The first set of quartets from Beethoven, and the only time he grouped six together under one opus number, are the op. 18 quartets. The first written was actually no. 3, in D major. It's quite a nice piece, but not in the same league as the F major quartet, published as no. 1 on the advice of the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, whose quartet premiered them, but probably written second. This is the biggest and most popular of the set. The first and last movements are quite substantial--and lengthy. The scherzo does its job quite effectively. But it is the second movement I find most interesting, the Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato. Here is the Alban Berg Quartet with the second movement of op. 18, no. 1:
This is undoubtedly a powerful piece of music. Joseph Kerman in his book The Beethoven Quartets makes the point that it is not entirely successful--he calls it "sentimentality" rather than "sentiment"--because at this point in his life Beethoven had more compositional technique than he had emotional depth to make use of it. Possibly true, but perhaps difficult to demonstrate!
What I like about the movement is the quality it has of offering a certain kind of movement or expression, and then delivering a different one. I might compare it to an experience I had once in the interior of Vancouver Island. I was hiking around by myself and knew I was near the highest mountain on the island, the Golden Hinde, but I wasn't sure where it was exactly. Then, I came up over a ridge and suddenly, there it was, looming above me.
I have a similar feeling in this Adagio when suddenly it feels as if the whole aesthetic spectrum has opened out into a new realm of feeling. The movement begins with a deeply expressive melody in the first violin.
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Apart from the E, it begins by simply outlining the tonic chord of D minor. Then there are some turn type ornaments. A bit later, there is a modulation to G minor and that turn is elaborated into this:
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What is interesting here is that underneath that flurry of thirty-second notes in the first violin is a standard sort of development of the original turn motif by the second violin and viola. The first violin line seems rather extraneous. So what Beethoven does that most fascinates me is, instead of reining in the first violin, he gives that thirty-second note motif to the second violin and viola, forte, so it is even more out of balance. And the first violin goes back to the original melody. It is even more stark than that. What happens is the first violin restates the original melody and half way through, the thirty-second note figure butts in, forte, and nearly overpowers the melody.
This is probably the kind of thing that Kerman was referring to. Aesthetically it is a bit of a dogfight! But what I love about it is its very inappropriateness. Beethoven will always be going a bit further than you thought he would and this is one of the earliest instances of it. He was going to upset the classical balance and restraint in his music no matter what. In this recording from 1953 by the Barylli Quartet, the phrase starts at the 6:05 mark and the thirty-second note figure starts at the 6:22 mark:
This version if anything underplays the dynamics of the thirty-second note figure. The Emerson Quartet version doesn't seem to be on YouTube. Here is a live performance by the Acacia Quartet that seems to capture the manic quality of the thirty-second note figure quite well. The phrase starts at the 6:48 mark:
Just another moment in a piece by Beethoven that seems to be the kind of thing that no other composer quite seems able to do.