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By 1806, when Beethoven began the three string quartets published as his Opus 59, he had already composed many of his middle-period masterpieces. His Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 4, the "Tempest," "Waldstein," and "Appassionata" Sonatas, Fidelio, and the Third and Fourth Symphonies, all lay behind him. He was now firmly established as the leading composer of his time, and yet he decided to seek more intimate triumphs by returning, after six years, to the most rigorous and demanding form of "pure" music, the string quartet.

This genre, originally a medium for dispensable diversions and elegant entertainments before Haydn and Mozart turned it into a vessel for the noble and exalted expression of profound musical ideas, was ideally suited for the private performances underwritten by Beethoven's many devoted patrons. One of the composer's most enthusiastic and effusive supporters was Russia's ambassador to Vienna, Count Andreas Razumovsky, who commissioned the three Opus 59 Quartets, which now bear his name. He was supportive in another important way: He employed a quartet of string players whose talents allowed Beethoven the opportunity to hear his music played with precision and virtuosity. Just as newly designed piano mechanisms permitted the composer to expand his use of the keyboard, the access to these superb players encouraged Beethoven to make ever-greater demands in his quartet writing.

For a whole range of reasons, including his ever-increasing deafness, Beethoven was able, indeed eager, to expand the world of the string quartet in these three works. He even wrote to his publisher, "I am thinking of devoting myself almost entirely to this type of composition."

We must, of course, be grateful that he did not abandon other areas of composition, especially the symphony and the piano sonata, in which he would continue to surpass himself time and time again. There are, however, many music lovers who would name the string quartet as the form in which Beethoven's genius found its most exalted and sublime expression.

The first of the Opus 59 Quartets is the most expansive of the three. Running well over half an hour, it opens with an amiable and supple theme stated in turn by the cello and then the first violin, over a pulsing accompaniment from the middle voices. Thematic fragmentation begins almost immediately, with soloistic passages for each of the four players, and sudden shifts of color and mood leave the listener as dazed as Ignaz Schuppanzigh and the other players who were entrusted with the premiere. When the main theme returns for what sounds like an exposition repeat, Beethoven quickly leads us off into a fanciful and discursive development.

Coming second is not the expected slow movement, but a scherzando sonata-form Allegretto vivace. Here the musical material is equal parts rhythm and melody, with the first statement, again from the cello, comprising the note B-flat repeated fifteen times. The intricate interplay of this rhythm and the enchanting melodic responses to it combine and confront one another in the course of the movement to produce a miraculous example of Beethoven at his most inventive.

Beethoven's most powerful music is often the slowest and sometimes the quietest. This is certainly the case in the third movement of this Quartet, which is marked Adagio molto e mesto (Very slow and sad). A march of what has been called Shakespearean grandeur, the music expresses a private grief in closely harmonized ensemble writing. From time to time, the texture is embellished with decorative passagework that foreshadows the adagios of Beethoven's late quartets.

A cadenza-like passage for the first violin leads directly into the fourth movement. Here Beethoven fulfills a request from Count Razumovsky, who asked that the composer employ a Russian theme in each of the Quartets. Drawn from a published collection of Russian folk songs, the theme is aptly suited for exploitation in Beethoven's most advanced manner. He constructs a fleet and fanciful finale that proceeds, not as Stephen Leacock once wrote, "madly off in all directions," but charges vigorously and directly to the finish line.

- Dennis Bade is the Associate Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.