Ludwig van Beethoven is, of course, a mainstay of classical music. We’ve all heard of him, and chances are we would recognize at least one piece of music he wrote. And for good reason. He wrote enough music that we could probably listen to only Beethoven and be occupied for over a year. Scholars spend decades on a single Beethoven symphony. His music is simultaneously complex and simple, powerful and delicate.
For these reasons (and many more), Beethoven is worth a closer look. There are dozens of ways to study Beethoven’s music, but perhaps the best way is chronologically. Beethoven’s music can be divided into three periods: early, middle, and late. Each period reveals a different aspect of Beethoven’s maturation as a composer and shows just how much he accelerated the development of music in his relatively short lifetime. I thought it might be beneficial, then, for us to learn a little bit about each of these periods in Beethoven’s music through a series on the Beethoven string quartets. He wrote 16 of them, but we will examine 6 of the best. We will spend two weeks on each period, with a different quartet each week. My hope is that, by the end of this series, you will have a deeper appreciation for one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time.
This week we will be looking at the very first of Beethoven’s string quartets, the F Major. As with most quartets, this composition has four movements that can be characterized with the one-word descriptors “presentation,” “slow,” “fast,” “finale.” This quartet fits with the style that was popular at the time, a style that imitated the compositions of Franz Joseph Haydn. Haydn was a renowned composer who served as a mentor to Beethoven and several other composers, and he is often credited with “inventing” the string quartet. His style was light and airy, with dainty flourishes in the violins and simple cello accompaniment lines. Beethoven’s early string quartets adopted this style, and the F Major is a perfect example. You will hear the opening motif with all four voices, after which the first violin launches into the melodic role and stays there for nearly the entire work.