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Beethoven and His Changing String Quartets - by Oscar Lawson

An Essay by Oscar Lawson, Y11 at Warwick School

Beethoven is widely regarded as one of the most masterful and greatest composers of all time. His dynamic journey through life, with him losing his hearing in 1816 at the age of 46, caused a dramatic change in his compositions. Nevertheless, he continued to compose music of an incredibly high standard and was famed for conducting the premiere of his Ninth Symphony in 1824 whilst being unable to hear the orchestra play and only feeling the vibrations of the sound with his inner ear.  During his life, Beethoven wrote sixteen quartets which can be split roughly into three groups by time at which they were composed. As his hearing worsened and was eventually lost, some people theorise that his music becomes more dissonant, which I will explore in Beethoven’s quartets.

The first group of quartets that Beethoven composed are thought to demonstrate his mastery of the classical quartet, following examples lead by Mozart and Haydn. These six quartets tend to take more of a classical influence with clearer melodies, diatonic harmony and more periodical phrasing. The quartets were not actually composed in order of their number but in the time frame of 1798-1800 and published in 1801. At this time Beethoven still had his hearing, however it was starting to become harder for him so I think that the darkness and deep emotion conveyed by his String Quartet No.4 in C Minor really gives us an insight as to how he would have been feeling at this time. This quartet is the only one of the Op. 18 quartets to be set in a minor key, C minor, which seems to be a key Beethoven held back for more dramatic works, such as his Fifth Symphony. The Fourth quartet opens with an allegro movement, radiating a sense of purpose as the cello part helps to drive the intense violin melody forward. This first movement mimics a concerto as the first violin has a fiendish part to play, with sections of the movement almost a battle between the accompanying three parts. This could represent a battle between Beethoven and the world as big, staccato chords are thrown at the first violin which must fight back solo with its own chords. This may link to how he was trying to express his emotions whilst struggling to compose with his ability to hear degrading. After a highly dramatic and emotional finish to the first movement, the irregular structure of the quartet causes acts as a surprise. The normal structure of a quartet (fast movement, slow movement, minuet and trio, fast movement) is not followed by Beethoven as we are presented with a playful Scherzo for the second movement in the key of C major. The opening of this movement is similar in its style to the second movement of his First Symphony as each part enters in a fugal manner. The structure of this movement could be taken as sonata form similarly to the first movement with an exposition, development and recapitulation. Beethoven introduces the main theme and then the middle section is a polyphonic development of these themes. The third movement, ‘Menuetto’, has a fast tempo with an unstable feeling. By now, we have returned to the original key of C minor as the fast progressing ‘Minuet’ section leads us into the ‘Trio’ part of this movement. Beethoven passes two bar phrases between the viola, cello and second violin, whilst the first violin plays rising quavers in a now major key, as if it has discovered something, providing a stark contrast with the previous two movements. Finally, Beethoven rounds of his Fourth Quartet with a C minor Allegro movement in rondo form. The movement opens with an earnest melody played by the first violin which is returned to after each different section of the piece. Each section contrasts the previous, with the second consisting of a more relaxed melody, harmonised lusciously by sustained notes in the lower parts. We then return to the original section, followed by a new episode in the major key. This seems to dash about much more than the previous sections as very quick runs in the violin parts help create tension before returning to the original section for the final time. Beethoven indicates that this should be played ‘prestissimo’ as we are launched to the climax of this movement, concluding his Fourth Quartet with a very bold statement.

