STRING QUARTETS OP. 18
Beethoven's own String Instruments
With respect to contemporary music criticism, we can again rely on the comments by important Beethoven researchers and biographers, which we have arranged in the chronological order of the appearance of their works:
"The probable original order of composition of the opus 18 Quartets was established (somewhat erroneously) by Nottebohm and more recently clarified by Brandenburg: no. 3, 1, 2, 5, 4, and 6. . . . All of them essentially accept the usual four-movement structure and all reflect the Viennese Classic style, with an occasional admixture of Italianite melody--perhaps under the influence of Salieri, to whom Beethoven had just dedicated his Sonatas, op. 12.
The adherence to tradition is more evident in the first three quartets, for in the later ones Beethoven began to alter the weights and textures of the movements within the usual structure. Kerman writes that in these, "Beethoven seems suddenly to have thrown the classical framework in doubt. These pieces all entertain experiments with different types and arrangements of movements." The opening movements are lightened, and since the finales are composed in sonata form rather than in the characteristic rondo form, the climax of each cycle tends to be transferred to the close of each work. The Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto of no. 4, like the similarly designated second movement of the String Trio, op. 9 no. 2, signals Beethoven's willingness to dispense with the traditional slow movement. The insertion of an Allegro in the Adagio cantabile of no. 2--this apparently occurred late in the compositional process--is another example of the flexitility with which Beethoven was now handling the traditional forms. Most striking, perhaps, is the mystical 44-bar second Adagio entitled "La Malinconia" that prefaces the finale of no. 6 and returns briefly to arrest the climax of the Allegretto quasi Allegro before the final statement and coda. This is not to say, however, that the opus 18 Quartets can be regarded as experimental works comparable to Beethoven's most impressive contemporary piano sonatas. Many of Beethoven's "unusual" touches--the reversal of the inner movements in no. 5 and the use of variation from in the Andante cantabile of the same work--have precedents in Haydn and Mozart. If there are occasional intimations of Beethoven's later quartet styles in these works, and if, as Radcliffe notes, Beethoven here uses "a rhetoric more emphatic and vehement than that of Haydn or Mozart," the quartets essentially remain traditional and even conservative, reflecting Beethoven's main ambition--to achieve master of a medium of the high-Classic tradition" (Solomon: 101).
" . . . Many of Beethoven's revisions [of op. 18/1] involved refinements in scoring, but one farreaching change was the decrease in motivic saturation in the opening Allegro con brio movement, reducing the number of occurrences of the opening turn-figure from 130 to 104. The number of accents was similarly curtailed, although one striking new rhetorical feature was added--the two unison fortissimo scale figures that mark the beginning of the coda in this sonata-form movement. Even in the movement's published form Beethoven exploits the turn-figure with concentrated single-mindedness. The opening theme is permeated with it, and the transition begins with sequences of it leading to accented diminished harmonies. In the ensuing passage, and again near the end of the exposition, the cello takes it up as an ostinato figure, which generates a whole chain of turns in rapid figuration. In the development section Beethoven is obsessed more than ever with the figure. He resourcefully exploits its rhythm in the agitated retransition to the fortissimo recapitulation: the characteristic threefold upbeat pulse is detached from the turn, rhythmically augmented, and syncopated as well in this striking if somewhat blatant passage.
The slow movement in D minor, marked Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato, is somewhat reminiscent of the Largo e mesto in this key in Beethoven's great Piano Sonata in D op. 10 no. 3. A specific poetic association is know for this Adagio. Amenda reported that Beethoven wrote it while thinking of the burial-vault scene in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The connection is confirmed by one of Beethoven's sketchleaves, which contains the inscription 'les derniers soupirs' over a passage emphasizing the interval of the diminished seventh. Such dissonances, together with an intense dramatic rhetoric, effective dynamic contrasts, and an evocative use of silences, all support the expression of pathos in this Adagio, the centre of gravity in the quartet as a whole. The following scherzo and finale are less weighty in tone and substance, through they offer some captivating textural contrasts.
