About this work
The only quartet from Beethoven's Opus 18 set to be cast in a minor key, this was also, despite its number, the last of the six to be completed. C minor would come to be a key Beethoven reserved for highly dramatic works, including most famously the Fifth Symphony. Before this quartet, though, he'd used C minor without any special sense of tragedy; now, for the first time, he invests his C minor music with a special emotional depth, particularly in the sonata form Allegro ma non tanto. This opening movement immediately spins forth a worried violin theme over agitated accompaniment, interrupted by a series of jagged chords. The violins continue with lyrical, minor mode material, still with a restless accompaniment in the viola and cello. The exposition continues through several brief episodes in the same vein, ending with an odd sequence of quiet chords, a soft allusion to the jagged chords heard earlier. In the development section, Beethoven heightens the anxiety through key modulations while essentially repeating the structure of the exposition; apparently he felt little need to wrench the thematic components apart and recombine their fragments. By the time the recapitulation arrives, the thematic pattern has been clarified.
The surprise comes with the structure of the inner movements. There's no traditional slow movement; instead, Beethoven offers a scherzo followed by a minuet, both in moderate tempos. The scherzo is not the raucous joke Beethoven would favor in his symphonies. It feels more like a traditional minuet, with a fairly capricious character (the key is now C major). The structure could be considered a sonata form, with the central section being a largely polyphonic development of the themes Beethoven has already introduced.
The minuet proper, Allegretto, returns to C minor. If the scherzo seemed more like a minuet, this minuet has the character of a scherzo, fairly quick and unsettled. The trio features a jittery eighth note figure in the first violin, under which the second violin trades two-bar phrases with the viola and cello.
The concluding C minor Allegro is a rondo that begins with an impassioned theme dominated by the first violin. The second section is more placid, and the next contrasting episode features humorous triplets rising from the cello up through the ensemble. The third contrasting episode picks up more of the agitation of the rondo theme, so when the latter returns one last time it can make its full effect only if played, as Beethoven indicates, as quickly as possible.