The second group of quartets that Beethoven composed in 1806 were commissioned by Prince Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador in Vienna along with two other quartets, ‘Serioso’ and the ‘Harp’ quartet due to the plucked strings in the first movement. I will be focusing on the Razumovsky quartets where Russian melodies were incorporated into the first two to please his patron, but also represent the idea of an individual challenge and triumph as he seeks to overcome his deteriorating hearing ability. These three quartets were written for a new professional string quartet, with lead violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, allowing for Beethoven to explore the technical textural possibilities of string quartets. Beethoven certainly took this opportunity as just from listening, there is a distinct difference between these Op. 59 quartets and his previous classical quartets. His ambitions resulted in a brilliant set of pieces, with more prevalent juxtapositions between fugal themes and Russian country dances. In the first Razumovsky quartet, the longest so far, we immediately see a large difference in style from his earlier quartets. Instead of the first violin being the centre of attention, the cello introduces the F major melody in the opening few bars, shortly followed by an answer from the violin. Unlike the opening perfect cadence of his Fourth Quartet, we are left in harmonic uncertainty until nearly a minute and a half into the piece when we reach a short-lived tonic F. We are immediately thrown back out into a world of changing harmonies and more exploration. This suggests that Beethoven’s writing has developed from the obsession with things being rounded off as he no longer refrains from divulging further than the dominant and relative major/minor keys. At around four minutes into the piece, we come across something that was very rare in his previous quartets. Large amounts of dissonance between all four parts further add to the feeling of instability until there is a sudden movement and release of tension as we are transported to a brief section in the major key, with a luscious melody in the inner parts, decorated by constantly fluctuating semiquavers in the violin part, leading us in yet another direction. Most of the rest of this movement resembles a fugue, which is more typical of a final movement, implying that Beethoven is becoming more experimental in his works. The recapitulation finally finds its way back through all the harmonic shifts after a teasing development, with the opening melody providing some stability for the listener. This all builds up to one final climax, with the next movement seeming to provide comic relief from the previous uncertainty. The second movement, ‘Sempre Scherzando’, meaning ‘always joking, suggests that Beethoven has not lost his sense of humour teases each part with a stationary melody, until some huge dissonant chords are reached. This movement represents the change from his earlier quartets with functional harmony and periodical phrasing to this new style of structural ambiguity and discordant relationships between the instruments. The recurring theme of a battle between instruments is one of a few things to remain unchanged as the quartets develop. I think that this has huge significance as music was a way for Beethoven to portray his emotions, allowing us to connect with his quartets more as it may provoke feelings similar to Beethoven’s at the time of writing them. Beethoven’s mastery of composition allowed him to hide the true structure of this movement, as it is still argued between scholars to this day whether it takes the form of a sonata or alternates between scherzo and trio. This instability and ambiguity of the first Razumovsky quartet could represent Beethoven’s journey through life and feels like he is hoping for the best possible outcome of his situation. The third movement, ‘Adagio’, pulls on the heart strings of the listener as a feeling of lamentation is prevalent throughout the movement, in direct juxtaposition with the previous movement. The slow tempo and thick, sometimes dissonant chords suggest Beethoven’s mental pain as we are brought to a standstill, a ray of hope in the relative major key shines through, reigniting the harmonic journey to Db major before returning us to the home key, landing on a violin trill on C. We are then moved away from this lament as the fourth movement begins in the same manner as the end of the third, with a trill until a pronounced, minor Russian theme is incorporated to please the Prince. He easily manipulates this theme into an emotional journey, where the harmony becomes more functional and the melody more prominent, maybe looking back at the Beethoven in the past where he wishes to have his hearing back. However, his confidence in himself radiates from the music as he says farewell to the Russian melody, repeating it one last time in the original tempo yet in the major key. This is laid aside as the quartet closes with a final triumphant display, providing hope for his future quartets as his hearing doesn’t seem to be affecting the incredibly high quality of Beethoven’s writing.

