The Opus 18 quartets (1801), particularly No. 1, have Haydn’s stamp deeply imprinted on them in their geniality, innovation and wit. But these early chamber works of B have another layer, a kind of hard-edged brilliance or impetuosity not encountered in Haydn’s music. The quartet was heavily revised between the version that Amenda received and the one sent to the publisher a year later, including changing the second mvmt's marking from Adagio molto to the more expressive Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato. Of these modifications, B wrote: "Be sure not to hand on to anybody your quartet, in which I have made some drastic alterations. For only now have I learnt to write quartets; and this you will notice, I fancy, when you receive them."|
In the extraordinary second mvmt, according to one of the letters of B’s friend Karl Amenda, B sought to depict, in musical terms, the tomb scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. B’s choice of key, D minor, hearkens back to Mozart’s stormy and tragic associations with that key. But in B’s quartet we are asked to confront tragedy head-on, almost as an adversary. The opening is hushed, yet there is a feeling of heaviness in the accompaniment’s steady rhythm that oppresses the whispered theme. Although sweeter passages intervene, suggesting remembrance of happier times, the mvmt’s ultimate message is never in doubt. Particularly in the middle and in the coda, where the quartet is whipped up to a frenzy, denoting a truly Beethovenian raging against fate, we clearly have left the classical era behind, and we get a foretaste of the power this composer will generate in his later years.
The Op. 131 Quartet was composed 25 years later when B’s life was troubled by his brother’s death, his own illness, financial worries, intermittent depression, and the battle for guardianship of his nephew Karl. The quartet’s late style is characterized by interleaving of melodies across voices, movement of motifs through the instruments, and abrupt contrasts in tempo, dynamics and articulation. The 1st mvmt fugue is marked Molto expressivo, thus pointing to the greater expressiveness of the Romantic Period. The 2nd mvmt continues the fugal style, focusing on a lyrical theme. The brief 3rd mvmt violin cadenza leads to a 4th mvmt with a lyrical theme put thru 7 variations. The 5th mvmt has a leaping, popular tune boosted with surprises, while the 6th is a buffer before the last mvmt in traditional sonata form ends the quartet majestically. Schumann said this quartet had “…grandeur … which no words can express.”