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Beethoven’s String Quartets: A Short Guide

String quartet: A composition for solo string instruments, usually two violins, viola, and cello; it is widely regarded as the supreme form of chamber music. —Grove Music Online

That’s the textbook definition. Beethoven inherited the string-quartet tradition from his predecessors and shaped it into something unsurpassed in virtuosity, invention, and expressiveness. The definition could well read, “Beethoven’s quartets are widely regarded as the supreme form of chamber music.”

He wrote 16 string quartets, and they reveal his evolution as a composer and a man. It’s all there: earthy wit (yes, Beethoven could crack a joke), volatile temper (his fury was state of the art), and personal sorrow (he had plenty to weep about).

Early Period (1798–1800)

String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 18, No. 6

The six Op. 18 string quartets look back to Haydn and Mozart while also staking out bold new ground. Listen to this quartet’s finale—subtitled “La Malincolia” (“Melancholy”)—for a dramatic and highly unorthodox dialogue between anguish and joy.

Middle Period (1806–1814)

String Quartet in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1, “Razumovsky”

Who or what was Razumovsky? He was Count Andrey Kirillovich Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna, an amateur musician, one of Beethoven’s patrons, and dedicatee of the three Op. 59 quartets. Beethoven honored him by quoting Russian tunes in the first two quartets of the set, but there’s humor too. The first quartet’s second movement repeats a single cello note so often, the cellist of the Schuppanzigh Quartet—who premiered many of the pieces—became so agitated that he threw his score to the ground and refused to play it.

String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95, “Serioso”

The final quartet from Beethoven’s middle period is a bridge to his mind-bending late quartets. He dubbed it “Serioso,” and he wasn’t kidding. The briefest of the 16, it’s an intense ride from its opening notes. The second movement takes you to a strange but fascinating new world, with an otherworldly exploration of quirky counterpoint (composing with two or more simultaneous melodies) that quietly fades like a dream before the tumultuous final movements.

Late Period (1824–1827)

Depth of expression, grandeur of proportion, and technical complexity make Beethoven’s late quartets the revolutionary pinnacle of the form. Entire books have been written about this music, but you don’t need to be a musicologist to be fascinated—just listen.

String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131

Beethoven flippantly said to his publisher that this quartet was “patched together from odd bits and pieces here and there.” Tongue in cheek notwithstanding, it was his favorite quartet and an absolute game changer. Tossing convention aside by casting the work in seven continuous sections rather than the traditional four, Beethoven mines vast emotional gold from the introspective opening—the “saddest thing ever said in notes,” according to Wagner—to the tempestuous finale. Along the way are the fourth movement’s epic variations, a giddy scherzo, and a heart-wrenching Adagio you might recognize from an episode of the World War II series Band of Brothers. This quartet was played for Schubert on his deathbed, prompting him to say, “After this, what is left for us to compose?”

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