The opening Allegro of the G major Quartet op. 18 no. 2 shows a thorough assimilation of Haydn's comedy of manners merged with an occasional dramatic thrust that is unmistakably Beethovenian. The beginning of the recapitulation, for instance, is rhythmically charged by accented octaves, casting the theme in a new light. The following Adagio cantabile employs a curious formal design, with a dance-like Allegro interpolated between the slow lyrical theme and its decorated recapitulation. In the scherzo and the finale Beethoven employs a rhetoric bristling with Haydnesque devices. The false recapitulation in the closing Allegro molto quasi Presto steals in quietly in A-flat major, and then suspiciously repeats the rising scale-pattern from the theme, conveying a character of puzzlement. Haydn typically handles such tricks with finesse; Beethoven makes this point more bluntly, by restating the ascending motif in doubled note values in a broad spacing, and with a crescendo as well. Not infrequently, a tension can be felt in these early quartets between a refined, courtly rhetoric and a powerful directness of expression that is typical of Beethoven.
Another striking parallel with Haydn is offered by the Andante and variations in C major forming the middle movement of Beethoven's G major Piano Sonata op. 14 no. 2, a work completed shortly before the quartets, in 1799. The artless simplicity of Beethoven's Andante tune is underscored by repetitions of its opening phrase; one eminent critic was even provoked into describing the movement as 'stupid'. Yet the expressive heart of the piece lies in the tension between the apparent naiveté of the theme and its reinterpretation through the addition of syncopations and dissonances in Beethoven's variations. This tension is sustained until the very end of the coda, with Beethoven's humorous intent confirmed once and for all in the surprising fortissimo outburst of the final chord! In these variations, Beethoven enlarged on the famous musical joke contained in another Andante movement in C--the slow movement of Haydn's 'Surprise' Symphony (no. 94). Instead of placing the shocking chord in immediate juxtaposition to a soft and harmless theme, as Haydn did, Beethoven reserves the disruptive gesture until the close, challenging the sober listener to question the seriousness of the entire musical discourse, while also forging a transition to the finale--a playfully humorous rondo bearing the unusual designation 'scherzo'.
The third quartet of op. 18, in D major, opens with an Allegro of rather relaxed, even somewhat bland character, but Beethoven resourcefully experiments with the listener's expectations. Once again the moment of recapitulation receives special reinforcement. Whereas the movement begins quietly with unaccompanied whole-notes on the dominant-seventh chord in the first violin, Beethoven later supports this sonority harmonically with a chromatic ascent reaching C# at the end of the exposition. This pitch in turn becomes the focus for a huge fortissimo climax concluding the development, with the C# resolved into the delicate continuation of the main theme. The following Andante con moto in B-flat major is characterized by warmly lyrical canonic textures and contains one of the early instances in Beethoven of a coda in which the basic thematic material is gradually stripped away and virtually dissolved into silence. Beethoven labelled the penultimate dance movement neither 'scherzo' nor 'minuet' but merely 'Allegro'. It relies heavily on motivic development of the appoggiatura or turn-figure from the first phrase of the theme; the trio, or 'minore', is based on the descending linear configuration from the beginning of the Allegro, now heard in longer note values. The presto finale further develops the motivic turn D-C#-D from the preceding Allegro in an expansive sonata form spiked with canonic episodes. The piece ends in a gesture of Haydnesque wit, as Beethoven reduces the music to the turn alone, heard pianissimo in all four instruments.
The quartet in C minor op. 18 no. 4, and especially its opening Allegro ma non tanto, is one of the most controversial of Beethoven's compositions. Hugo Riemann speculated that it was based on older material, perhaps even dating back to the Bonn period; and Kerman has followed up this line of thought, concluding that 'the C-minor first movement is more crudely written than anything in the other op. 18 quartets'. Ferdinand Ries related a conversation in which he pointed out to Beethoven a case of parallel fifths in this work, to which Beethoven replied 'Now, and who has forbidden them?' Ro Ries's answer, that this grammatical failing was forbidden by Marpurg, Kirnberger, Fuchs, and other theorists, Beethoven defiantly declared 'And so I allow them!'
More recently Richard Kramer has analysed the parallel fifths which occur at the transition to the development in this first movement, a passage in which strong chords preface a new statement of the main theme in G minor (Ex. 16).* The bald unison progression from C? through C# to D overlaps here with the upper-voice ascent from A-flat (=C#) to A. It is difficult to explain this particular irregularity in voice-leading as being required by artistic necessity. Beethoven's protest to the contrary, a lapse in technique is indicated; nor is it an isolated failure. In fact, Beethoven's earlier String Trio in this key, op. 9 no. 3, is a considerably more polished work than the C minor Quartet. Suspicions are rightly aroused about the piece being of early origin, but studies of the manuscript sources have not lent much support to such speculation.
