Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1792 after leaving his hometown of Bonn, Germany. While establishing his career in Vienna, Beethoven wrote many trios and quintets before composing his first string quartet. He seemed apprehensive about writing string quartets because Haydn and Mozart had elevated the genre to a very high level during this time period. Beethoven began studying with Haydn in 1793, mastering counterpoint and studying his and Mozart’s string quartets. Commissioned by the Prince in 1798, Beethoven began work on his first set of string quartets which were later published as Op. 18 in 1801. The set of six quartets were not composed in their published order. Although it is published as No. 3., String Quartet No. 3 in D Major was the first string quartet Beethoven composed.
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 18 illustrates Beethoven’s understanding of the form as established by Haydn and Mozart. The work also demonstrates Beethoven’s musical maturity, using development, modulation, texture, and a sense of emotion that sets him apart from his predecessors. The first movement, Allegro, begins with a slow, two-note figure which sounds like an introduction. Yet, these two notes serve as the main motif throughout the movement. Beethoven develops the motif into different chordal, contrapuntal, rhythmic, and tempo characteristics which still derive from the original idea. The second movement, Andante, begins in a key uncommon for the time with a peaceful, walking melody and texture. It gradually progress into darker harmonic territory and underlying syncopation with much less resonant closure before returning to an iteration of the opening material. The third Allegro movement is effectively written as a minuet and trio, but Beethoven seems to challenge the form by inserting a “minore” section and marking the movement at a faster tempo than what would be used for a minuet. The third movement is sprinkled with unexpected increases and decreases in volume as well as a cheeky, light-hearted ending. In the final movement, Presto, Beethoven begins with a jaunty, dance-like tune in the first violin. The movement follows sonata form, developing the main through fragment pieces each played by a different player. After restating the main theme, the movement ends cheerfully, punctuated by a two short, soft fragments of the rhythmic theme.