String Quartet, Op. 18, No. 6
Ludwig van Beethoven
Please read the program notes here.
Beethoven successfully staved off the pressure of high expectations that came with writing a string quartet through much of his first decade in Vienna. It wasn’t until 1798 that Prince Lobkowitz (for whom Haydn also wrote string quartets) commissioned from Beethoven a set of six quartets that became Op. 18. The set was finished in 1801. While each Op. 18 quartet is highly inventive, Beethoven’s equalization of part writing and his exploration of variations on a theme are particularly evident in No. 6.
No. 6 is Beethoven’s answer to “Papa” Haydn, and we can hear this in the texture of the first movement, Allegro con brio. The movement begins rather modestly, the theme’s importance growing as it moves through turn figures and elegantly dotted rhythms.
The second movement, Adagio ma non troppo, is truly exquisite – one of the most expressive of the composer’s early slow movements. Its simplicity of form and major/minor contrasts among sections hold the listener’s attention, as do the sudden swells in dynamics, and the coda, which recalls the minor mode of the middle section. The Adagio comes to an end with two gentle pizzicato chords.
The Scherzo starts out like the tumbling act of a circus troupe – with syncopations and quick, bouncy surges. After two movements of basically straightforward rhythmic patterns, the Scherzo is a blast of vivacity and rhythmic eccentricity. Nevertheless, the heart of the quartet is the fourth movement, labeled La malinconia: Adagio; Allegretto quasi allegro.
Perhaps the only thing that could trump the rhythmic genius of the Scherzo is the stunning harmonic spectrum of this finale. The “Melancholy” introduction makes way for a merry 3/8 Allegretto. Then, suddenly, between measures 195-212, the Malinconia of the beginning and the Allegretto (Tempo I) begin an agitated trade off with one another, pulling the listener in two very different directions. Finally, the main Allegretto theme returns, though at a much-slowed Poco adagio leading into a Prestissimo (the fastest tempo marking found anywhere in Beethoven’s works) that sweeps to the end in a rhythmic unison of fortissimo 16th notes.
— Jessie Rothwell