The last group of quartets written by Beethoven, the ‘Late Quartets’, are a series of quartets that truly represent his struggle with life as he nears the end. Despite his now complete loss of hearing, he was still able to compose yet another set of masterpieces between 1825-6 which at the time were dismissed by the audiences as they were like nothing heard before. Within this group of late quartets, the first three (Quartets 12, 13 and 15) were commissioned by Prince Galitzine whilst the other three were composed at will after recovery from serious illness. However, Beethoven did not last much longer with the final substitute movement for the fiendishly difficult Grosse Fugue in his 13th quartet. This battle with health is explicitly mentioned by Beethoven on the manuscript of the 15th A minor quartet with ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ meaning ‘Holy song of thanks’. Beethoven’s Fifteenth Quartet (op.132) was the second quartet composed in this group and is opened with an allegro movement, as most other quartets do. However, a short, slow introduction to the quartet resembles the Grosse Fugue that was originally part of the Thirteenth Quartet with staggered fugal entries from each part. I have found that the opening of this quartet has astounding similarities to Mendelssohn’s A minor Quartet, as both open in the same way yet also include similar rhythmic features and melodies. This suggests that Beethoven inspired many future works as we can now comprehend the complexity of these quartets and begin to make links to present day music. The four-note motif that starts in the cello is present throughout the whole of the first movement. We are then launched into the start of this movement with sudden chords and frantic semiquavers from the first violin which immediately bring more unrest to the music. So far, this is very unlike any of his other quartets as the short theme is passed between the instruments, instead of following a concerto-like form in his Fourth Quartet where the first violin held the main melody. As the movement progresses, we discover a second theme- a sense of hope to overcome the painful first theme, which transforms the movement and temporarily pushes aside Beethoven’s physical suffering. The first theme is then returned at the end, but more sung out and hopeful, setting the scene for the upcoming second ‘Allegro ma non tanto’ movement. Although not marked as ‘Scherzo’, the movement takes the form of one, with a slightly lighter feeling compared to the previous movement. Even though we are in a major key now, Beethoven seems to hold back the reins unlike in his previous Scherzo second movements where there is no holding back. The large amounts of unison and imitation in this movement contrast heavily to his previous music where there is often a battle between the parts. However, there is still a sense of tension and ambiguity present throughout this movement as it opens on the leading note of the scale (G#) and shortly the combining of rhythmic ideas creates a subtle feeling of imbalance. The rising three crotchet theme of this movement seems to transport the listener to a new world as this almost comic movement sets up a large juxtaposition for the famous movement. This movement expresses Beethoven’s gratefulness to God after a battle with severe illness. Written in the lydian mode, which is very similar to a major scale but has a raised fourth, creating yet again a feeling of instability which is controlled beautifully by Beethoven as it could represent his previous life or death situation. This movement progresses very slowly, almost like a hymn until this outburst into three time with an inverted pedal held in first violin with a trill delivers us into an air of thankfulness and rejoice. The movement alternates between fast and slow sections, providing a contrast between the religious side of the movement and the sheer joy that can be felt radiating out of the music. Beethoven even marks the fast section ‘Neue Kraft fuhlend’ meaning ‘feeling new strength’. We are then introduced to a new concept- 5 movements in the quartet. Although the fourth movement, ‘Alla Marcia’ is very brief and can be seen as a second scherzo or introduction to the final movement, this is a large change in the structure of Beethoven’s quartet writing. Perhaps this is to mark the special occasion of his recovery from what would have been a fatal bowel illness. This short fourth movement in A major is similar to a recitative as it feels more improvised, without much repetition of the melody, acting as a short passage to deliver us to the grand final movement. The last movement, ‘Allegro Appassionato’ takes the form of a rondo (ABACABA) which is not much of a challenge to compose, implying that Beethoven is just happy to be back to normal and expresses this through the music. However, there is a large variety in rhythm and metre as Beethoven concludes one of his last quartets on a high, making everyone aware that he is still capable of introducing complex rhythmical contrast and play around with music in any way he so desires- demonstrating his true mastery of the string quartet in all its different forms.

Throughout his lifetime, as we have seen, Beethoven produced an enormous amount of works which never fail to impress the listener. His innovative nature when it comes to composition guides us through the world of the string quartet, whilst gradual but meaningful changes to his music come to the surface when analysed carefully. The quartets progress from being more classical and similar to works of Haydn or Mozart until they reach a league of their own. Although the unique sense of humour in the Scherzo second movements unique to his quartets, the battle between Beethoven and his health will always find its way into the music whether it be in large chordal battles between the instruments or distressed harmonies. It could be said that the compositions became more dissonant as his hearing degraded, for example the first movement of the 15th quartet, yet it only takes a short look at his other works such as the glorious Ninth Symphony to realise that Beethoven was on the leading edge of exploring harmonies and possibilities in terms of texture and technique. This group of works will forever be treasured as one of the most innovative and masterful of all time, which even people such Shostakovich or Mendelssohn would’ve taken inspiration from when composing their own quartets. Beethoven’s death in 1827 shortly followed the completion of his quartets, leaving behind a legacy and setting the example for future musical masters.