Ultimately, the roughness of this movement seems to arise from an imbalance between the passionate force of Beethoven's 'C minor mood' and his ability to mediate or control this idiom in the artistic form as a whole. A comparison with another C minor piece, the first movement of the Sonate Pathétique op. 13, is revealing. The beginning of the Pathétique slow introduction is extremely close to the opening of the quartet in this rhythm, register, and rhetoric, with a parallel placement of expressive appoggiaturas in each work. The Pathétique relies on the repeated juxtaposition of its Grave introduction with the Allegro con brio, however, it does not depend so heavily on the vehement but rather simplistic gestures that sustain the quartet. Least convincing in the Allegro ma non tanto of the quartet is perhaps the succession of fortissimo chords alternating between tonic and dominant at the end of the main theme and at other junctures, including the passage with the parallel fifth. To be sure, Beethoven is exposing in these bars an important rhythmic configuration, one that is implicit within the main theme itself. But that is not quite enough to justify these powerful outbursts, nor to resolve suspicions about the somewhat overblown rhetoric of the movement.
The other movements as well may not always convince according to the lofty standards set by Beethoven's greater works, but they do contain unusual and striking ideas. For the finale, for example, Beethoven employed a kind of rustic gypsy melody in the first violin which is accelerated to prestissimo in the coda. At the close, Beethoven first separates the head of this theme from its continuation of six repeated notes, and then allows the latter motif to soar quietly into the very highest register, before the piece with arresting fortissimo strokes.
As we have seen, Mozart's Quartet in A major K464 was an inspiring influence on Beethoven's op. 18 no. 5, in the same key. The impact of Mozart is also felt in several of Beethoven's piano sonatas of these years, including the two little sonatas in G minor and G major that he wrote between 1795 and 1798 and eventually published as op. 49, the two sonatas of op. 14 from 1799, and the Sonata in B-flat major op. 22 from 1800. In the opening Allegro of the E major Sonata op. 14 no. 1 the Mozartian influence is reflected in the skilful arrangement of distinct yet related musical figures. Beethoven's familiar technique of using a single dominating rhythmic motif is not in evidence. Instead, he devises the three phrases of the main theme as a network of thematic variations stressing the interval of a rising fourth. There is a Mozartian flavour as well to the chromatic touches in the main subsidiary theme, and perhaps also to the transparent contrapuntal textures so evocative of chamber music. Op. 14 no. 1 is the only sonata Beethoven ever arranged for string quartet, and his decision to undertake the transcription in 1802 was surely motivated by the special affinity of this sonata with the quartet medium.
In Beethoven's A major Quartet, on the other hand, the Mozartian influence is centred on the third movement--like Mozart's set of variations. At the same time, Beethoven's five variations on his Andante cantabile theme mark a significant moment in his lifelong fascination with this form; there is a distant foreshadowing here of the slow movements of the Appassionata Sonata and Archduke Trio, among other works. As in these pieces, the theme has a quality of elemental simplicity, and it serves as an effective point of departure for a series of transformations based on progressively faster rhythmic figuration--a venerable device in the history of variation writing. The opening phrases of the melody do little but spell out the interval of the sixth A-F#, both ascending and descending. This basic structure is elaborated in increasingly intricate textures and figuration as far as Variation 4, a still, mysterious, chromatic version of the theme. Then the rhythmic development reaches its climax in the high spirits of the last variation, in which a new version of the theme in the inner voices is glorified by trills in the first violin and accented leaps in the cello. The movement ends with a soft, reflective reminiscence of the theme in a form close to it original.
Of the other movements, the Allegro finale is nearest to Mozart. Near the end of the development Beethoven even borrows thematic material from K464, and he demonstrates mastery in handling the transparent counterpoint characteristic of the older master. A problem here, however, as elsewhere in the A major Quartet, is that the process of modelling has muted something of Beethoven's own individual voice. Kerman concluded that 'it must be counted the least personal of the quartets'.
