First, let's listen to that slow introduction to the First Symphony which seems to be saying, "here we are in this key--no, I changed my mind--how about this key instead? No, C major is best, after all."
For my purposes here, you only need to listen up to the 1'30 mark, when he has finished fooling around with the key and settled into the C major of the Allegro. Now, on to the F major quartet, no 1 of op 59. Here is the opening:
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Now we certainly could be in F major. That is the key signature and there are no notes outside that key. But it doesn't feel grounded in F because the melody, which is also the bass line, as it is in the cello, stresses three notes: C, C again, then F and finally G. C, F and G are the three important roots of C major, not F major where they are F, Bb and C. Beethoven largely avoids Bb in order to keep the key a bit ambiguous. We could almost be in C major. Now let's listen to that whole first movement.
There is so much going on there that I could probably write posts on it for the next two weeks! Yes, he does give us a nice solid cadence in F major, but immediately after, seems to undermine it. This is a long first movement, around eleven minutes, and there is no repeat of the exposition--it is all written out. In the middle there is a substantial double fugue on one theme derived from those eighth notes of the opening, while the other theme is a development of the leap of a sixth in the third measure. Everything is unexpected, like the long digression into Db major, but somehow right. You can never quite predict where he is going, even when he begins a sequence. It is as if Beethoven is using harmony to map out new musical continents. No-one had ever written music like this before, in which every note seems to take on new roles as the movement unfolds. I think you could listen to this music a hundred times and keep hearing new relationships you never noticed before. Even something as seemingly trivial as those long held chords that we hear between 0'35 and 0'45 come back stretched out and separated sounding a bit like something from a Webern quartet. There is nothing here that is perfunctory, that is obvious, that is gratuitous. Every note has significance, but that significance is only revealed as the movement unfolds. Neither Haydn nor Mozart could have written this movement, but they laid the groundwork. Here are the other movements of the quartet, which are also extraordinary, especially the second one, a scherzo that seems to begin with nothing at all:
And goes to many unexpected places... The third movement is one of desolation in F minor:
The three quartets of op 59 were commissioned by a Russian nobleman and Beethoven was asked to use a Russian theme in each. He saves it for the last movement. In the original the theme was in D minor, but Beethoven, in a way reminiscent of the opening of the first movement, insists on harmonizing it in C. The movement is full of gentle parody: