About this work
Beethoven's second set of quartets, Opus 59, inhabit a very different universe from that of his first set, Opus 18. Although only six years had passed since the publication of the Opus 18 quartets, Beethoven's style changed immensely. The Opus 59 quartets were composed in the wake of the "Eroica" Symphony, and the vastness of the individual movements, the symphonic, orchestral character of the string writing and the stretched formal boundaries led some critics to dub the first of the set an "Eroica" for string quartet.
The Bureau des Arts et d'Industrie in Vienna published the three "Rasumovsky" quartets in 1808, with a dedication to the Russian Ambassador in Vienna, Count Andreas Kirillovich Rasumovsky (1752-1836), who had commissioned them. The Russian Ambassador was one of Beethoven's principal supporters until a fire destroyed much of his wealth in December 1814. More important to Beethoven than his wealth was Rasumovsky's maintenance of a permanent string quartet from 1808 to 1816, led by Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830), in which Rasumovsky occasionally played second violin. Schuppanzigh was involved in the premières of numerous works by Beethoven, including the quartets.
Beethoven began drafting the score of the first of the Opus 59 quartets on May 26, 1806, although there is evidence that he started to sketch them in the fall of 1804; by November 1806, all three were complete. Because Rasumovsky was to have exclusive rights to the pieces for a year, their publication was delayed until January 1808. As a tribute to Rasumovsky's heritage, Beethoven planned to use Russian folk themes in each of the three quartets, but did so only in the finale of the first and the slow movement of the second. All three are in four movements, the third augmented by a slow introduction to the first movement.
The C major quartet opens with a strange introduction -- its first harmony is a diminished chord built on F sharp. After a suspenseful decrescendo, the chord moves to the dominant of B flat. This does not lead where we expect it, and the ensuing measures seem directionless until we hear the dominant of C major. However, the tonic is not confirmed until after the exposition has begun. In the development, Beethoven takes the harmony as far afield as the Neapolitan, D flat, creating a similar relationship to the one found in the first movement of the E minor quartet. Although the sonata-form second movement is not marked Thème russe, its melancholy melody does sound eastern European in origin, and the pizzicato playing on the cello lends the movement a folk-music quality. The third movement is a minuet, Beethoven's first since the Piano Sonata, Op. 31/3, of 1802. The Trio's tonality of F major looks back both to the key of the first quartet and to that harmony's presence in the second. Beethoven directs that the coda is to move without break into the finale. The blistering finale, in 2/2 meter, is one of Beethoven's most important fugal movements. Until the fourth voice enters (the first violin), it seems that Beethoven intends to compose an actual fugue. Beethoven embarks on a wide exploration of harmonies in this combination of sonata-form and fugue.