The opening Allegro con brio of the final quartet of op. 18, in B-flat major, shows a humorous spirit and lightness of tone. The delicately ornamented Adagio ma non troppo that follows shares with it a certain economy in form and expression. The most innovative and challenging movements are the energetic, syncopated scherzo and, above all, the finale, with its juxtaposition of radically contrasting material. The finale is a highly original conception that does not suggest the influence of Haydn or Mozart. Beethoven labels its opening Adagio section 'La Malinconia', and he recalls the Adagio in the midst of the following dance-like Allegretto quasi Allegro. We are reminded here of his abiding preoccupation with composite movements embracing strongly contrasting ideas. An earlier work in this vein is the Sonate Pathétique, which twice recalls the slow introduction in the context of the Allegro con brio. Later, more complex examples include the interweaving of scherzo and Allegro in the Fifth Symphony, and of arioso and fugue in the late piano sonata op. 110. Beethoven's integration of powerful contrasts within a larger continuity is also a conspicuous feature in some of his last quartets, such as the first movements of op. 130 in B-flat and op. 132 in A minor.
Extraordinary in 'La Malinconia' are the mysterious chromatic progressions, which for all their effect of harmonic disorientation are masterfully shaped into an integrated dramatic progression. After this enigmatic harmonic labyrinth, the following dance in 3/8 time provides an effective contrast and resolution of tension; and it also reshapes the falling third and rising steps from 'La Malinconia' in a new context, suggesting a rejection of melancholy (Ex. 17). Typically for Beethoven, however, this optimistic transformation is not permanent but conditional. He later brings back ten bars of the Adagio juxtaposed with four of the allegretto, and then two further bars of the Adagio, before the dance finally reasserts itself, shaking off the memory of 'La Malinconia'. The intimate facing of these contrasting modalities represents perhaps the most single arresting idea in all the op. 18 quartets" (Kinderman: 54-60).
"All six quartets demonstrate that Beethoven had fully absorbed the idiom as used by Mozart and Haydn. No other composer had matched their sophistication, and Beethoven probably saw himself as their true heir in this genre, as in the symphony. Indeed he had copied out two of Mozart's quartets (K. 387 and 464) during preparations for his own set, and Op. 18 No. 5 is in some ways modelled directly on K. 464. The most striking feature about the first movement of No. 1 is the intensity with which the opening idea is developed--it appears over a hundred times in the course of the movement (and even more often in the first version). The second movement is, unusually, in 9/8, and is dominated largely by melodic writing in the first violin. The dynamic level is soft or very soft almost throughout, and dies away to a very rare ppp just before the recapitulation. The few forte passages, which mostly occur in combination with an agitated demisemiquaver figure, consequently stand out in sharper relief, reaching a great climax on a very widely spaced diminished 7th chord in the coda. This chord corresponds with the sketch marked 'il se tue' in Beethoven's programmatic background to the movement. The fragmented sighing figures associated with 'les derniers soupirs' in the sketches, however, are not found in the final version.
Beethoven fills the high-speed Scherzo with witticisms of many kinds. The main theme is a rhythmically altered inversion of the opening turn-figure of the first movement, but it is chromatically distorted and rapidly disrupts the tonality in a rather ludicrous way. Some abrupt stops and starts contribute further to the humorous effect. Then after the first eight bars have been repeated, the music suddenly plunges into A flat, with a clear melodic echo of a passage in the same key in the first-movement transition (bar 41). In the Trio, a series of comic octave leaps on C are suddenly interrupted by a new theme (again based on a turn-figure) in the remote key of D flat--a key that recurs in the finale. Thus Beethoven's fondness for long-distance tonal relationships is once again in evidence in this quartet. The main theme of the finale is based on yet another type of turn-figure, and this is reused almost as obsessively as that in the first movement, providing yet another ingenious way of unifying the quartet as a whole.
Of the other five quartets, No. 2 is notable for the unusual structure of the slow movement already mentioned; Beethoven takes the closing figure of an initial Adagio section in C and develops it at a rapid pace in a central Allegro before returning to the initial tempo. In No. 3 he contrasts the D major of the first movement with B flat major in the second; but again the remote key has been prepared in advance, this time by being used as the tonal goal in the development section of the first movement. The theme is also related to the passage in C major near the end of the exposition of the first movement; this passage duly appears in F in the recapitulation, and E flat in the coda, so that the appearance of B flat for a related theme at the start of the slow movement is made to seem inevitable rather than incongruous.
