Eureka! Experiencing Music Through Beethoven's First String Quartet

Tim Farrand

There are moments in life when we receive something of a revelation. A sudden leap in our understanding or experience allows us to transcend our current position and welcome in a new realization. This "Eureka moment," colloquially known as the "aha" moment, is when we have a burst of knowledge or awareness rush in and change our relationship to the object at hand.

Every Friday afternoon during my Freshman year at University I was required to attend, along with all other first-year music students, an event title "Freshman Experience." The purpose of this was to expose all of the new students to different aspects of a life in music. Most of these meetings would consist of one of the faculty members, a different one each week, sharing with us the "aha" moment when they knew that a career in music was a necessity for them. These were often experiences when something clicked, a moment of transcendence attained, when the power of music swept them to new heights.

I have had a few of these Eureka moments, one of which being the first time I really experienced music. It coincided with the first time that nature took hold of me and my eyes were opened to the incredible beauty of the world. It was the first time a piece of music presented its overwhelming power to overtake my emotions and transport me to innumerable places. For me, it was Beethoven's String Quartet No. 1 in F major. 

I had always been intrigued by Beethoven's works but this piece hit me unlike anything else. It changed my relationship with music and how I would approach it from that point onward. Beethoven's string quartet opened my eyes to the incredible possibilities that lie within music and gave me a vision of what I wanted to achieve as a performer.

For Beethoven, it was the first step on the staircase of his great ascent to the creation of works still very much within today's repertoire. In this article, I explore how Beethoven came to this work as well as my own "aha" moment with it. Then, I will explore the piece itself so as to share this burst of creation with you.

Stepping onto the Scene

In 1801, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) firmly planted his feet upon the musical scene in Vienna with his first attempts at two majors genres: the symphony and the string quartet.

Portrait of Beethoven, 1801

For any composer of 18th and 19th century Vienna, symphonies and string quartets, along with operas, were the centerpieces of a composer’s output. It was within these genres that your work would be compared with that of the established masters of the time. Mozart established himself as the master of Opera and Haydn as the father of the symphony. Both composers set the standard for the genre of the string quartet.

A successful attempt at a work within one of these genres would show that you were worthy of attention. An unsuccessful foray would perhaps leave quite a stain upon you in comparison to the level of musical output readily available in Vienna at the turn of the 19th century.

Beethoven comes to Vienna

Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792 in order to work with Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). Beethoven had traveled to Vienna a few years prior with the hope of studying with Mozart. Unfortunately, Beethoven's mother fell ill and he had to return to Bonn. Mozart died in 1791, a year before Beethoven could return.

Even if Haydn would not be Beethoven's first choice, through him (and others) Beethoven would be able to hone his compositional craft and solidify his education in the musical traditions prevalent on the scene of the day.

As Beethoven was leaving Bonn, Count Waldstein—the patron funding Beethoven's trip to Vienna— wrote him the following note:

Dear Beethoven: You are going to Vienna in fulfillment of your long-frustrated wishes. The Genius of Mozart is still mourning and weeping over the death of her pupil. She found a refuge but no occupation with the inexhaustible Haydn; through him she wishes once more to form a union with another. With the help of assiduous labour you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands. Your true friend, Waldstein. [1]

With a letter such as that, who wouldn't have a bit of an ego about themselves? But Beethoven was patient and sought out the cultivation of his talents. During his first few years in Vienna, Beethoven published works in genres that were not as directly tied to the great masters of the day. Trios, cello sonatas, and pieces for winds allowed him to develop his talents without too much foreshadowing from well-known works of Vienna's musical elite [2].

Beethoven also wrote many Piano Sonatas and established himself as one of the most exciting pianists living in Vienna. He worked with Haydn for a time on his composition studies, but their relationship was not a perfect match.

Joseph Haydn, 1791

To say the personalities of Beethoven and Haydn were a bit different from each other would be an understatement. Here is an account of Haydn's demeanor as recounted by the German painter Albert Christoph Dies who was a friend of Haydn's later in life:

Orderliness seemed as native to him as industry. Tidiness and cleanliness were conspicuous in his person and in his whole household. He never, for instance, received visits before he was fully dressed. If surprised by a friend, he sought to gain at least enough time to put on his wig again.

