By Mary Nemet | From the May-June 2021 issue of Strings magazine
When Beethoven, aged barely 15, composed these three piano quartets, the genre was rare and not yet part of an established chamber-music tradition. The two by Mozart, Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor (1785) and No. 2 in E-flat major (1786), are the only significant comparable contemporary works. However, it is hardly likely that Beethoven knew of Mozart’s still-unpublished G minor quartet. Instead, he modelled his piano quartets after a set of Mozart violin sonatas published in 1781; for example, Beethoven’s C major quartet borrows thematic material from Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 17 in C, K. 296. Apart from Beethoven’s own arrangement of his quintet for piano and wind instruments (Op. 16) for piano quartet, these three works are the only compositions he wrote for piano, violin, viola, and cello.
What else was happening in the year 1785, when these three piano quartets first saw the light of day? King George III was on the English throne, Louis XVl on the French, and Catherine the Great ruled in Russia. The first airborne flight of a Frenchman and American crossed the English Channel from Dover to Calais in a hydrogen gas balloon. At 16, Napoleon Bonaparte was a year older than Beethoven and still only a lieutenant. Benjamin Franklin, as U.S. ambassador to France, left his post that year to become governor of Pennsylvania.
Back on the musical front, piano quartets, still a rarity, had been dominated by and led from a keyboard, which was usually the clavecin. They were essentially concertos or sonatas with string accompaniment. But we can see the beginnings of an advancing form that found further fulfilment in Brahms’ works and those of later composers.
Beethoven gave the strings increased exposure rather than their earlier accompanying role. Already in the first quartet in E flat, piano and strings are equal partners. Opening unusually with an Adagio slow movement, the finale has seven variations on a theme.
All three hark back to Mozart, but look forward to remarkable changes, with Beethoven expanding on long-held traditions and introducing innovations as the potential for improved keyboards and stringed instruments grew. Many elements and themes already anticipate the composer’s later works.
First published posthumously in 1828, these lively juvenile oeuvres are lyrical and charming, dominated by a sparkling piano part, forming an ideal introduction for budding players to the unique world of chamber music. Bärenreiter’s large-size score and clear, unfettered parts on their customary buff-colored paper make reading a sheer pleasure. The autograph score is the primary source for this fastidious edition. An extensive Introduction, illuminating notes on performance practice, and a critical commentary complete these desirable volumes.