In a set of six quartets, one was traditionally in a minor key--in this case No. 4--and Beethoven yet again chose C minor, as if in a deliberate attempt to associate himself with that key in public consciousness. The mood of the first movement is again pathétique, and somewhat disturbing. Some commentators have indeed been sufficiently disturbed to describe the movement as weak and even crude, and to allege that the quartet was written somewhat earlier (for which there is no evidence). Beethoven seems here to have been deliberately writing music that is uncomfortable, as in the heavy alternation of tonic and dominant chords in bars 13-16, and in the jarring C# that heralds the development (he often used the note C# as a disruptive element on later occasions); perhaps his intention was to heighten the contrast with the other quartets. The mood of the first movement is not upheld later, however. The 'slow' movement is a whimsical Scherzo in C major that affects to be fugal but actually pokes fun at the learned style, with much subtle interplay based on the repeated-note opening bar. In the third movement, a Menuetto, the Trio section is in A flat major, and is followed by a speeded-up reprise of the Minuet, while in the finale the two main episodes use the keys of the Trio and Scherzo respectively, providing yet another example of tonal integration. The finale then ends with a Prestissimo section in which the main theme appears at a faster tempo, to match the similar effect in the Menuetto. No. 5 in A is the most conventional in the set, although the Menuetto is placed second and a set of variations, with extended coda, forms the third movement (as in Mozart's K. 464). Its elegant and orthodox nature, in which everything seems to fall delightfully into place, forms an excellent counterweight to the preceding quartet.
In No. 6 in B flat, the Scherzo makes great play with rhythmic ambiguity, using off-beat sforzandos, ties across the barline, and starting halfway though the second beat. Thus there is the double uncertainty of where the barline falls, and whether the bars divide into 3/4 or 6/8. Nothing here, however, prepares for the extraordinary movement that follows--the most remarkable one in the whole set. It is an additional slow movement, entitled 'La Malinconia' (Melancholy) and directed to be played 'with the greatest delicacy'. Although Beethoven was prone to bouts of melancholy, the movement should not be regarded as in any way subjective but as a musical portrayal of a state of mind, similar to the Pathétique. Once again he uses every means at his disposal, stretching the bounds of convention to breaking point. An initial sense of immobility gradually gives way to tortured chromaticism, where the music turns to increasingly remote keys without finding any repose. Harsh dynamic contracts and obsessive use of turns in a slow and ponderous progression of chords contribute further to the overall portrayal, which is one of the most vivid illustrations of a mental state in the whole of music history. The mood is rapidly dispelled in the lively finale, but reappears in the middle of the movement like an echo from the past. Beethoven returned to this highly successful procedure in certain later works, notably the Fifth Symphony and the Sonata Op. 110" (Cooper: 93-95).
" . . . The most imposing quartet of Opus 18 is No. 1, one of Beethoven's longest four-movement cycles before the Eroica. The material in the first movement is characterized by a short, memorable motif, recognizable from its rhythmic form alone. Except where the second group in the dominant provides relief through smoothly flowing eighth notes, the motif serves as the leading factor throughout. But this primary motif, though always well defined, appears in many guises. Sometimes its pitches are entirely different; sometimes it acts as accompaniment to other thematic figures; sometimes it lacks the first note but, like a puzzle in a Gestalt formation, is still recognizable.
The first Allegro is thus an early instance of an amply developed movement that is permeated by a single motif, anticipating the Fifth Symphony, by far the most famous Beethovenian example (*W 15a). The main motif can either be heard as if it were a picaresque figure in a narrative, which enters into varied situations and encounters, yet maintains its own form; or else as if it were a recurrent emblematic figure that runs like a red thread through an entire complex tapestry. The sketches show that it began life in 4/4 time and was then transformed into its characteristic triple meter (*W 15b).
A window onto the genesis of this quartet is provided not only by its extensive sketches but also by the chance survival of a complete early version of the entire work. Beethoven gave this version to his old friend Karl Amenda, who preserved it among his papers after receiving a letter from Beethoven telling him not to circulate it because he had now revised the entire composition, "having now learned how to write quartets." The two versions are instructive, both for their contrasts and as an example of Beethoven's not only sketching but working through the complete drafts of works in early versions, few of which survive. In the second version we see Beethoven, especially in the first and last movements, tightening the content, improving the voice leading, and making the string writing more idiomatic--in all, he gave the work the mature profile and idiomaticity that he now saw was essential to a higher level of quartet writing. That sketching and revising the Opus 18 quartets cost Beethoven intense effort does not in principle distinguish them from many of his other works, but it confirm the exceptionally high standards he associated with this genre.
