Beethoven Op. 18 String Quartets, Part 1
In 1798, Beethoven, all of 28 years old, was about to begin a project that would take him to the last days of his life, a project that would result in some of the most far-reaching, most cosmic, most life-affirming, most dramatic, and simply put, some of the greatest music he, or anyone else, ever wrote. This project that Beethoven was beginning was his first set of string quartets. Beethoven wrote/published 16 string quartets during his life, and they are both a superhuman achievement and yet also a testament to the ability of a single person to create music of vast complexity and the deepest of emotions, all for just 4 musicians.
To really understand Beethoven’s quartets, and his achievements with them as he progressed through his life, we have to start at the beginning. Beethoven was very rarely in the shadow of anyone during his life, but when it came to the string quartet, Beethoven still felt very much indebted to two of his colleagues, Haydn and Mozart. Haydn had essentially invented the genre of the string quartet, and by 1798 was beginning the massive project of cataloguing and writing out his 68 string quartets. Mozart had died only 7 years earlier, leaving us with some of the most pristine and gorgeous entries in this still relatively new at the time genre of instrumentation.
Beethoven’s music is often separated in to early, middle, and late periods, and these string quartets are always placed into the early period, which makes sense considering his later works, but also belies the fact that Beethoven had already accomplished quite a bit by the time he turned 30! It’s safe to say that these pieces come near the end of this early period, where Beethoven was still working out how to embrace the classical traditions that he admired so much in composers like Mozart and Haydn, while also finding his own path as the creator of brand new traditions, smashing the rule book along the way.
So this week, I wanted to take you through an overview of these amazing works. We’ll talk about the genre of the string quartet itself, what Haydn and Mozart had essentially codified when Beethoven wrote his Op. 18s, and of course, what Beethoven did with this genre, even at this early stage, which is often absolutely astonishing in its creativity, intensity, and just plain excitement.