His love of order prompted Haydn to arrange a careful schedule of work and business hours; he was displeased when necessity forced him to a deviation. It would be far from true, however, to say he was a man who lived by the clock.

[. . . ]

There was in his character much cheerfulness, sport and mischief, the more popular and also the more subtle, but always the most highly original, musical wit. People have often called it humor and have traced back to it, with justice, his predilection for musical teasing.

He was a man of gratitude; as soon as he could he secretly repaid kindnesses done him in his youthful year—but did not forget, meanwhile, his numerous relatives. [3]

Contrast Haydn's personality with a recollection from Karl Czerny on meeting Ludwig van Beethoven for the first time:

We mounted five or six stories high to Beethoven's apartment, and were announced by a rather dirty-looking servant. In a very desolate room, with papers and articles of dress strewn in all directions, bare walls, a few chests, hardly a chair except the rickety one standing by the Walker piano (the best make), there was a party of six or eight people. . . [4]

During his first years in Vienna Beethoven was honing his craft, waiting to step up and make his mark. In 1798, having established himself as a pianist and a budding composer, he decided it was time to attempt the string quartet. He worked for two years on a set of six quartets, revising them until his writing for the genre improved.

In this short period of time, Beethoven's quartet writing was constantly improving. He had given his friend Karl Amenda an early draft of his first quartet which he then asked him not to show to anyone, writing:

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. [5]

Head to Head with Haydn

Haydn Playing String Quartets

Beethoven's quartets were commissioned by Prince Joseph Lobkowitz, who, at the same time, also commissioned Haydn to write a set of string quartets [6]. Perhaps Beethoven felt a little insecurity at being cast against Haydn by the same patron. Haydn wrote his last two quartets for this commission, the second of which is in F major, the key of Beethoven's first quartet. It shows Haydn at the height of the genre with incredibly elegant music that breathes of humanity:

First theme of Movement 1:
Beginning of Movement 3:

Here is the wigged master who was at the end of his life but still composing music that was fresh, full of life, and able to reach a level of elegant emotion. It is Haydn the tender, refined musical genius, and not the fiery upstart Beethoven. Beethoven's first quartets show him paying tribute to the traditions of those before him, but still allowing for his own personality—and hints of his future style—to come through.

Experiencing Music

I always had an affinity for the music of Beethoven but I would say that I completely fell in love with it in the summer between my second and third years of University. This was a time when my relationship with music began to change. 

The summer between my second and third years at University came as a great relief. The semester before, I found myself deeply entrenched in performance after performance, almost to an unbearable degree. I had come to a point where I viewed quantity over quality and was starting to burn out. At the same time, I was expanding my knowledge of music through my coursework. Whole new aspects of music were opened up to me through my studies and interactions with professors. I was learning to appreciate the nuance of the musical language and my ears were expanding in what they were able to comprehend.

With the incessant performances, I was barely ever listening to music but rather just constantly in a state of trying to get new music into my fingers for whatever was coming up next. It wasn't until the summer when I was finally able to detach myself and get a break. 

I allowed myself to let go of music for a few weeks to concentrate on some other pursuits. I remember that summer being the first time I really noticed the intoxicating beauty of nature. The world around me opened up. I couldn't believe how beautiful everything had been all this time and I had never truly noticed. It was there, just sitting there, with its incredible fragrance and vibrant colors. I was, for the first time, taking it all in.

This experience was analogous to the first time I started reading philosophy. I remember reading David Hume's An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding as well as several texts on eastern philosophy. Having taken an interest in meditation. I started, for the first time, to fully live within the present.

Whitman, Song of Myself 3
I am satisfied—I see, dance, laugh, sing;

When I came back to music, I was somehow different. There was patience that came over me. I had no agenda when listening (like I had when I was studying for courses or preparing for a performance). I was simply able to sit and truly listen—without distraction or any particular motive—to the music.

