Ship on the River Elbe in the Early Morning Mist, by Caspar David Friedrich (c1821)
String Quartet in B flat major Op.18/6 (1798-1800, Beethoven aged 29)
Dedication Count Johann Georg von Browne
1. Allegro con brio
2. Adagio ma non troppo
3. Scherzo: Allegro
4. La Malinconia: Adagio – Allegretto quasi Allegro
written by Ben Hogwood
Background and Critical Reception
The sixth and final quartet of Op.18/6 set was also the last to be finished. Many Beethoven writers see this as the most emotive work of the six, and also the one with most pointers towards future developments in the composer’s music.
Ludwig Finscher again, in his booklet notes for the Melos Quartet recordings on Deutsche Grammophon: ‘This quartet is without doubt the most mature and the most profound of the six in every conceivable respect: in its formal assurance, in the balance and contrast of the movements, and in the individual characterization of them.’
He describes the first movement as ‘relaxed yet disciplines, and the second as achieving a ‘sweet melancholy’, in contrast to the ‘black melancholy’ of the last. After a ‘tour de force’ scherzo comes the finale, ‘spirituality and intellectually the most demanding movement in the whole of Op.18’.
This movement has the heading La Malincolia, with the specific direction Questo pezzo si deve trattare colla più gran delicatezza (This piece is to be played with the greatest delicacy’)
Once again Beethoven starts a quartet with the music in a good mood. There is a slightly cheeky aspect to the first movement of this quartet as the first violin and cello enjoy sharing the catchy tune. The music chugs along with a smile on its face but there is a lot going on behind the scenes, each idea tautly argued and shared.
The slow movement is profound, Beethoven filling out the texture of the four movements, the string quartet sounding more ‘romantic’ as the thoughtful ideas take hold. The scherzo shows Beethoven’s desire to move away from the basic Minuet to employ rhythmic invention, with cross rhythms and syncopations at every turn, as well as the clever use of silence.
However it is with the last movement that Beethoven employs his most dramatic turn, and it is in music of quiet solitude rather than through any fireworks. The cold opening strains are unexpected, the mood of desolation and at complete odds with the conversational first movement. Now the quartet are in unison, as though the instruments dare not stray from the quartet line.
Then, suddenly, that mood is swept under the carpet as a resolute Allegretto asserts itself. Yet it proves difficult to forget the impact of what has gone before, and sure enough the Malincolia music returns. Eventually the two strains are directly at odds, and although the quartet ends vigorously, the impression it leaves is rather different.
Finscher has a theory for this. ‘Nor should the possibility be excluded that this depiction of melancholia, which brings Op.18 to its conclusion and can hardly be a mere whim, has something to do with the fact that at the very time of its composition Beethoven was being made aware of the first symptoms of deafness.’
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)
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 Salieri Cesare in Farmacusa
Next up tbc