Beethoven’s String Quartet in f minor, op. 95 is considered a work of his “middle” period. It is the last of the middle quartets. It represents a singular contraction of the form into a dense work where everything is stripped to a drastic, but essential minimum. In addition to its predominant minor key and its frequently urgent mood, it is a relentless reduction of means that must have led Beethoven to give the quartet his own multi-faceted title, Quartet Serioso.
The first movement includes three rapidly exposed and highly contrasted themes in an exposition without repeat. The energy remains untapped projecting a heavy weight on the movements to follow.
The second movement is the tender heart of the quartet. Beginning as a lyrical slow movement, it promises compassionate relief from the energy of the first movement. Beethoven introduces a fugue with a chromatic subject. The direct and heartfelt returns in a final glory of song, but is unable to conclude. The movement bounds into the third movement scherzo restoring all the unbridled tension of the first movement.
The final two movements sustain a nearly unbroken arc of intensity from beginning to end. The bulk of the scherzo, itself marked serioso, and most the finale, marked agitato, join with the first movement to make this the most unrelentingly intense of all the Beethoven quartets.
Beethoven was keenly aware of his manipulative powers and knew that just as he transfixed his listener in the rapture of despair, he could shatter the mood by turning on a dime. And so, he concludes his great Serioso quartet: at the very end of this tense, nearly continuous quartet, the final bars instantaneously shift into a bright romp, fresh and giddy as spring. The huge, unresolved weight of the entire quartet evaporates in the last thirty seconds in what might be the greatest musical punch line of all time.