I was always enamored by music but it had often been as a curiosity. I wanted to learn about the music perhaps more than I was particularly interested in the experience of music itself. I loved documentaries and interviews where I could learn a bit of the external that went into producing a certain piece and it was from that vantage point that I would then listen to the work. Now, I was able to fully inhabit music from the inside out. I could appreciate it for a thing within itself. I was still curious, but I no longer needed it as a way to experience a work.

I remember one of the first pieces I listened to that summer was Beethoven's First String Quartet Op. 18, No. 1. I was sitting in a chair, looking out of a window at an apple tree with birds flying in and out. I put on my headphones and let the fusion of the beauty of nature and Beethoven's music occur. I was overtaken and for the first time had completely opened myself up to allowing the music to flow through and grab a hold of me.

The power of the music was incredible. The notes were no longer sound but rather the carriers of expression. They were simply the transmitter for the emotionality of the piece. I became its energy. I became its emotion. Through me, I was able to feel—feel in a way I never had before—the expression of the work. The emotions contained within the piece became my emotions. They bubbled up and poured out. I couldn't resist the incredible energy of the opening, with its wide-eyed optimism that made me grin from ear to ear. I felt the poignant pain and grief that comes in the second movement and embodied those deep and agonizing emotions. The entire work flowed into my ears and captivated my senses. It was one of the most profound moments of experience I have ever had and its memory is vividly embedded within me.

Pastoral F Major

There is something about the fullness of Summer that strikes a resonance with Beethoven's F major works. A pastoral setting seems to run through those works such as his "Pastoral" Sixth Symphony, his Op. 10, No. 2 Piano Sonata—which I have fond memories of performing—or the three quartets in F major that are very dear to me. There is a mixture of tenderness with a fresh energy that echoes the bliss of Summer.

Who is not completely uplifted with a sense of wonderful ecstasy from the opening of Beethoven's Middle Period F major String Quartet Op. 59, No. 1:

I feel myself bubbling over with joy in a way that is unique within Beethoven's music. This energy and vitality, the sense of life, the optimism, a feeling that, right now, everything is perfect, is something that I feel comes so often in Beethoven's works in F major.

Perhaps F major, for Beethoven, was a reflection of the countryside, the sweet summer air, a time to leave the noisy city and spend the summer on the outskirts of town where one can feel the cool breeze wafting the hair or enjoy the birds singing at the edge of a brook.

String Quartet No. 1 Op. 18, No. 1

In the first few bars of his String Quartet No. 1, Beethoven is able to fuse together both vitality and tenderness. He opens with a statement that bursts with energy and then turns on a dime to present the gentle caress of tenderness itself. Then, flipping the switch, gives the first statement with even more energy followed by even greater tenderness. From there, Beethoven builds up to the movements first cadence:

Right from the opening, Beethoven shows how one motif, this little turn figure—a musical gesture that expands a tone with the notes directly above and below it—can be expressed in very different ways. From the energy of the first two bars to the tenderness of the second two, Beethoven gives us the range of possibilities contained in one simple musical statement. The motif itself remains the same but the way it is dressed changes. In the first, each instrument plays the same thing. In the second, the first violin takes the motif while the other strings have soft, sustained chords with an added swell in dynamic, further enhancing the feeling of tenderness.

The Turn Figure

Turn Figure

This quartet reveals so much of what will become defining elements in Beethoven's style in the next decade of his output. His ability to have incredible contrasts that, at times, can jolt you out of your seat or, as in the above example, can feel as natural as anything else. He will explore a variety of dynamics, articulation, and expression that pushes this art form into new possibilities.

Perhaps most notable is the pervasiveness of one singular motif in this first movement: the turn figure from above. This will be a hallmark of Beethoven's style, perhaps the most famous example being his Fifth Symphony with its four opening notes appearing throughout the work in all various forms. Here, in his first quartet, he is planting the seed for that forthcoming development.

Listen to how the turn motif, after being the featured musical gesture, is relegated to the cello as a simple background comment onto a new musical idea:

Beethoven's ability for contrast can be heard in the following section that uses scales to build from a soft yet energetic conversation between the violin and cello to the loud outburst of the entire quartet joining in the scales. Then, the first violin simply allows it all to float away into the air before the entrance of a completely different theme.