Striking in Opus 18 No. 1 are the fugal passages in the first and last movements. Fugue is more characteristic of the quartet than of the piano sonata. It remained a mark of the more developed, intellectual character of quartet composition, in which composers were expected to show off their contrapuntal accomplishments both in creating interesting inner and lower parts and in the learned disciplines of fugue and fugato, even when used as episodes within sonata-form or sonata-rondo structures. The same prominent use of fugal textures appears in other works that Beethoven regarded as truly serious, lofty accomplishments, such ad the Third, Fifth, Seventh, and Ninth symphonies. In each of these major orchestral works, all of epic character, fugue or fugato occurs in at least one movement, sometimes more, typically as a way of extending the developmental range by treating one or more themes contrapuntally. And although we find no fugal episodes in the even-numbered symphonies and in most of the piano sonatas before the late period, this lack in no way lessens the quality of those works but simply signals that their aesthetic models make no room for fugal development and proceed in other ways; the Fourth Symphony is a prime example.
Celebrated for expressivity is the slow movement of Opus 18 No. 1, known also for its associations with the tomb scene from Shakeseare's Romeo and Juliet. These connections arise from remarks that appear in French at particular places in the sketches near the end of the movement: for example, "il prend le tombeau" ("he comes to the tomb") followed by "desespoir" ("despair")--the word is hard to decipher; "il se tue" ("he kills himself"), and "les derniers soupirs" ("the last sighs") (*W16). The final remark is attached to a closing segment for the movement and uses a traditional "sigh" motif. Beethoven often wrote in Italian or French in his sketchbooks when he was thinking out passages and, at times, larger plans for movements or works. The association with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is also supported by other evidence: Amenda recalled telling Beethoven that this movement induced thoughts about the separation of two lovers, to which Beethoven is said to have replied, "(For this movement} I was thinking of the burial vault scene in Romeo and Juliet."
The large-scale sonata form of this Adagio gives it a weight and gravity beyond all but a few of Beethoven's earlier slow movements. If Beethoven was thinking of Romeo and Juliet, then the main theme, in D minor, and the principal second theme, in F major, may represent the two conflicting principles of Romeo's despair and Juliet's beauty. If the burial vault scene from the play was a generating idea for the movement, as it may have been, the important point is that Beethoven, not wanting to be literal, destroyed all traces of any such program in the finished work. What evidence he left exists only by chance in the sketches, which he never expected the world to know. Essential in the movement is the expressive conflict of these two basic musical ideas. Oppositions between paired and contrasted themes, gestures, motifs, and segments always with clear-cut rhythmic profiles--become a vital means by which Beethoven generates drama, action, and larger shape in his sonata-form movements, increasingly so as he moves from early to middle-period works.
The other quartets of Opus 18 offer varied perspectives on Beethoven's hard-won virtuosity as a quartet composer. Thanks to Amenda, we know about his revision of No. 1, which has in fact been published and recorded. He also revised No. 2 and possibly No. 3 Quartet No. 2 is built along different lines from No. 1. It is light and graceful, and has an elaborated slow movement that alternates Adagio and Allegro segments, perhaps following a Haydn model, and anticipating the tempo alternations in La Malinconia, the finale of No. 6. No. 2 is the epitome of the charming, not the forceful, as different from No. 1 as it can be. In Beethoven's first sketchbook, which which he worked out Opus 18 No. 3, the first of the set to be composed, he entered the annotation "le seconde quatuor dans une stile bien legère excepté le dernier" ("the second quartet in alight style, except its finale".
No. 3, striking out in other directions, prizes legato linear motion in its first movement beyond all else, In the opening phrase, after a solo upward seventh leap, the first violin moves down in graduated phases, alternating smooth eighth-note figuration with long points of arrival, falling a ninth from high G to lower F?. The undulating motion of the material in the third measure and its many ramifications recall Mozart more than Haydn; sure enough, in the course of the movement, we find possibly unconscious reminiscences from the finale of Mozart's A Major Quartet, K. 464, which we know Beethoven copied. The pace and flow of this movement is also aking to that of the "Spring" Sonata, Opus 24, in which a similar ebb and flow of melodic lines is the primary feature of the first movement.
No. 5 is often taken as the main inheritor of Mozart's K.424, because is shares with Mozart's quartet its key, its movement plan (with the Menuetto second), its position in the cycle of six quartets, and certain other features. Actually, though, it is quite independent of the Mozart work if we look below the surface, as it omits all the characteristic structural underpinning of the Mozart quartet, namely its use of descending-third chains in both first and last movements.
