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About this Piece

Beethoven moved carefully into creative realms; he didn’t venture a string quartet until he was nearly 30, but when he took the plunge he created six works within a couple of years, published as Op. 18 in 1801. These were splendid works, but now understandably looked upon as baby steps in the genre, for in 1806 came the three superb string quartets of Op. 59. Commissioned by Count Andreas Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna, they have immortalized this discerning music patron by being universally identified with his name.

The third of the Op. 59 quartets is traditional in its four-movement form, but tradition-defying in having as its finale a fugue, that specialized breed of music that brings Bach instantly to mind. But what Beethoven devised here is not Bach’s but his own concept of fugue, for this movement develops in a manner that suggests sonata form with fugal treatment. No need to quibble about structure, however, only to confirm that the music is essentially a fugal tour de force, madcap in its dashing intensity and containing an undercurrent of anger and defiance that might be attributed to the composer’s reluctant acceptance of his irreversible deafness.

If the final movement is something of a chamber music stepchild, the third movement is an anomaly in being a minuet, not a scherzo, the latter the composer’s muscular trademark substitution for the classical period’s graceful dance form. To further mystify the nature of the Third Razumovsky is the second movement, a minor-key (A minor) Andante bearing a remote, melancholy cast that is quite unlike anything else by Beethoven. (Was the composer attempting to simulate a Russian theme in honor of Razumovsky, who had asked Beethoven to include a Russian folk song in the quartets, which he did literally in the first two quartets and perhaps only suggestively in the third?)

The seeming contrariness of the composer begins at the beginning, in a halting (teasing?), slow, and pensive introduction that avoids the home key chord of C until the 30th measure. Then the first violin has a mini-cadenza that is a motivic preparation for the vigorous main theme, tended to by the full quartet. An upward step and the following rhythmic unit of the theme’s first five notes prove of major import throughout the movement, while the later somewhat veiled appearance of the slow introduction is similarly another sign post in the movement: Beethoven’s ultra-keen sense of compositional unity is endlessly rewarding. The churning energy of the movement, and in one memorable passage the cessation of forward motion (a kind of catch-me-if-you-can charade that ends with first violin trills and a couple of solo escapades), ends with a brilliant close calculated to provide maximum contrast with the strange and haunting Andante movement that follows.

The very opening of the Andante breathes an air of mystery as the first violin whispers the minor-key theme, with only a pizzicato cello in attendance. The hypnotic effect of the fairly lengthy movement’s harmonic dissonances and pizzicato pedal points is released by an “out in the countryside” melody in major that comes as welcome balm. But the essential remoteness returns, only to be banished by the light and lovely Menuetto. (This movement contains a Trio that Beethoven should have tossed.) The fourth movement follows without a pause, and the madcap four-part fugue that makes up most of the finale is meant to make the listener breathless, as it almost certainly does the string players.