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BEETHOVEN Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 18, No. 3
Angela Sin Ying Chan, violin
Abigail Fayette, violin
Sung Jin Lee, viola
Zachary Mowitz, cello
Performed on Saturday, April 30, 2016
Field Concert Hall, Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia
Andante con moto
Joseph Haydn, the “father of the string quartet,” is rightfully known for his role in creating and popularizing the string quartet in the 18th century, but Ludwig van Beethoven is renowned as the composer who elevated string quartet music to the lofty artistic position it has enjoyed though the present day. Prior to Beethoven’s time, chamber music was often composed for amateur musicians performing at informal events, like dinner parties or town gatherings. In contrast, larger works, such as symphonies, concertos, and operas, were the realm of professional musicians, performed in large, formal concerts. Beginning his career in this atmosphere, Beethoven composed string quartets of increasing size and complexity, culminating in the massive, extremely difficult quartets of his late period that could only be performed by the most elite professional musicians of the time. Over the course of his sixteen string quartets, Beethoven firmly established the form on the same artistic level as the symphony and the opera.
The six quartets of Op. 18 are Beethoven’s first published works in the genre. Published in 1801, they fall towards the end of his early period, when the influence of Haydn and Mozart was still evident in Beethoven’s style. Each quartet takes a traditional form, beginning with an “Allegro” movement, followed by a slow movement, a minuet or scherzo, and a fast finale. But even in Beethoven’s earliest quartets, hints of his revolutionary future were already discernible. For example, the fourth quartet begins with bold statements in C minor and an ominous, unrelenting atmosphere that would become a hallmark of Beethoven’s style in the following decades. Prior to Beethoven’s time, chamber music was rarely composed in minor keys, and composers tended to use a lighter atmosphere: In contrast, only ten of Haydn’s 67 quartets and just two of Mozart’s 23 quartets were in minor keys. Beethoven would go on to write a third of his quartets in minor keys, and his use of dark, even aggressive, tones was a marked change from the light, family-friendly chamber works of earlier composers.
Beethoven also took an innovative approach to the relative weight of movements within a chamber work. In earlier generations, composers usually concentrated the most exciting material in the first movement, with any additional movements taking a lighter, less serious tone. In contrast, Beethoven increasingly created a dramatic arc through all the movements of a work, often reserving his best material for the final movement, or weaving references to the same material throughout different movements. The Op. 18 No. 6 quartet in B-flat major is one of the most notable early examples of this style, reaching its peak at the beginning of the fourth movement in a section Beethoven titles La Malinconia, or “melancholy”. While each of the Opus 18 quartets lasts about 25 minutes—no longer than a typical quartet by Mozart or Haydn—he effectively expanded the scope of the form by sustaining the musical drama of each quartet over all four movements. As Beethoven moved into his middle period, and especially his late period, he continued his innovations, composing groundbreaking new works that solidified the string quartet’s position as an essential genre within classical music.