Silence itself becomes a musical object for Beethoven. Listen to how the music seems to float up and just evaporate. There is stillness that makes you curious about what will happen next, at which point Beethoven comes in with powerful chords that build up to a breaking point but instead of being a climax, simply release themselves back to a soft, energetic phrase similar to the one heard towards the beginning of the movement:

Developing ideas

The simple turn figure is presented throughout the middle section but with different clothing based on the context of its appearance. Beethoven shows the immense power of a single motif to not only express a wide range of affects but also unite an entire piece together by creating, at the same time, a sense of contrast and fluidity. This craftsmanship from minimal material will be a defining aspect of his later works.

Take a listen to the development section—the middle of the movement where all of the musical ideas presented in the first half are deconstructed and used in a variety of different manners. Track all the different ways Beethoven finds to insert that simple turn figure while allowing the music to infect your veins:

With that forceful return of the opening statement, Beethoven presents the material, now having developed it, back into its original form for what is called a recapitulation or "recap."

At the end of the movement, Beethoven decides to end slightly differently than he did in the first main section. He brings back the unison from the very opening of the movement but this time asks the players to play "fortissimo" or with as much power and force possible as they plod up a scale, coming to a hold. Then, repeating the gesture slightly lower, they ascend again with even more force. After the second hold, in a great Beethovenian gesture, the music goes in the opposite direction to "pianissimo" (as soft as possible) with the return of half of the turn figure, yet still retaining that inner energy. The contrast between soft and loud become the defining features of the very end of the movement. Notice how these gestures make your feel:

Movement 2

The second movement is perhaps the crowning jewel of Beethoven's first set of quartets. After the vitality of the first movement comes the tender pathos of the second. He switches from F major to D minor, creating a very dark world indicative of the grave scene he is presenting.

When Beethoven first played this movement for his friend Karl Amenda, Amenda remarked that it sounded like the "parting of two lovers" to which Beethoven supposedly replied: "Right, I was thinking as I wrote of the scene in the burial vault from Romeo and Juliet" [7]. There are certain indications in the original manuscript that confirm at least an initial inspiration from Shakespeare's tragic play.

Norman Price, Juleit's Death

At the burial scene, Romeo finds Juliet lying in the crypt. He, like everyone else, believes her to be dead, but she has simply drunk a potion from the Friar that will make her sleep for two days and then miraculously awaken. At seeing her, Romeo falls into despair and decides to join her in death with the drinking of poison. He falls to the ground and Juliet finally wakes up, discovers her lover dead, and decides she cannot go on, piercing a dagger through her heart.

Beethoven's movement is really an encapsulation of the emotions of pain, grief, and loss. At the end of the movement comes a few gestures that echo Juliet's final demise but the rest of the music is really an examination of the different emotions felt by the loss of one's lover. He removes the element of the linear story and focuses in on what Joseph Kerman calls the "emotionality" of Shakespeare's scene [8].

In many ways, this is similar to the function of an aria in an opera. Dialogue, or recitative, would move the story forward but Arias would pause the action and allow an individual to step outside the plot in order to express the inner emotions going on inside the character.

Beethoven's Aria

Listen to the opening of this movement. The lower strings set the atmosphere with a funeral-like series of repeated notes. Then comes the first violin, emerging upon a single note out of the texture and into a mournful melody. The first violin sings a tragic aria supported by the rest of the players:

In that last section, you can hear how silence poignantly appears as an essential part of the music along with contrasts in dynamics heard in the first movement.

After the opening, there is this incredible dialogue going on between the first violin and the cello. For me, the first violin is the representation of Juliet and the cello of Romeo. An aria turned to duet, Beethoven is able to pause time and unite the lovers in their separate grief. They both feel the same depth of pain and loss which music allows to be expressed simultaneously. Listen to the cello's brief repetition of the opening melody, followed by comments back and forth between the cello (occasionally replaced by the viola) and the first violin through which a range of different emotions are given:

Beethoven writes in a way that allows for both cello and violin to be separate entities. In the play, the two lovers have no dialogue together during this scene but Beethoven, through the unique construct of music, contains both their emotions within this one moment.

