Amidst the spacious ‘Razumovsky’ String Quartets (Op. 59, nos. 1-3), the isolated roar of the ‘Serioso’ String Quartet (Op. 95), and the rarefied and sublime late String Quartets (Op. 127+), it is quite possible to overlook the ‘Harp’ String Quartet (op. 74) in the grand list of Beethoven quartets. It’s performed often enough, but it doesn’t fit cleanly into the usual biographical groups and categories. For example: the period famously known as ‘heroic’ in Beethoven lore runs from the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, Op. 55 (naturally), through the Eighth Symphony, Op. 93. The String Quartet Op. 74 comes smack in the middle of that period, but it doesn’t fit the ‘heroic’ bill. There is an ease and directness about it, especially in the outer movements, which does not indicate the kind of struggle (often pro- or anti-Napoleonic) with which Beethoven is casually associated.
The ‘Harp’ quartet is not absolutely unlike other works of the period, or other works of Beethoven, of course. Its middle movements are quite close to the ‘Razumovsky’ quartets in their scope and tone. The fiery third movement shares a very recognizable (and recognizably heroic) rhythmic kernel with the fifth symphony. The last movement, however, disappears into variations, and the piece suddenly becomes more iterative and descriptive than driving or searching. (These variations are in some ways similar to those in a much later quartet, Op. 131, and on the other hand very different from those in the last movement of the ‘Eroica’ symphony.) But the ‘Harp’ is not a hybrid or a miniature, or even a minor work. It is its very own complete piece – and so long as labels of ‘early’, ‘middle’, and ‘late’ are not allowed to overwhelm the piece, it stands proudly – if somewhat privately – on its own.
Op. 74 is known as the ‘Harp’ because of the arpeggiating pizzicatos which pepper the first movement. One can begin to hear in the quartet both the inwardness and isolation of fast-encroaching deafness, and the subsequent (consequent?) freeing of fantasy which drove the late quartets to the limits of what can be imagined. There is some kind of inward relief in the piece; it is one of Beethoven’s most simply beautiful works.