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8.550560 - BEETHOVEN: String Quartets Op. 18, Nos. 5 and 6

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 -1827)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 -1827)

String Quartets (Complete) Vol. 3

String Quartet in A Major, Op. 18, No.5

String Quartet in B Flat Major, Op. 18, No.6


In 1792 Beethoven left his native city of Bonn to seek his fortune in the imperial capital, Vienna. Five years earlier his patron, the Archbishop of Cologne, a scion of the imperial family, had sent him to Vienna where he had hoped to have lessons with Mozart. His plans were frustrated by the illness and subsequent death of his mother, which made it necessary for him to return to Bonn and before long to take charge of the welfare of his younger brothers. Beethoven's father, overshadowed by the eminence of his own father, Kapellmeister to a former Archbishop, had proved inadequate both as a musician and in the family, of which his eldest son now took control.


As a boy Beethoven had been trained to continue family tradition as a musician and had followed his father and grandfather as a member of the archiepiscopal musical establishment. In 1792 he arrived in Vienna with introductions to various members of the nobility and with the offer of lessons with Haydn, from whom he later claimed to have learned nothing. There were further lessons from the Court Composer, Antonio Salieri, and, perhaps more important, from Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, an expert in counterpoint. He embarked at once on an initial career as a keyboard virtuoso, skilled both as an executant and in the necessary art of improvisation. He was to establish himself, in the course of time, as a figure of remarkable genius and originality and as a social eccentric, no respecter of persons, his eccentricity all the greater because of his increasing deafness. This last disability made public performance, whether as a keyboard-player or in the direction of his own music, more and more difficult, and must have served to encourage the development of one particular facet of his music, the use of counterpoint, stigmatized by hostile contemporary critics as "learned". He died in Vienna in 1827.


In his sixteen string quartets, the first set of six published in 1801 and the last completed in 1826 and published in the year of his death, Beethoven was as innovative as ever, developing and extending a form that seemed already to have reached a height of perfection in the later work of Haydn and Mozart. The earliest mention of a string quartet comes in the recorded request of Count Apponyi in 1795. This had no immediate result, but it has seemed possible that Beethoven in these years might have been influenced by Emanuel Aloys Forster, a musician twenty-two years his senior, whose teaching of counterpoint he admired and recommended to others, while profiting, perhaps, from the example of Forster's own quartets. At the same time Beethoven must have known the later quartets of Mozart and the work of Haydn.


The first group of string quartets by Beethoven, published in 1801 as Opus 18 with a dedication to Prince Lobkowitz, consisted of six quartets written between 1798 and 1800. The third of these was apparently the first in order of composition, followed by Nos. 1, 2 and 5 and Nos. 4 and 6, the last two not to be found in Beethoven's surviving sketch-books, which in general give a possible idea of chronology and an insight into his methods of composition.


The String Quartet in A Major, Opus 18, No.5, opens with a first subject that has something of a lilt to it, as it proceeds. The subsidiary theme appears in the less usual key of E minor, its counterpart in the third section recapitulation now in A minor. Beethoven places the Minuet second and includes a contrasting Trio in the same key of A major, but with melodic interest centred at first on the second violin and viola. The D major Andante is in the form of a theme and five variations, the first allowing imitative entries from the four instruments in ascending order, the second with triplet rhythm in the first violin and the third with a rapid second violin accompanying figure in which the first violin joins, while melodic material is shared between the other instruments. The fourth variation is more akin to a chorale setting, with a fifth of considerable ingenuity. The quartet ends with a movement in which the rapid principal theme dominates, a contrast to the sustained notes of the subsidiary thematic material.


The last quartet of the set, the String Quartet in B flat major, Opus 18, No.6, allows dialogue between first violin and cello in its first subject, reflected in ensuing dialogue between the two violins. The F major second subject shifts to the minor, allowing further modulation before the end of the exposition, which is followed by a development that makes use of fragments of the principal theme and a varied recapitulation. The E flat second movement is marked Adagio ma non troppo and has an opening theme based on the tonic and dominant arpeggios. A variation of this is followed by material of darker hue, before the return of an embellished version of the first theme. This leads to a Scherzo of irregular metre, with a whimsical Trio in the same key of B flat. La Malinconia (Melancholy), a piece to be played with the greatest delicacy, we are told, now makes its appearance, serving as an introduction to the final rondo, during the course of which it makes a brief re-appearance, seeking to return yet again, but interrupted by the rapid rondo theme that finally prevails.


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