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String Quartet in D, Op. 18, No. 3

April 8, 2018: Danish String Quartet

The D major Quartet may have been the first of the Opus 18 Quartets that Beethoven completed. When he began composing quartets in 1798 he was well aware that he was entering a hallowed and well-populated arena, represented at its best and therefore most daunting by Mozart and Haydn. He was particularly cognizant of the six quartets Mozart had dedicated to Haydn, as well as Mozart’s Prussian Quartets and Haydn’s own Opus 20, 71, 74, and 76 quartets. Only with the composition and publication of piano trios, piano sonatas, cello sonatas, string trios, and violin sonatas under his belt did Beethoven feel ready to begin writing quartets in earnest. His sketchbooks show that he composed Quartets Nos. 3, 1, 2, and 5 in that order; there is some indication that No. 6 was composed last, but little information exists as to where No. 4 fits into the scheme.

The Opus 18 Quartets were commissioned by Beethoven’s new patron Prince Lobkowitz, who at the same time commissioned six from the aging Haydn, who was unable to produce more than two and part of another. Inevitably Beethoven must have felt the heat of competition on many levels, and the task, which took him two years to complete, involved much revision. He is famously quoted as writing to his friend Karl Amenda in 1801 about an early version of Opus 18, no. 1, saying not to circulate it, for “I have greatly changed it, having just learned how to write quartets properly.” The Quartets were published in 1801 by Mollo, one of three publishers kept busy by Beethoven that year. As a measure of how far Beethoven had come by the time he wrote the Opus 18 Quartets we should remember that his First Symphony, also published in 1801, came into existence alongside the Quartets.

The striking opening of the D major Quartet occurs within a quiet framework as the first violin alone offers a yearning leap, then gently fills in the space and descends even further over murmured chordal support by the other instruments. This signature leap marks various entrances throughout the movement, and is used ingeniously in anticipation of the recapitulation (played by second violin) and immediately following as the recapitulation begins (first violin). Beethoven’s inventiveness at this structural juncture shows in the textural and dynamic contrast and in the slight harmonic adjustment at the actual moment the recapitulation begins.

The rich warmth of the slow movement is palpable even without knowing that Beethoven accomplished this color change in part thought his choice of a somewhat remote key (B-flat major). A nice touch is the start of the main theme with the second violin on top of the texture, soon to be leapfrogged by the first violin.

The scherzo, though not so named, delights in offbeat accents and curious pauses. In the minor-mode trio section Beethoven created a wonderfully windy, slightly eerie effect with a line of swirling eighth notes passed off from the second to the first violin, accompanied by the slower parallel descent of the other three instruments.

The opening of the finale is just as memorable as that of the first movement, again initiated by the first violin. This time, however, we are whisked away in a merry romp, in which Beethoven’s sense of humor roundly deposits us on unexpected harmonic way stations. Both the development section and coda of this masterfully conceived sonata form feature a grand display of the composer’s early period contrapuntal prowess, which would find ultimate expression in the monumental Grosse Fuge. With irrepressible wit Beethoven winds up the movement in a whisper, employing the little three-note motive that launched the proceedings.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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