String Quartet No.7

Ludwig van Beethoven

String Quartet No.7 in F major

Op. 59/1 • “Razumovsky No. 1”

About this work

Beethoven wrote three quartets in 1806 and dedicated them to Russian nobleman Count Rasumovsky. This F major effort is generally regarded as the greatest of the trio, as well as one of the composer's finest chamber works. A lot has been made of the fact that it was one of the compositions that heralded his second period. The "Eroica" Symphony, coming slightly earlier, is generally viewed as the starting point. All three quartets are lengthy works and considerably difficult to execute. That they were all written in a six-month period beginning in April 1806 divulges the speed and mastery Beethoven possessed. The String Quartet No. 7 was first performed in February 1807, and published in Vienna the following year.

The first movement is marked Allegro and begins on the cello with one of those powerful themes by Beethoven that seem to encompass the world. One senses its greatness and growth potential almost immediately, as it emerges from the depths. The second subject consists of an attractive theme for cello and a lyrical melody. When the lengthy and profound development section begins, one is reminded of the corresponding section in the "Eroica" Symphony. Both are massive and full of developmental ideas. Here there is much contrapuntal activity in the manner of a massive double fugue. This is the heart of the movement, full of drama and divulging much brilliant writing. The recapitulation is not in any way a mere restatement of the exposition, but itself a section that involves further thematic transformations. The extended coda, triumphant and powerful in contrast to the tragedy suggested in the recapitulation, is also deftly conceived.

The second movement is nearly as brilliant and complex as the first. It is marked Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando. It has a sonata-like structure, and Beethoven seems to fashion the movement from a rhythmic scrap. The form of this movement is quite unique: after the first scherzando section, Beethoven follows, not unexpectedly, with a brilliant trio, after which comes development of the themes. But then there ensues a second scherzando section, trio, and finally a third scherzando.

The movements that follow are also on a high artistic plane, but may seem anticlimactic by comparison. The third, marked Adagio molto e mesto, is dark and tragic, profoundly so. One is reminded of the second movement of the "Eroica" here, even though its character is more funereal and less tragic. This Adagio is emotional, too, with its main theme of sadness, maybe even pity. The second subject does not break the dark atmosphere that grips the movement.

The finale is marked Allegro and subtitled "Thème Russe." Its use of a Russian theme is in deference to its dedicatee, who was the Russian ambassador. This cheerful melody appears at the outset and is based on a folk song. There is some canonic and contrapuntal activity surrounding it almost from the beginning. The finale also features a development section and recapitulation. In general, this movement is light and not quite as complex as the others. Some have found that it does not fit the character of the quartet. In a sense, it is the least persuasive panel in the work, not because of some intrinsic weakness, but owing to its more genial nature.