Skip to page content

Beethoven was 27 when he started his first six quartets in 1798, and 29 when he finished them. His reputation, confidence, and ability were all growing during those years. So was his hearing loss. He had established his reputation and contacts with the liberal nobility in Vienna, and was moving rapidly into the "middle period" style that would change the face of music with a decade-long torrent of masterpieces. He revised the quartets extensively, and indeed the first quartet of the set has given Beethoven scholars a valuable look at his creative process because a preliminary version of it survives. Beethoven had given a copy to Karl Amenda, a violinist and close friend, who left Vienna before Beethoven did the final version. Beethoven did not ask him to send the manuscript back, but did send him a letter asking him not to circulate it because Beethoven had changed it, "having now learned how to write quartets." The remark is typical for Beethoven; even after the Ninth Symphony, he said he felt like he was just learning how to compose. And in a sense, he was always learning, his style always changing, always in transition.
The first quartet is an expansive work. The first movement is a tightly-knit excursion in which tension lies just below the lyrical themes.

According to the first decent biography of Beethoven, when Amenda told Beethoven that the atmospheric Adagio made him think of lovers separating, Beethoven replied that he was thinking of the burial vault scene in Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet's feigned death turns into a double suicide. Beethoven's sketches even have notations (in French, for some reason) correlating bits of Shakespeare's action with musical motifs.

The last two movements are less serious, often characterized by wry humor or, as in the middle section of the scherzo, overtly comic.

- Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner also annotates programs for the Salzburg Festival.