As in life, grief comes with nostalgia. After the expression of loss in the first melody comes a section that contains a sense of reflection. As if looking back upon past times, Beethoven expresses the feeling of remembrance:

After this nostalgic moment comes silence again, followed by music that gives the impression of searching for what to feel next. Beethoven builds to a return of the opening melody appearing in an outburst of emotion. This is full grief being expressed with pains shooting through the heart with those lightening-like runs in the first violin:

The outburst is followed by a turning inward, perhaps holding in or simply not having the ability to say anything more. This is punctuated by painful silence where the feeling of emptiness is most felt before a return of the opening melody, this time riddled with loud interjections of sobbing pain contrasted with moments of an eerie form of calm stillness:

Joseph Kerman relates this movement to an aria out of the operas of Bellini (born the same year Beethoven published this quartet). I agree, but he signals out the transcendent aria "Casta Diva" [9] from the opera Norma whereas I feel a different part of that same opera is much more akin to this music. 

I find the music when Norma is contemplating whether she should kill her children in order to keep them from going with their father a better fit. It is dark and the children are asleep. Norma, in a recitative, tells that she must kill them to spite her their wretched father. Then, (around 3 minutes) the aria begins and she expresses the contrasting feelings within her: to kill them or allow them to live? Listen to this excerpt from Norma (sung by the incredible Sondra Radvanovsky) and consider its similarity to Beethoven's expression of lover's grief above:

This indecision found in Bellini is also in Beethoven. They both poignantly represent that moment of time, thinking whether to live in eternal grief, stripped of your love, or to die, for living would be too much to bear.

Beautiful reflections upon the beloved appear again at a moment of great pain just before the entrance of the cello's version of the opening melody. At last, a decision has be made. Juliet takes the dagger and thrusts it into her chest. The last lilting, falling embellishment in the violin symbolizes her gentle collapse with the two final chords representing her disappearing into silence:

Movements 3 and 4

After the tender pathos of the second movement, Beethoven turns to light, jocular music that seems to express a bit of mischief with humor-filled energy. It is almost like watching a fool's skit in the court of a nobleman, so many of which can be found throughout Shakespeare:

In the middle section, Beethoven introduces something akin to a chase scene. Running arabesques are contrasted with a feeling of hiding behind or rock or a tree, then cast off to run again. This music is followed by a repetition of the opening section of the movement:

The final movement is full of lightness and energy expressing an unbridled joy of life:

This movement presents a kind of "fairy music" that Michael Parloff [10] relates to what Felix Mendelssohn would compose twenty years later in music to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream:

You can even find a relationship between the middle section of Beethoven's above third movement with the donkey "hee-haws" of Mendelssohn:

Find Your Own Experience

Beethoven includes so much within just this first quartet. Over this two-year period, Beethoven wrote five other quartets to be included in the publication of 1801. Each of them presents something new while paying homage to the traditions of the past.

I will end by including two different performances of Beethoven's First String Quartet in full. They are both performed live, one by the Alban Berg Quartett and the other by the Belcea Quartet. It is fascinating how the personalities of these two different groups changes, in small ways, the expression of the music. I encourage you to explore your own experience of this incredible music!


1 Grove Music Online.

2 Michael Parloff, "Lecture on Beethoven Quartets Op. 18, Nos. 1, 2, and 3," Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center,

3 Otto Zoff (editor), Great Composers Through the Eyes of their Contemporaries, p. 105-106.

4 Ibid., p. 142-43.

5 Robert Winter and Robert Martin (editors), The Beethoven Quartet Companion, p. 151.

6 Parloff.

7 Steven M. Whiting, "Beethoven Translating Shakespeare: Dramatic Models for the Slow Movement of the String Quartet Op. 18, No. 1," Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 71, Number 3, p. 795.

8 Joseph Kerman, The Beethoven Quartets, p. 36.

9 Ibid., p. 37.

10 Parloff, 36 min.

June 7, 2021

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