Listening to Beethoven #153 – String Quartet in F major Op.18/1

Op181-Morning_in_the_Mountains

Morning in the mountains, by Caspar David Friedrich (1822-23)

String Quartet in F major Op.18/1 (1798-1800, Beethoven aged 29)

Dedication Count Johann Georg von Browne
Duration 24′

1. Allegro con brio
2. Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato
3. Scherzo: Allegro molto
4. Allegro

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s entry into the string quartet arena was carefully calculated – as it was with the symphony and the piano concerto. As Ludwig Finscher writes in an absorbing booklet note for Deutsche Grammophon’s recording from the Melos Quartet, no fewer than 18 young contemporaries published a set of string quartets as their Op.1 in the two decades leading up to 1800.

Beethoven’s set of six was no accident, taking a format used by Haydn (Op.76) and Mozart (the ‘Haydn’ quartets). The order in which the six works were placed was no accident either – with Op.18/3 completed ahead of this piece. Yet Op.18/1 was considered the best with which to start, as ‘the most modern of the six in form and content’, according to Finscher.

He talks about the work achieving ‘an originality of musical language which goes far beyond the personal tone of earlier chamber music’, citing how the piece made unusual demands on its audience – ‘basing an entire movement on the elaboration of a single two-bar motive was something completely new’. The slow movement, too, ‘intensifies the language of the classical quartet to the point where it becomes a medium of immeasurable emotional expression’. Here Beethoven is said to have been thinking about the scene at the tomb in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

The third movement is now a fully-fledged scherzo, where once a minuet would have been the norm, Beethoven now taking the opportunity to use this movement as a springboard for radical new ideas rather than conforming to a dance. Only the last movement, says Finscher, is ‘relatively innocuous’.

Thoughts

It is indeed striking how assured Beethoven’s command of the string quartet is from the off in this piece, as though it is a moment he has been waiting on for a long time. His careful preparation by writing extensively from string trio has helped enormously, and the interplay between the instruments is that of an experienced hand rather than a beginner.

Although Haydn and Mozart provide inspiration for certain elements of his quartet writing, and a tradition he can append to, this is a wholly new direction for the string quartet. As Finscher says, the use of small motifs – as well as silence – from the off is striking. The first few bar seem innocuous to begin with but they power the whole piece, and once heard a few times cannot be forgotten. The first movement unfolds in such a fluent fashion that each development of the theme feels inevitable, even when Beethoven is achieving unusual harmonic movements for the day.

Those movements play a big part in the Adagio, set in the darker key of D minor. It is uncommonly expressive from the outset, building on some of Haydn’s late slow movements but setting an emotional bar which looks back to some of the outpourings of a composer such as C.P.E. Bach. The movement is lengthy but as it develops the intensity grows still further. Such is the strength of feeling the listener does not notice that the formal constraints have become secondary to the notes themselves.

The shadowy features of the scherzo are fascinating, certainly not music for the dancefloor of the newly arrived nineteenth-century with their syncopations, still less the dramatic trio section in the middle. The finale may be less radical but we almost need that reassurance from Beethoven, and in any case it has an attractive, florid violin line of Italian flavour to begin with. Audiences of the day would surely have taken reassurance that the form hadn’t lost sight of its roots – but would be under no illusion of Beethoven’s intentions to develop it beyond all recognition.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Quatuor Mosaïques (Andrea Bischof, Erich Höbarth (violins), Anita Mitterer (viola), Christophe Coin (cello)
Melos Quartet (Wilhelm Melcher and Gerhard Voss (violins), Hermann Voss (viola), Peter Buck (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Borodin String Quartet (Ruben Aharonian, Andrei Abramenkov (violins), Igor Naidin (viola), Valentin Berlinsky (cello) (Chandos)
Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Károly Schranz (violins), Roger Tapping (viola), Andras Fejér (Decca)
Jerusalem Quartet (Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler (violins), Ori Kam (viola), Kyril Zlotnikov (cello) (Harmonia Mundi)
Tokyo String Quartet (Peter Oundjian, Kikuei Ikeda (violins), Kazuhide Isomura (viola), Sadao Harada (cello) (BMG)
Belcea Quartet (Corina Belcea, Axel Schacher (violins), Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola), Antoine Lederlin (cello) (Zig Zag)

Edward Dusinberre, violinist in the Takács Quartet, is the author of a fascinating book called Beethoven for a Later Age: The Journey of a String Quartet, where he talks about the particular pleasures and challenges of playing Beethoven. It provides a fascinating guide to the music and to their own version, which captures the forward-looking elements of which Finscher writes.

However the Quatuor Mosaïques, one of the only period-instrument ensembles to tackle Beethoven thus far, give a wonderful account, with searching depth in the slow movement and light-fingered panache in the quick music elsewhere. There are too many other recordings of the quartets to include here, but other very fine readings exist from the Melos, Jerusalem, Belcea and Borodin String Quartets. You can try all these for yourselves below!

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1800 Krommer String Quartet in D major Op.18/1

Next up String Quartet in G major Op.18/2

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