Monday, October 12, 2015

Beethoven - String Quartet No. 5 In A Major, Opus 18, No. 5

The beginnings of the string quartet, a standard ensemble in classical music that consists of two violins, viola, and cello, are difficult to determine. Some musicologists think the genre originated with the trio sonata of the Baroque era. Despite being called a trio sonata, many times more than three instruments played. The name 'trio' designates the number of voices and not necessarily the number of instruments. Indeed,  J.S. Bach wrote trio sonatas for solo organ where the three different parts were distributed between the hands and feet.

But the basic trio sonata was usually written for two solo melodic instruments and bass continuo, three parts and instruments. In many cases, there would also be in the ensemble a bass instrument such as cello or bassoon that played the single notes of the continuo part, along with the continuo played on an instrument capable of harmony such as a keyboard or lute, and the two melodic solo instruments. Musical styles changed and the practice of basso continuo was considered old fashioned so composers wrote out their music for specific numbers of instruments, with the string quartet becoming a standard ensemble.

Early instances of works for 4 string instruments with no continuo were the sonate e quattro of the
Italian composer Allesandro Scarlatti, written in the early 18th century. From these early examples as well as others written by various composers, Joseph Haydn added his imagination and skill to form a standard that was popular with amateur musicians. Mozart was inspired by Haydn and added his genius to the form as well. It was the standards in artistry set by Haydn and Mozart in string quartet writing that inspired Beethoven to write his own string quartets.

Prince Lobkowitz
Beethoven's Opus 18 consisted of 6 string quartets that were commissioned by his patron Prince Joseph von Lobkowitz and were written  between 1798 and 1800. Beethoven purposefully issued his first string quartets in a set of six to emulate Haydn's practice of doing the same. Beethoven was an ambitious young composer and may have wanted to invite comparison of his quartets with those of Haydn. Beethoven took his role as the new kid on the block very seriously, and he considered the premiere of his string quartets as a right of passage.

The String Quartet No. 5 In A Major of the set was intentionally modeled on a quartet by Mozart (K.464) that was in the same key and followed the same general outline. It is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro - The first theme is a light tune that is contrasted by a second group of themes that delves into the minor and is punctuated by motives that follow one another in counterpoint. There is a summing up before the exposition is repeated. The development section begins with a variant of one of the motives of the second theme group until the first theme is then dealt with. Beethoven seamlessly leads into the recapitulation. A short coda ends the well constructed and tuneful first movement.

II. Menuetto - A graceful minuet has a bit of individuality thrown in by the way of dark minor rumblings towards the end of the first statement.  The trio throws the ear a curve by accenting the third beat in the measure.

III. Andante cantabile - Mozart's example of a set of variations is also followed by Beethoven in the third movement, but the music is all Beethoven. The theme is a simple one in D major that rises and falls, with not much to recommend it as the basis for a set of variations:
The first variation begins with the solo cello and the other instruments enter in contrapuntal fashion.
The second variation has the first violin play an elaborate version of the theme while the other instruments offer a simple accompaniment.
The third variation has the second violin chatter a simple accompaniment while the other instruments comment on the theme.
The fourth variation is a contemplative variation on the theme that is high lighted by passages in the minor.
The fifth variation picks up the pace as the cello oompahs the bass line while the viola and second violin play a rhythmic variant of the theme. The first violin plays trills above them, and joins them a few times.
A coda continues to comment upon the theme in a slower pace until the music rises to a forte. After a brief pause, the first violin slowly plays the theme, the other have their final say, and the music ends pianissimo.

IV. Allegro - The final movement begins with a theme that finds the instruments chasing each other until the second theme group begins in a more hushed tone. The development takes up the first theme and takes it afield in key and mood. Parts of the secondary theme group are interjected until the recapitulation begins. A coda deals with themes once more before the music ends very softly and rather suddenly.


  1. Hello. I apologize for asking a question that's only marginally related, but I'm not sure how else to reach you. I'm trying to ID a gorgeous snippet of music that appears in the background of a commercial, but I know so little about music that all of my searches have been fruitless. If you have time to listen to the commercial and weigh in, I'd be very grateful. Thanks for coming this far, and best wishes to you. (Link follows; a few of us who love, but aren't knowledgable about, classical music were thinking that it might be by a Russian composer who is addressing/incorporating Moorish influences, but we can't quite say why we're thinking "Russian." Thanks again.)

  2. I have tried to figure out the piece of music in question, but no luck so far. It sounds familiar, but I can't place it.