethoven to make his next two Quartets, Op. 74 and Op. 95, more accessible to amateur performers. He had not pampered the players, for he had realized the sonorous potential of the medium, as he did with the piano, in writing for the extreme range of pitches. With the opening measures of Op. 59, No. 1, he expands a three-note texture contained within an octave through a crescendo to an eight-note texture covering over four octaves.
LateThe composition of the five final string quartets occupied Beethoven between 1822 and 1826, but the actual time he spent on them is closer to two years than four. They are as follows:(See also The Three Periods of Beethoven)Op. 127 in E-flat - completed February 1825The three Quartets, Opp. 127, 132, and 130, arose from a commission from the Russian Prince Galitzin. All three were completed in 1825. While there are similarities between them, each is very different from the others. They differ most obviously in their overall organization. Op. 127 is in four movements; Op. 132 has five; and Op. 130 in its huge original form has six movements. One similarity is that in each quartet a deeply felt slow movement is followed without transition by incongruous material. Frequent use of song elements -- folk or operatic -- or songlike melody, together with the written word in the form of titles, tempo indications, and general performance instructions, attempt to communicate the essence of the musical experience.
Op. 132 in A minor - completed July 1825
Op. 130 in B-flat - completed November 1825
Op. 131 in C-sharp minor - completed July 1826
Op. 135 in F - completed October 1826
(Op. 130 in B-flat - substitute finale - completed in November 1826)
In the first movement of the Op. 130 Quartet, of average length for this period, there are sixteen tempo changes and six changes of key signature, ranging from six flats to two sharps. These two signatures, representing the flat submediant and major mediant relationships of the tonic key of B-flat major, give further evidence of the composer's predilections, already present in his second period, for modulations by thirds in his sonata-form expositions.
The two remaining quartets, in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 and in F, Op. 135, are so different that they seem to have sprung from different parents. Op. 131 is the furthest removed from Classical models, having seven movements, each of which flows without pause into the next. It has been described as a "patchwork" and includes the textures and structures of fugue, sonata, and theme and variations, as well as over twenty indications of tempo change, not counting "ritard" and "a tempo." There is also a constant underlay of thematic connection between movements.
The abstract quality of Beethoven's late style is symbolized by the increased extent and importance of contrapuntal textures in the compositions of the third period. It is apparent in the numerous canonic imitations and generally contrapuntal voice-leading of all the late works; it is evidenced specifically by fugatos incorporated in development sections and by complete fugal movements, such as the first movement of the Quartet in C# minor, Op. 131 and the gigantic "Grosse Fuge" (Great Fugue) Quartet Op. 133. The "Grosse Fuge" was originally the finale of Quartet Op. 130 in B-flat, but was so difficult to play and listen to, publishers persuaded Beethoven to publish it separately and compose a new finale for Op. 130.