Beethoven, String Quartet in F, Op. 18, No. 1

Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827

String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1, 1798-1800

Ludwig van BeethovenA great adage attributed to Malraux insists that an artist paints a tree not because he has seen a tree, but because he has seen a painting of a tree. A musical style is born not with its first pioneer but with the first follower. Joseph Haydn was the original string quartet pioneer, establishing the genre in a remarkable series of works that reached first maturity in 1771. Mozart was the first follower. Around the age of 28, freshly relocated to Vienna, he plunged into a multi-year study of Haydn’s quartets (along with Bach’s counterpoint) and with significant labor, produced his six masterworks dedicated lovingly to Haydn himself. There were slews of Haydn imitators, but history has winnowed our awareness down to the few of startling originality and expressive power. First Mozart. Then Beethoven. In an odd parallel to Mozart, Beethoven, around 28, freshly relocated in Vienna and, armed with recent lessons in counterpoint from Albrechtsberger, turned to the string quartet for the first time. He too focused obsessively for nearly two years and produced, along with piles of sketchbooks, his set of six quartets, Op. 18 that were published, auspiciously, in 1801, the first year of the 19th century. In a thirty-year period, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven crystallized the high Classical style of Viennese chamber music in a magnificent canon of quartets that represented a radical innovation, a sea change from the Baroque into a new, highly refined rhetoric of music discourse, expression and exploration inseparable from this new-fangled ensemble called the string quartet.

The String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1 begins one of the greatest cycles of music in the entire Western Classical canon, the sixteen quartets of Beethoven spanning the whole of his creative life. Composed between 1798 and 1800, the six Op. 18 quartets show an astonishing mastery of the language of Haydn and Mozart, a language that Beethoven used nonetheless to express his own emerging personality and to demonstrate his own relentless innovative creativity. These are “classical” works in the truest sense: Beethoven’s closest “imitation” of Haydn and Mozart before he would revolutionize the genre with his next set, Op. 59. Naturally considered to be from Beethoven’s “early” period, the Op. 18 quartets reveal, in all their variety and complexity, all the elements of Beethoven’s middle and late styles albeit clear perhaps only in retrospect. Actually the second quartet that he composed, the F Major was placed first within the published Op. 18 set by Beethoven. For its energy, drama and craftsmanship, it is a perfect opening move, a showcase for this new young maverick to break ground in a daunting and already mature tradition.

opening motiveThe opening Allegro con brio demonstrates one of the chief characteristics of the Viennese style: the motive or motif. The music begins with a fleet, six-note figure. Not so evolved as a melody or a theme, it is a small musical fragment clearly recognized by its rhythmic and melodic profile. In this sense, a “motif” is a musical cell that tiles the majority of the music like the minute, repetitive textural patterns in wallpaper or skin. It is nearly omnipresent though it shifts and changes throughout the music. The artful use of short motifs to create drama and variation while sustaining a specific unique signature with the music was a central design principle for Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (and Bach). The motif weaves a fabric that is draped over the sonata form, a plan for harmonic and sectional drama, a narrative journey of highly articulated musical development. Beethoven’s first sonata for string quartet features an intense development bristling with contrapuntal juxtapositions of the motif through a jarring series of chord and key changes. The conclusion finds Beethoven in one of his earliest great “afterthoughts”, the coda following the recapitulation, wherein he would further explore and conclusively exhaust the momentum of his giant musical thoughts with magnificent endings like brilliant bows tied around brilliant packages. This first movement also highlights that Beethoven inherited the string quartet with a fully mature and independent cello part, a feat slowly established in the quartets of Haydn and Mozart and cemented in the early chamber works of Beethoven, especially the string trios and the very first classical cello sonatas on record.

Romeo and JulietAs if to demonstrate the full polarity of his expressive powers, Beethoven follows the brisk, energetic and bright musical finesse of the first movement with a profound contrast: darkness, tragedy and the disruption of time through silence and terror. There is ample historical evidence to support the claim that Beethoven had the tomb scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in mind when he composed this startling movement. With shrouded, midnight gloom and the wrenching pathos of an Italian Opera aria, Beethoven conjures an extraordinary mood that seems to move from elegiac sorrow to suspense, from lyrical, tender reflection to horrible revelation with music that rises then rhythmically stabs, shot through with electric veins of agony and gaping pauses of shock, final sighs and death. The music need not tell this specific story, but the story conveniently suggests apt metaphors for how the music moves emotionally in this longest movement of the quartet, its center of gravity. Beethoven was rather emphatic in labeling the movement Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato. And here Beethoven goes far beyond Haydn in writing with an emotional intensity that must have shocked his contemporaries. Only Mozart would occasionally broach such depths in his own chamber music.

Oreo cookieThe majority of string quartets (and symphonies) of the Viennese tradition featured a dance movement originally derived from the French minuet. Haydn was a master of this “minuet and trio” that typically featured a deft triple meter in a three-part form much like an Oreo cookie. The trio is the cream in the middle, a musical departure for contrast that usually changed key, mood and musical texture before returning to the beginning as a reprise, the other matching side of the cookie. Eventually, the hallmarks of this dance movement came to be rhythmic finesse, humor (or, more subtly, musical wit) and an ever-faster tempo until it acquired the name “scherzo” (Italian for “joke”) first used by Haydn himself. Beethoven’s scherzi further intensified the drift from idealized dance to rhythmic tour de force with the gentle minuet meter revved up to where the measures pass with a swift one-count-to-the-bar feel. The Scherzo at hand is a perfect illustration with its driving pulse, syncopations, brusque accents and a musical line that seems to ratchet ever upward. The trio raises the pitch even higher shifting to a concertante texture where the first violin scurries through a nervous musical scrawl as the others revel in rustic octave leaps.

Ludwig van BeethovenBeethoven concludes his “first” quartet with another motif-driven movement, a dazzling little flourish that recalls both Mozart and Bach. While the motif plays a central role, this music is rich with a variety of musical ideas, an abundant cornucopia that is almost obscene, especially when compared with the obsessive monothematicism of the first movement. Here again the influence is most definitely Mozart. Essential to the classical Viennese style is the rich infusion of counterpoint rescued, as it were, from the high Baroque and married with the fad for gallant, dramatic expressiveness that had temporarily abandoned such writing as old-fashioned pedantry. Haydn, Mozart and quintessentially Beethoven all invested their chamber music with a dazzling array of contrapuntal techniques and processes that so perfectly matched the independent part-writing possibilities of this “new” string quartet ensemble. Here, Beethoven deploys the frothy flourish motif in two sections of fugato, little swatches of fugue that invest the musical development with a special kind of intensification through obsession. This was the first extended example of this kind of learned counterpoint in Beethoven’s quartets, and it was merely the beginning. Throughout the ensuing series of sixteen quartets, Beethoven would repeatedly drive the concept of fugue to such extended lengths that his purview of radical innovation would even extend backwards to this technique—a technique considered archaic even before the death of Bach. Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn would all freely and organically intermix this kind of linear part-writing with the vertical chords and “accompanied” melody of the gallant in a fresh, complex amalgam that was yet another hallmark of Viennese classicism. Here was a very specific and highly cultivated musical genre pioneered by Haydn, invested with divine perfection by Mozart and, eventually, revolutionized by the giant force of Beethoven to contain all the power, intellect, beauty, violence, personal passion and transcendent profundity that any music could ever hold.

© Kai Christiansen and Music at Kohl Mansion. All rights reserved.

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