String Quintet

Ludwig van Beethoven

String Quintet in C major

Op. 29 • “Storm”

About this work

This quintet is generally regarded as a transitional composition in the output of Beethoven--transitional in that it contains elements from his early style, as well as from his second period. It can even be heard as a piece that augurs stylistic traits from his final years. Thus, this work is quite an interesting one in the study of Beethoven's compositional evolution, but more importantly it rates high in pure artistic merit, apart from any musicological significance.

What might strike some as curious about the work, considering its generally optimistic moods, is that it comes from the period when Beethoven was growing acutely aware of the onset of his deafness. What is of interest in this regard then, is that the first two movements seem to reflect a geniality and good-naturedness in their flowing expression, while the last two take on a sterner, more energetic and driving manner that seems to come from a different, more disquieting world. Perhaps the composer had begun to experience the anxiety and depression associated with his condition midway through the composition of the work. But the slight darkening of the mood is only one important aspect--Beethoven, here foreshadowing his more mature style, also seems to achieve a higher level of art than he attained in the first two movements.

The work opens with an Allegro, whose fluency and calm demeanor never seem threatened by anything in the development section. There is more energy in the first subject, more repose in the second. If there seems a Mozartean air about the music, it never appears to cross over, or even approach, the line to pure imitation. Beethoven is masterful throughout the movement, providing a compelling development section and reprise.

The ensuing Adagio molto espressione features a lovely main theme and a charming middle-section, that again call the world of Mozart to mind. In this movement Beethoven's contrapuntal writing is brilliant and helps to impart an atmosphere of great warmth. This and the first movement are the longest two in the work, each lasting nearly ten minutes.

While the mood of the Scherzo, marked Allegro, does not radically break from the more easy-going demeanor of the preceding two movements, it is more robust, more neurotically insistent. Its main theme, all of one measure in length, is repeated throughout the movement, the music turning obsessive and overwhelming. This Scherzo clearly looks toward the later ones, foreshadowing even that in the great Ninth Symphony.

If the third movement sounds advanced for its time, the finale surpasses it at least in its subtle and innovative use of counterpoint. The sometimes hesitant, sometimes start-and-stop character of this Presto clearly comes from a more mature Beethoven. The structure here is quite unusual, consisting of three themes and a short coda at the end of the exposition. There follows a development section, out of which emerges a fourth theme. The work closes with a brilliant coda. Without doubt this is music on a level of profundity rarely found in Beethoven's scores up to that time.

This work was first published in Leipzig in 1802 and dedicated to Count Moritz von Fries. A typical performance of the Quintet lasts between thirty and thirty-three minutes.