For many listeners, the string quartet provides at once the most intimate and the most expansive of musical possibilities. The combination of two violins, a viola and a cello playing together was first developed and then nearly perfected by Joseph Haydn in 18th century Austria. Since then its popularity has never waned, and it has remained an important vehicle for musical expression even for composers in the 21st century. Because it requires musicians to play together and listen together, it creates bonds that can almost be palpably felt by listeners. So there is something about these four string voices heard together that satisfies minds and pulls at heart strings, even as it allows for a range of aural possibilities that expand the idea of what music can be.
Ludwig van Beethoven was one of the greatest masters of this form. Some of his works from the “middle period”, in particular the dense and dramatic Rasumovsky Quartets dedicated to the eponymous Count Rasumovsky, are justly celebrated as masterpieces of the genre. The late quartets, among his final compositions, are the most introspective, innovative and even revolutionary music Beethoven ever wrote, breaking the bonds of form and tonality to become intensely personal statements that effectively presaged many future developments in western classical music.
But when he first started composing string quartets, Beethoven was still a young man who was very much under the aegis of his then mentor and teacher Haydn. And he also had to contend with the long shadow cast by that other genius who had been prolific in producing quartets, Mozart. Their quartets were wildly popular, not only because they were more amenable to performance by amateur players in their own homes than pieces involving more instruments, but because the more intimate setting somehow seemed to allow more subtlety, variation and even eccentricity than pieces composed for larger groups and more public gatherings.
It must indeed have been daunting to compose in a form that already had such a wealth of completed and widely beloved works, and thereby invite potentially unfavourable comparison with them. Indeed, when Beethoven began work on his first set of six quartets (which were eventually published together as Opus 18) the great and most celebrated master Haydn was at work on a commission from the wealthy patron Prince Lobkowitz to produce a set of six quartets. (As it happened, the much older Haydn was ultimately able to complete only two of them and part of a third before he died.) They were published in 1800, when Beethoven was yet to turn thirty years of age, and already had a Symphony, several very fine piano sonatas (including the “Pathetique” Sonata) and much else under his belt.
Beethoven actually dedicated his own first quartets, to Haydn, choosing to include six of them together in one set. This was no accident – Beethoven was always very particular about what he published and how, at that stage not allowing many of his compositions to actually get the status of having an Opus number. He was always consciously in total control of the release of his works to the public. To be sure, as one of the first composers to try and live entirely off his compositions rather than settling for a feudal position that would enable him to create music in return for being a sort of upper grade servant of the court or the church, he really did not have much choice in this matter.
So it is interesting that – even in this first group of six quartets – Beethoven moved gradually from the straight and narrow road laid down by his predecessors to new musical territory, even while sticking broadly to the formal rules and the overt obeisance to Haydn. The first few quartets of this set are indeed quite Haydnesque, even slightly derivative in construction, and so to some extent, despite their individual beauty, they are not so memorable. But by the sixth of the set, Beethoven has not only found his own distinctive voice, but used it to create something entirely different from anything Mozart or Haydn could have written.
This makes the Quartet in B Flat Major, Opus 18 No 6, truly an extraordinary work: beautiful in a slightly alarming way, and with some of the most moving passages he ever wrote surrounded by some that border on the burlesque. According his biographer Jan Swafford, in this quartet Beethoven “shaped a narrative both personal and universal. Its subject is the encroachment of depression.” (Jan Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, Faber and Faber 2014, page 253)
At first the opening movement sounds anything but depressed. It is jovial, even jocular, in its theme – but the very slight hint that this liveliness might be a little forced is there if you listen for it, in the modulation of keys and unexpectedly chromatic shifts that occur in the middle of the movement. Even so, this is a movement that ends on what is meant to be a happy note: possibly with too many teeth showing in its grin, but still.
The elegant second movement could have been simply an elongation and elaboration of a beautiful melody, pensive perhaps but undoubtedly gracious. But Beethoven does not allow gracefulness to dominate despite the apparent serenity of the opening theme. The darker shades are evident in a middle section with low rumblings of the cello and most of all in the hesitant tonal shifts and phrases from the two violins, sounding incredibly fragile to the point of being almost unnerving. This mood is reversed to go back to the practised elegance of the opening theme, but by then we listeners know better than to be fooled, for we have experienced and been unsettled by what lies beneath it. And so the closing phrases take the first theme to a more nuanced, sadder level.
The third movement is a Scherzo (“joke”) and here in fact the joke is very much on the listeners, but this time in rhythmic terms. Beethoven’s use of varying rhythms here is sophisticated in the extreme, and almost too much to absorb for the casual listener, as the intricacies require careful attention. On the other hand, careful attention is difficult not just because of the slightly manic nature of the music but because the movement itself is quite short, over before you quite realise what exactly happened.
Then follows what must be one of the most original and musically expressive sections that Beethoven had ever composed up to that point, even taking into account the famous Pathetique Sonata. In a major break from the standard Classical form, Beethoven introduces a long slow introduction to the faster final movement. He puts on this introduction the heading “La Malinconia”(melancholy) although such a heading is really not necessary for the music expresses it so thoroughly. In fact, the slow section is positively tragic in its brooding, sombre intensity – and also yearning in a way that simply cannot be put in words. The violins seem almost to be exhaling this music as it sears through our consciousness. This dark slow theme is then supplanted by a faster dance melody that puts on a show of determined heartiness, but it keeps recurring, as an ominous and strangely beautiful irresistible force. The struggle between the dance – which increasingly falters – and the gathering darkness of the melancholy theme continues to colour the music until the final mad rush to the closing cadences, which make the movement end with a crash.
By any standards this was a remarkable work for its time. Beethoven had already moved into an entirely different musical sphere from the restraints posed by the Classical form, even while staying within its supposedly rigid boundaries. Quite apart from his natural genius and force of personality, what drove this relatively young man to such extremes of feeling that he could produce this music? There are the obvious pointers – unrequited love for one of his titled female students; the as-yet-unnamed fear of his eventual deafness as he constantly felt a humming and ringing in his ears.
But the particular appeal of this music, and its continued ability to move us so deeply, comes from much more than these specifically personal experiences. Ultimately, it is the almost unbelievable ability of Beethoven’s music to summarise the human condition, in all its pathos, striving and glory, that makes even its saddest moments a source of exultation.