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.
A string quartet in performance
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:
- The following purely chance circumstance had led him to try his luck at the composition of quartets. A Baron Fürnberg had a place in Weinzierl, several stages from Vienna, and he invited from time to time his pastor, his manager, Haydn, and Albrechtsberger (a brother of the celebrated contrapuntist Albrechtsberger) in order to have a little music. Fürnberg requested Haydn to compose something that could be performed by these four amateurs. Haydn, then eighteen years old, took up this proposal, and so originated his first quartet which, immediately it appeared, received such general approval that Haydn took courage to work further in this form.
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:
- 1st movement: Sonata Form, Allegro, in the tonic key;
- 2nd movement: Slow, in the subdominant key;
- 3rd movement: Minuet and Trio, in the tonic key;
- 4th movement: Sonata-Rondo form, in the tonic key.
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:
- Joseph Haydn's 68 string quartets, in particular the six quartets Op. 33 and the six late Erdody Quartets, Op. 76
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's 23 string quartets, in particular the six quartets dedicated to Haydn (K. 387, 421, 428, 458, 464, 465).
- The sixteen quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven are highly acclaimed. The String Quartets Nos. 1-6, Opus 18 are thought to demonstrate his total mastery of the classical string quartet as developed by Haydn and Mozart. The next three, the Rasumovsky Quartets greatly expanded the form and incorporated a new degree of emotional sensitivity and drama. These were followed by Opus 74 "Harp" and Opus 95 "Serioso". Finally, the late quartets, which include his last five quartets and the Große Fuge, are the composer's last completed works. Though these works are widely considered to be among the greatest musical compositions ever written, their uncompromising intellectual complexity and their apparent rejection of the romantic pathos which pervades Beethoven's middle period both ensure that they remain considerably less popular than the Rasumovsky quartets.
- Franz Schubert's string quartets No. 12 in C minor, "Quartettsatz", No. 13 in A Minor "Rosamunde", No. 14 in D Minor "Death and the Maiden" and his final No. 15 in G Major
- Felix Mendelssohn's six string quartets
- Robert Schumann's three string quartets
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11, known for its second movement "Andante cantabile"
- Bedřich Smetana's String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor "From my Life"
- Johannes Brahms's three string quartets
- Antonín Dvořák's String Quartets No. 11-14, particularly String Quartet No. 12 in F Major "American"
- Alexander Borodin's String Quartet No. 2 in D Major, known for its third movement "Notturno"
- Edvard Grieg's String Quartet in G minor
- Giuseppe Verdi's only String Quartet in E minor
- Claude Debussy's only String Quartet in G Minor, op. 10
- Hugo Wolf's Italian Serenade (he also arranged it for string orchestra)
- Arnold Schoenberg's four string quartets
- Maurice Ravel's only String Quartet in F major
- Jean Sibelius's String Quartet in D minor "Voces intimae", Op.56
- Wilhelm Stenhammar's six string quartets
- Leoš Janáček's String Quartet No. 1 "Kreutzer Sonata", inspired by Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata, which in turn was inspired by Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 9, the "Kreutzer Sonata"
- Frank Bridge's String Quartet No. 3
- Béla Bartók's six string quartets
- Alban Berg's Lyric Suite, originally composed for string quartet
- Anton Webern's early Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5 and later serial String Quartet, op. 28
- Paul Hindemith's String Quartets No. 1-7, particularly No. 4
- Heitor Villa-Lobos's seventeen string quartets
- Bohuslav Martinů's eight surviving string quartets (Nos. 1-7 and the unnumbered "Three Horsemen") as well as his Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra
- Sergei Prokofiev's two string quartets, the String Quartet No. 1 of which was commissioned by the Library of Congress
- Dmitri Shostakovich's fifteen string quartets, in particular the String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110
- Elliott Carter's five string quartets are among the most widely acclaimed series in recent years
- Samuel Barber's String Quartet Op. 11, known for its second movement, which is commonly heard in its string orchestra arrangement, the Adagio for Strings.
- Benjamin Britten's three numbered string quartets, especially no.2 (1945) and no.3 (1975)
- Witold Lutosławski's String Quartet from 1964
- György Ligeti's String Quartet No. 2 from 1968
- George Crumb's string quartet Black Angels from 1970, which inspired the formation of the Kronos Quartet.
- Henri Dutilleux's String Quartet Ainsi la Nuit from 1976
- Luigi Nono's String Quartet Fragmente-Stille, An Diotima from 1980
- Robert Simpson's 15 String Quartets, including No.9 '32 Variations and a Fugue on a Theme of Haydn', where each variation, like the original theme, is a palindrome.
- Philip Glass' five string quartets.
- Peter Maxwell Davies' ten Naxos Quartets.
- Iannis Xenakis' ST/4 from 1962
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.
- ^ Wyn Jones (2003, 178)
- ^ Wyn Jones (2003, 179)
- ^ a b Finscher (2000, 398)
- ^ The exact dates are unknown; the dates given are from Finscher (2000, 21); Webster and Feder (2001) suggest 1755-1759.
- ^ This would put the date earlier, around 1750; Finscher as well as Webster and Feder judge that Griesinger erred here.
- ^ Griesinger (1810/1963, 13)
- ^ One quartet went unpublished, and some of the early "quartets" are actually symphonies missing their wind parts.
- ^ Morris, Edmund. Beethoven: The Universal Composer. New York: Atlas Books / HarperCollins, 2005. ISBN 0-06-075974-7
- Francis Vuibert (2009). Répertoire universel du quatuor à cordes, ProQuartet-CEMC. ISBN 978-2-9531544-0-5
- David Blum (1986). The Art of Quartet Playing: The Guarneri Quartet in Conversation with David Blum, New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc. ISBN 0-394-53985-0,
- Arnold Steinhardt (1998).Indivisible by four, Farrar, Straus Giroux. ISBN 0-374-52700-8
- Edith Eisler (2000). 21st-Century String Quartets, String Letter Publishing. ISBN 1-890490-15-6
- Paul Griffiths (1983). The String Quartet: A History, New York: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-01311-X
- David Rounds (1999), The Four & the One: In Praise of String Quartets, Fort Bragg, CA: Lost Coast Press. ISBN 1-882897-26-9.
- Robin Stowell, ed (2003) The Cambridge Companion to the String Quartet, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-00042-4. A general guide to the history of string quartet ensembles, their repertory, and performance.
- Charles Rosen (1971). The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Faber & Faber. ISBN 0 571 10234 4 (soft covers): ISBN 0 571 09118 0 (hardback).
- Reginald Barrett-Ayres (1974). Joseph Haydn and the String Quartet, Schirmer Books. ISBN 0 02 870400 2.
- Hans Keller (1986). The Great HAYDN Quartets - Their Interpretation, J M Dent. ISBN 0 460 86107 7.
- Finscher, Ludwig (2000) Joseph Haydn und seine Zeit. Laaber, Germany: Laaber.
- Griesinger, Georg August (1810/1963) Biographical Notes Concerning Joseph Haydn. Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel. English translation by Vernon Gotwals, in Haydn: Two Contemporary Portraits. Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Webster, James, and Georg Feder (2001), "Joseph Haydn", article in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (New York: Grove, 2001). Published separately as a book: The New Grove Haydn (New York: Macmillan 2002, ISBN 0-19-516904-2).
- Wyn Jones, David (2003) "The origins of the quartet. in Robin Stowell, ed., The Cambridge companion to the string quartet. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-00042-4.