String Quartet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2
When Prince Lobkowitz commissioned Beethoven to compose a set of six string quartets in 1798, the task facing Beethoven was daunting. Beethoven, in his late twenties, had been making a name for himself since moving to Vienna in 1792. His skills as a virtuosic pianist and improviser were renowned, and he had achieved success as a composer with his early piano sonatas, concertos, and trios. Nevertheless, he had not tried his hand at a string quartet. That genre was inextricably associated with two of Vienna’s, and Beethoven’s, most revered musical idols: Haydn, who had essentially invented the form; and Mozart, who contributed greatly to its stylistic development. Beethoven, as a means of auto-erudition, had taken to painstakingly recopying Haydn and Mozart quartets, while composing his own string trios as a testing ground.
The Prince’s commission therefore represented a formidable opportunity for Beethoven to demonstrate his worthiness amid the legacy of the elder generation. To that end, Beethoven took his time completing the set, revising his manuscripts carefully. When he was finally ready to publish them two years later, he asked his friend, Karl Amenda, to suppress an earlier version of one of the set. “I have greatly changed it,” Beethoven wrote, “having only just learned how to write quartets properly.”
Beethoven also took care to arrange the set to his liking, such that the quartets’ numeration does not reflect the order of their composition. The quartet performed this evening, although published as Op. 18, No. 2, is thought to have actually been written third, or perhaps fifth. In either case, this quartet, like the others, demonstrates Beethoven’s debt to Haydn and Classical Viennese style. In particular, it has earned the nickname of the “Komplimentierquartett” (“Compliment Quartet”), referring to the formal bowing and curtseying of dance partners in the traditional Viennese ballroom.