The cycle closes with the Quartet No. 6, a small-scale, compact, intimate work of high craftsmanship. With its opening in a Haydnesque texture, the first movement unfurls a main theme that contains a "folded arpeggio," that is, a theme in which the notes of the tonic chord are presented in this order: 1-5-3-1-5-3-1. But instead of moving downward, as this sequence of figures implies, the notes zigzag upward, alternating small-scale u--and-down motions to form a theme (*W 17). Beethoven employs this means of thematic formation in later works as well. The whle first movement of No. 6 makes witty use of the turn figure on the fourth beat, as we could expect. It also finds room for rolling, questioning phrases, as in the preparation for the recapitulation, where a dying away leads to a measure of silence and then a pianissimo pause on the dominant.
The Adagio0 ranks with the most expressive of the early slow movements, yet harbors surprises, as when a sudden fortissimo erupts in the reprise, disclosing powerful feelings that had been hidden below the lyrical surface. The Scherzo is a tour de force of syncopation, like no other early Beethoven movement, an explosion of rhythmic eccentricity after the more nearly straightforward rhythmic patterns of the first two movements. But the crux of the whole work is its finale, labeled La Malinconia. The movement comprises four sections: (1) Adagio; (2) Allegretto quasi Allegro; (3) a return of (2), preceded by brief returns of Sections 1, 2, and 1; and (4) Prestissimo (preceded by a brief Poco adagio). In Section 3 Beethoven plays out returns of previously heard contrasting material, each return shorter than the one before. The sense is that of indecision as to what will happen to these opposed emotional states--the melancholic and the sanguine--and how their opposition can be resolved. The question is then settled and the movement stabilized by the Allegretto, which now returns in Section 4 and finds its way back to the tonic. The movement ends in a manic close taken at the fastest tempo marking found in Beethoven's works.
What does the title La Malinconia mean? A partial clue is found in the special performance direction, which recalls the "Moonlight" sonata: "Questo pezzo si deve trattare colla più delicatezza" ("This piece is to be played with the greatest possible delicacy"), which means that Beethoven wants the strongest shades of light and darkness in the phrasing and dynamics. The words La Malinconia have traditionally been taken to refer only to the Adagio, as a representation of melancholia, reflecting Beethoven's personal depression as his deafness increased. The long Adagio gropes through darkness, beginning with the bare outlines of periodic structure in its rhythm and phrase organization which is then undercut by sudden contrasts of high and low chords, pianissimo and fortissimo (*W 18). The Adagio then gradually loses its original rhythmic profile as it wanders through distant harmonic regions. Finally it clings to the figure of a strong quarter note preceded by a sixteenth-note-triplet turning-motion upbeat in its last measures, again alternating forte and piano. In its last phrase the slow crescendo from pianissimo to fortissimo is held together by the cello while the other strings rise through a succession of chromatic harmonies, searching for a harmonic foothold but not finding it until they reach the final dominant.
But another way of looking at La malinconia, which might have roots in both the deafness crisis and in the idea of representing two temperaments, two states of the soul in melancholia and sanguinity, is to see it as a bold extension of the programmatic into the string quartet, a genre it had not penetrated before. Beethoven's use of this title, with all its implications, is a departure from Haydn and Mozart, and it goes beyond his reticence regarding the Romeo and Juliet allusion in the first quartet. Haydn and Mozart never used representational titles in their quartets even when they might conceivably have been appropriate. Certainly in some of Haydh's and Mozart's quartets, strongly profiled and virtually nameable emotional states stand right at the border of consciousness--of the performer, of the listener, and probably of the composer. We need only think of Haydn's profound slow movement of Opus 76 No. 5 or the introduction to Mozart's "Dissonant" Quartet, K. 465, the strangest harmonic experiment in all of Mozart's chamber music. That Beethoven could have had the "Dissonant" Quartet in mind, indirectly or as distant recollection, as a potential background to La Malinconia may seem at first far fetched. But in fact the affinities between this slow introduction and the modulatory scheme of the finale of K. 465 are real, though generally unrecognized. At all events, this moment rises like a great peak out of the postclassical landscape of the Opus 18. It foreshadows the wider emotional world that Beethoven would explore several years later in the Opus 59 trilogy, by which time composing string quartets had taken on for him a greatly enlarged range of meanings" (Lockwood: 162-168).