Beethoven wrote these first six quartets while Joseph Haydn was still alive. Haydn was the acknowledged master of the string quartet, and along with Mozart he had taken the form to a new level. Beethoven was flexing his musical muscle and showing with his first quartet that the form still had possibilities.
The quartet begins with a statement of the first movement's major theme in unison by all four instruments. The theme goes through some dramatic development in the middle section of the movement. The second movement has been compared to the tomb scene in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. some say Beethoven himself did the comparison, some say the friend that he gave the first version of the quartet to said it. Regardless of who said it, the movement is a passionate, dramatic one. The Scherzo and Finale are both short movements and help to balance out the first two long movements.
Beethoven went on to compose a total of sixteen string quartets over a span of 26 years. He became a master of the form and used it for some of his most profound and beautiful music.