String Quartet in C minor Op.18, No.4
It has been suggested that Beethoven's C minor quartet is based on material from his earliest period in Bonn; whatever the truth, the work represents him at full power so far as he had evolved it around 1800, when the six Op.18 quartets were being composed. C minor has always been connected with Beethoven in trenchant mood, and there is some of that here, with instantly assimilable melodic invention. For all this, there is no lack of subtlety in the proportions, and the sense of movement is as perfect as a cat's. In the crisply effected first movement we feel strong purpose rather than the tragedy or pathos often associated with a minor key, and the E flat music of the second group has an unmistakably optimistic "lift". As if to confirm this, there is no slow movement - instead a lighthearted C major andante actually entitled "scherzo"; this anticipates in some ways the second movement of the First Symphony, especially in its fugato beginning.
By far the most serious part of this quartet is the so-called minuet, having the urgency of some of Beethoven's later scherzo movements (which incidentally when they were not humorous he never called "scherzo"). This dramatically intense "minuet" has some remarkable chromaticisms, and the Trio, with its constant quick triplets in the first violin, could well have influenced Schubert's quartet textures. The finale is one of Beethoven's rare excursions into the Hungarian style of which Haydn was fond; it is a simple rondo with a contrasting much broader second theme. At the end the tempo increases and unlike Haydn in such cases, Beethoven allows the minor key to persist to the end. In this quartet, all the movements are in C.
String Quartet in D major Op.18, No.3.
The D major quartet is one of the gentlest of Beethoven's earlier works, certainly in its first three movements, and its subtlety will not be noticed by those who tend to patronise his first quartets. Take the very opening, for instance - the first two notes of the violin and their continuation in quietly flowing quavers over a very deliberate chordal accompaniment could easily be the start of a slow movement. We realise only after a while that the motion belongs to an allegro. Beethoven's control of movement shows already a high degree of maturity, clearly proved in an opening to which no parallel can be found in Haydn or Mozart. It is a beautiful beginning and the rest of the movement fulfils its promise. The part-writing in later quartets produces greater democracy than here, but the music itself could hardly be bettered in the ease and certainty of its flow, while the sidelong approach to the dominant in the second group (through C major and A minor) has unobtrusive originality. The development is not long, but its approach to the recapitulation is unexpectedly dramatic, through the dominant of F sharp minor, later powerfully intensified in the Second Symphony (in the same key).
The easeful B flat Andante is a rondo. As Basil Lam points out in the BBC Music Guide to the Beethoven quartets, the twelve-bar theme "is constructed with great subtlety; the melody, begun by the second violin, is taken over and repeated by the first before the statement has been completed". The smoothly flowing figuration of the theme is prominent in most of the movement, and Beethoven's use of contrasting harmonic areas prevents this fact from preempting the always welcome returns of the theme itself. At the centre is a rich development.
Quietly flexing strong muscles, the scherzo is unaggressive and its D minor trio decorates a four-note descending bass. Sustained brilliance in this quartet is reserved for the finale, in a fast six-eight time. Its keys and rhythms create the temptation to compare it (of course unfavourably!) with the finale of Mozart's D major quintet-but in this case it must be Beethoven who wins the palm for sheer mastery of movement. Mozart's theme sits down with dangerous regularity, while Beethoven's flies at once into the sky, alighting when and where it wishes, and the length and size of Beethoven's paragraphs and the energy with which they are infused can be found only rarely with other composers. Here it is also generates rich and vigorous polyphony in the overwhelmingly energetic development.
String Quartet in A major, Op.18, No.5
In the first movement we might not be far wrong in detecting a sardonic skit on genteel elegance - the form is simple, even primitive if we compare it with, say, Mozart's great A major quartet K.464, where conscious intellectual mastery is displayed. Beethoven's almost casual lightness of touch has other aims - entertainment, and perhaps correction of the idea that he is always aggressive. The minuet (not a scherzo) comes second. It is still in A major and the elegance is continued, though with an abrupt excursion into a blunt C sharp minor in the second part, from which the gentle music reacts as if nothing had happened. The trio consists of a beautiful tune enlivened by off-beat accents.
Any suspicion of casualness provoked by the first movement was already assuaged by the minuet, and is now laid fully to rest in one of the finest of his early variation movements. Beethoven shows what can be done with a simple falling and rising fragment of diatonic scale. The D major theme is simplicity itself, but of striking beauty, and the first three variations animate it with growingly active figuration, the third strongly anticipating Schubert. The fourth variation is of exquisite calm and depth - the theme is intact but harmonised with surpassing sensitivity. Variation 5 returns to vigorous, even rough, activity and leads directly to a long and felicitous coda in which the scales are given in diminution (i.e. in shorter notes) producing an altogether new development, beginning in the magically remote key of B flat, from which the return to the tonic is delightful.
In the finale, we find much contrapuntal invention and a highly original quartet texture, with what by now we must expect in Beethoven, a magnificent sense of movement. The quicksilver motion is offset by a splendidly broad second theme that is carried with consummate ease by the general current.