The Classical String quartet Description Page
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A string quartet is a musical ensemble of four string players — usually two violinists, a violist and a cellist — or a piece written to be performed by such a group. The string quartet is one of the most prominent chamber ensembles in classical music.
The string quartet is widely seen as one of the most important forms in chamber music, with most major composers, from the late 18th century onwards, writing string quartets.
A composition for four players of stringed instruments may be in any form. Quartets written in the classical period usually have four movements with a large-scale structure similar to that of a symphony: the outer movements are typically fast, the inner movements quartet consisting of a slow movement and a dance movement of some sort (e.g., minuet or scherzo), in either order. Substantial modifications to the typical structure were already achieved in Beethoven's later quartets, and despite some notable examples to the contrary, composers writing in the twentieth century increasingly abandoned this structure.
Many other chamber groups can be seen as modifications of the string quartet: the string quintet is a string quartet with an extra viola, cello or double bass; the string trio has one violin, a viola, and a 'cello; the piano quintet is a string quartet with an added piano; the piano quartet is a string quartet with one of the violins replaced by a piano; and the clarinet quintet is a string quartet with an added clarinet.
David Wyn Jones traces the origin of the string quartet to the Baroque trio sonata, in which two solo instruments performed with a continuo section consisting of a bass instrument (such as the cello) and keyboard. By the early 18th century, composers were often adding a third soloist; and moreover it was common to omit the keyboard part, letting the cello support the bass line alone. Thus when Alessandro Scarlatti wrote a set of six works entitled "Sonata à Quattro per due Violini, Violetta [viola], e Violoncello senza Cembalo" (Sonata for four instruments: two violins, viola, and cello without harpsichord), this was a natural evolution from existing tradition.
Wyn Jones also suggests another possible source for the string quartet, namely the widespread practice of playing works written for string orchestra with just four players, covering the bass part with cello alone.
The string quartet arose to prominence with the work of Joseph Haydn. Haydn's own discovery of the quartet form appears to have arisen essentially by accident. The young composer was working for Baron Carl von Joseph Edler von Fürnberg sometime around 1755-1757 at his country estate in Weinzierl, about fifty miles from Vienna. The Baron wanted to hear music, and the available players happened to be two violinists, a violist, and a cellist. Haydn's early biographer Georg August Griesinger tells the story thus:
Haydn went on to write nine other quartets around this time. These works, published as his opus 1 and opus 2, have five movements and take the form: fast movement, minuet and trio I, slow movement, minuet and trio II, and fast finale. As Finscher notes, they draw stylistically on the Austrian divertimento tradition.
Haydn then ceased to write quartets for a number of years, but took up the genre again in 1769-1772 with the 18 quartets of opus 9, opus 17, and opus 20. These are written in a form that became established as standard both for Haydn and for other composers, namely four movements, consisting of a fast movement, a slow movement, a minuet and trio and a fast finale (see below).
Ever since Haydn's day the string quartet has been prestigious and considered a true test of the composer's art. This may be partly because the palette of sound is more restricted than with orchestral music, forcing the music to stand more on its own rather than relying on tonal color; or from the inherently contrapuntal tendency in music written for four equal instruments.
Quartet composition flourished in the Classical era, with both Mozart and Beethoven writing famous series of quartets to set alongside Haydn's. A slight slackening in the pace of quartet composition occurred in the 19th century; here, a curious phenomenon was seen in composers who wrote only one quartet, perhaps to show that they could fully command this hallowed genre. With the onset of the Modern era of classical music, the quartet returned to full popularity among composers, and played a key role in the development of Arnold Schoenberg, Bela Bartók, and Dmitri Shostakovich especially.
The relevance of classical genres and traditions in general, and of the string quartet in particular, was questioned by some prominent composers of the post-WWII era, such as Pierre Boulez, who wrote one early work for string quartet, 'Livre pour Quatuor' (1948-49), before declaring the string quartet a relic from the past. A composer of such seminal importance as Olivier Messiaen never wrote a string quartet.
However, from the 1960s onwards, many composers have shown a renewed interest in the genre. Important quartets were written by Witold Lutosławski (1964), György Ligeti (2nd String Quartet (1968)), Henri Dutilleux ('Ainsi la Nuit', 1976-77) and Luigi Nono ('Fragmente - Stille, An Diotima', 1979-80). Elliott Carter's five contributions to the genre have also been highly acclaimed. A radical exploration of noise can be found in the three string quartets of Helmut Lachenmann. In 1992-1993, Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote his 'Helikopter-Streichquartett', to be performed by the four string players in four separate helicopters. The longest quartet ever written is Morton Feldman's 2nd String Quartet (1983), a fascinating exploration of the limits of the genre lasting approximately five hours.
String quartet traditional form
The main traditional form for the Classical string quartet was set out by Haydn:
In the 19th century and onwards, this structure, tonal and otherwise, was increasingly abandoned.
Notable string quartets
Some of the most popular or widely acclaimed works for string quartet written between the 18th century and the 1980s, include:
String quartets (ensembles)
For the purposes of performance, groups of string players sometimes group together to make ad hoc string quartets. Other groups continue playing together for many years, sometimes changing their members but retaining their name. Well-known string quartets can be found on the list of string quartet ensembles.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "String quartet". Allthough most Wikipedia articles provide accurate information accuracy can not be guaranteed.
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