String Quartet in D major Op. 18 No. 3
String Quartet in A major Op. 18 No. 5
String Quartet in E flat major Op. 127
When Beethoven set about composing his first cycle of string quartets op. 18 around 1800, Haydn’s quartets had already reached his op. 76 and Mozart’s ten great achievements in the genre had long been available in print. These works marked the string quartet’s advancement to the very forefront of chamber music, such that the music historian Carl Ferdinand Pohl, in the first volume of his Haydn biography, published in 1875, “it achieves the highest ends with the slightest means”.
It is hardly surprising, given the obligations imposed by the achievements of his illustrious predecessors, that Beethoven first approached the demanding project indirectly. The result was readily apparent. In opus 18, confronting the historical models of an already established genre, he not only succeeded in further developing it along similar lines but also in injecting new, experimental impulses. And yet, in respect of innovation, Beethoven still had a long way to travel from his first quartet cycle to the E flat major Quartet op. 127.
His contemporaries were particularly struck by the gentle lyricism radiated by the work, composed in 1824-25. Following the under-rehearsed and thus unsuccessful premiere by the Schuppanzigh Quartet on 6 March 1825, Beethoven insisted on further performances, and they were enthusiastically received. The reviewer for the Wiener Allgemeine Theaterzeitung not only praised the artistry of the “wonderful quartet’s” performance but went on to state: “The mists dispersed and the magnificent work of art” shone forth “in dazzling splendour”.