Morning Mist In The Mountains, by Caspar David Friedrich (1808)
String Quartet in C minor Op.18/4 (1798-1800, Beethoven aged 29)
Dedication Count Johann Georg von Browne
1. Allegro ma non tanto
2. Andante scherzoso quasi allegretto
3. Menuetto: Allegro
4. Allegro – Prestissimo
written by Ben Hogwood
Background and Critical Reception
As part of his preparation for entering into the world of the string quartet, Beethoven copied put two of Mozart’s quartets by hand. Both were part of the six works dedicated to Haydn in 1785 – in G major, K387, and in A major, K464.
This piece became the stimulus for Beethoven’s own A major quartet, published fifth in the Op.18 set. Each commentary explores the relationship between the two pieces, examining the influences and similarities.
Yet, as Ludwig Finscher writes, this is no dutiful homage. Beethoven creates his own inspiration, while also respecting tradition. ‘The thematic material and processes, the 6/8 time signature, and the relaxed, playful tone of the first movement are all typical of the ‘lighter’ works traditionally placed at the end of a quartet opus.’
He describes the A major quartet as being ‘in a different class’ to the previously published work in C minor. It places the Minuet second and the Andante third, for Finscher ‘a demanding slow movement, whose quality is especially evident in the glorious coda’. He also identifies a shift in emphasis towards the last movement in Beethoven’s writing, with ‘a thoroughly densely and imaginatively crafted sonata-form finale.’
This is a ‘sunny side up’ piece of music right from the start, the first violin irrepressible as it breaks into song. The mood prevails throughout the piece but especially in the first movement, where a bright outlook is achieved in spite of some dense part writing.
The Minuet is attractive too, with more of an emphasis on the dance, and an attractive contrasting trio section where the composer uses a drone. The sunny approach continued into the third movement, Beethoven resorting to a theme and variations format for the only time in the Op.18 set. His practice efforts for the piano really bear fruit here, in the winsome written-out trills of the third variation and the slow, hymn like fourth especially.
The finale is indeed dense and eventful, but again the mood is wholly positive. The quartet are busy throughout, Beethoven treating the four protagonists on an equal footing as they exchange ideas and thoughts. The end is softly voiced, the conversation coming to a natural rest.
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)
Végh Quartet (Sándor Végh, Sándor Zöldy (violins), Georges Janzer (viola) & Paul Szabo (cello) (Valois)
There are some highly enjoyable versions here. The two I returned to most were from the Jerusalem and Tokyo quartets, each one bringing out the sunny nature of the work with its many and varied inventions.
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 Gyrowetz Divertissement Op.50
Next up String Quartet in B flat major Op.18/6