Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet Op.18, No. 2

In November 1792, 22-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven left his hometown of Bonn for Vienna, with the arrangement of a scholarship for him by Count Ferdinand von Waldstein. Waldstein was a competent amateur actor and musician, and a less-competent amateur militarist; he once raised an entire regiment, called Waldstein’s Light Infantry, with the goal of definitively defeating the French during the War of the First Coalition. Waldstein’s Light Infantry never fought any Frenchmen, but they did help put out a fire in a biscuit factory on the Isle of Wight.

His patronage of Beethoven was better-considered, and bore more fruit. He recognized Beethoven’s skill early, and sent him off to Vienna with the arrangement that the young composer would study with Franz Josef Haydn. Before Beethoven left, Waldstein wrote a now-famous entry in the young man’s friendship book, summarizing his ambitions for Beethoven in the wake of Mozart’s death: “Dear Beethoven! You go to realize a long-desired wish: the genius of Mozart is still in mourning and weeps for the death of its disciple. By incessant application, receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.”

A tall order for a young composer; and one that today, it would be most reasonable to agree that he not only met, but surpassed significantly. Beethoven would not be content to merely receive Mozart’s spirit; he had a spirit of his own. However, he did first fulfill admirably the wishes of his first patron, by producing, between 1798 and 1800, a set of six string quartets that demonstrated his mastery of the classical string quartet as developed by Mozart and Haydn. All six quartets were commissioned by a new patron, Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz, who also commissioned Haydn’s last string quartets. “This Prince was as kindhearted as a child and the most foolish music enthusiast,” wrote a friend of Beethoven’s new patron. “He played music from dusk to dawn and spent a fortune on musicians. Innumerable musicians gathered in his house, whom he treated regally.”

The pleasant nature of Lobkowitz’ regard for his musicians is clear in all six quartets, but especially the 2nd, which earned the German nickname Komplimentier-Quartett: “the quartet of bows and curtsys,” a nickname also given to one of Haydn’s quartets; a fitting homage from Beethoven to his teacher, friend, and mentor.