There are 16 Beethoven string quartets, each one a little music masterwork.
They span his entire composing career. Uou can see them develop from classical-style with form and symmetry, to romantic with passion and beauty, to the late quartets which border on the avant-garde.
Beethoven thought that the string quartet, along with the symphony, was the highest form of music. His string quartets are actually a great complement to his symphonies. They're more intimate and relaxed.
These early quartets are highly classical (i.e. symmetrical, formal) in style, like Mozart (click for biography)'s string quartets. But they're so masterfully written that there's a little hint of leaving behind the old methods in favor of something fresh. This is a glimmer of what's to come...
These amazing pieces are great examples of Beethoven's heroic period music: dramatically powerful and passionately sweet.
The three quartets in Op. 59 are called the "Razumovsky" quartets, since they're dedicated to the Russian aristocrat Count Razumovsky. The first two quartets have a lovely Russian sound to them, and Beethoven even uses Russian folk-melodies several times!
The other two Beethoven string quartets from the middle period are innovative, heroic, and highly enjoyable. They use all sorts of interesting effects which build tension and make for an interesting listening experience.
It's astonishing that they're from the early 19th century. If I heard them without knowing the composer, I'd definitely say they were from at least 50 years later. A testament to Beethoven's genius!
The opus numbers, in the order Beethoven composed them, are Op. 127, 132, 130, 131, and 135.
The sixth string quartet, called the Grand Fugue, was actually the ending to the Op. 130 string quartet. But audiences didn't like its complexity, so the composer took it off and turned it into a stand-alone piece.
Critics and musicians think of these last Beethoven string quartets as some of the greatest music ever written by anyone. The profoundly personal music is intensely moving, highly intelligent, and almost avante-garde in places.
Beethoven altered tradition with the quartets, by making the structures of the pieces very complex. He added extra movements onto the normal four, and experimented with wild harmonic changes.
Listeners at the time found the pieces very difficult to understand!
My favorite of the Beethoven string quartets is No. 14, Op. 131. This was also Beethoven's own favorite of his string quartets. Richard Wagnersaid that the first movement of this piece was the saddest emotion ever expressed in music.
Here is the melancholy first movement, and the joyful second movement. Performed by the Lindsay Quartet.
I think that this "intelligent weight" is quite important for Beethoven's late pieces. It's kind of missing from other recordings by different quartets, though, such as the Alban Berg Quartet or the Budapest Quartet.
These two have great recordings for the early quartets (which are lighter and less thoughtful than the middle/late period works), but their straightforward sound doesn't really suit the rest of the set.
The Quartetto Italiano have a good recording of the late quartets, with a warm and mysterious sound.
If you just want a good all-round collection of all the quartets though, I would recommend either the Lindsay Quartet boxset (my personal favorite) or the Amadeus Quartet set.
You may also be interested in these other Beethoven pieces:
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