Ludwig van Beethoven composed String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 in October 1810. At that time he was already a respected master. He had composed six symphonies, all of his piano concertos, most of his piano sonatas and a number of chamber pieces, including ten string quartets. Piano Quartet in F minor is his eleventh one. It was written in close succession after Quartet in E flat major, Op. 74, nicknamed the “Harp Quartet”, and it is often considered to be a chamber music counterpart of his famous orchestral overture Egmont. String Quartet in F minor came into being ten years after Beethoven’s first quartet series, Opus 18, during which time he wrote three compositions in this genre, namely the Razumovsky Quartets, Op. 59, (dating from 1806 to 1807). The affinity with Egmont can be detected not only in the content of the quartet, but also in its means of expression. Both compositions have a strong dramatic accent and they resound with heroic tones, although the key of F major of Egmont is more emphatic than the key of F minor of the quartet, which also contains distinct moments of a personal character. Beethoven created String Quartet in F minor shortly after one of the biggest romantic crisis of his life. He was in love with his student Tereza Malfatti, a daughter of a reputed medical doctor in Vienna, but the social barriers turned out to be totally impassable and their intended marriage did not take place.
The subtitle of the quartet, “Serioso”, indicates the gravity of its message. It is full of amorous desire, lyricism and pathos, interlaced by resignation and dramatic undertones of tragedy and defiance. However, Beethoven does not succumb to his grief, but overcomes it in the conclusion where notes of joy are heard. If we are to characterize the individual movements of the piece, the first one represents a raging conflict and discord. The lyrical second movement is opened by cello. It is followed without a pause by the third movement’s sweeping scherzo with its rebellious atmosphere. The fourth movement starts unexpectedly with a slow introduction reminiscent of the later harmonies of Wagner’s Tristan, but the quartet’s conclusion shifts into a bright F major key.
String Quartet in F minor was published as late as December 1816 by Steiner of Vienna with a dedication to the composer’s dear friend and excellent cellist, Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz. Beethoven had met him some time before in the salon of Prince Lichnowsky, and maintained a friendly relationship with him for the rest of his life. As a civil servant at the court in Vienna, Zmeskall was well-acquainted with the Viennese society behind the scenes. He provided Beethoven with valuable services in his dealings with publishers, merchants and landlords, lent him books, bought music paper and wine, dined with him at the Swan Inn and even managed to step in as an instrumentalist when necessary. It is logical, therefore, that after Beethoven’s deep disappointment in his love for Therese Malfatti, Zmeskall became not only his confidant with whom he could share his pain, but also the closest person to whom the dedication of the work rightfully belonged.