In our last installment we took a look at the chamber music genre in general. Now it's time to start focusing in on the different forms of chamber music, beginning with the string quartet.
The string quartet is the most prolific form of chamber music. Nearly every composer who decides to compose a chamber music piece begins with the string quartet. Why? Because that's what everyone does. Seriously, circular logic aside, the roots of chamber music may go back to the Baroque, but it really came into its own as a distinct class of music in the Classical era, when Joseph Haydn wrote his 83 string quartets and 45 piano trios. His string quartets led to Mozart's 23 and Beethoven's 16 string quartets. And with those three hallowed composers, a tradition was born.
The usual makeup of a string quartet is two violins, a viola, and a cello. Rarely, you'll find other combinations -- such as violin, viola, cello, and double bass -- and even though the guitar is technically a string instrument, quartets for guitar, violin, viola, and cello are never called "string quartet" (in fact, it isn't a "guitar quartet" either -- that would be an ensemble of four guitars). The choice of instruments is typically believed to have evolved from the combination of two violins or a violin and viola melody parts plus an accompanying basso continuo part, comprised of viola da gamba or cello and keyboard, of the Baroque "trio sonata." The keyboard part was dropped and another bass instrument added for the "sonata à quattro" (or "sonate en quatuor" or "sonata in four parts").
However, the musical form of most string quartets is not like that of the Baroque trio sonata. Trio sonatas typically alternate movements slow-fast-slow-fast, and frequently each movement is a dance of some sort. String quartets tend to follow the sonata-allegro form, like piano sonatas and symphonies. (For a brief refresher on the form, look here.)
Now that you've got the bare bones of the genre, let's look at the most popular composers and string quartets in the repertoire.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Haydn may be the father of the string quartet, but it's Beethoven's quartets that have inspired both awe and fear since they were first heard, in the same way that his symphonies have. At once they both sum up Classical era ideals and forge new paths for generations that followed. Just as Beethoven's shadow has haunted later composers, he himself was somewhat intimidated by Haydn and did not publish his first set of six quartets -- Op. 18 -- until 1801, near the end of what is called his Early Period and around the time when his symptoms of hearing loss started to occur. Already there is a difference, specifically a greater independence of the four parts, from Haydn's and Mozart's quartets, but they retain some of the Classical elegance. The Op. 59 "Razumovsky" quartets are Middle Period works, written for his patron, the skillful violinist Count Razumovsky. These are more mature and confident both structurally and emotionally, and set the stage for the Late Period quartets. The popularity of Beethoven's quartets, particularly the Middle and Late quartets, outstrips all others as they seem to always have new facets to reveal each time they are played or heard.
Orion String Quartet - Beethoven: String Quartet No. 4 in C minor, Op. 18/4 (C 243150), 1. Allegro ma non tanto
Cleveland Quartet - Beethoven: String Quartet No. 7 in F major ("Rasumovsky 1"), Op. 59/1, IV. Thème Russe: Allegro
Cleveland Quartet - Beethoven: String Quartet No. 8 in E minor ("Rasumovsky 2"), Op. 59/2, IV. Finale: Presto
The Lindsays - Beethoven: String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, Op. 130, Cavatina: Adagio molto espressivo
The Lindsays - Beethoven: Grosse Fuge in B flat major, Op. 133
Franz Joseph Haydn
Of the 83 quartets usually ascribed to Haydn, only 68 are true string quartets and verified to be written by him. Even so, it's easy to see why he's known as the "father" of the string quartet. By the time of his Op. 20 set of six quartets (1771-1772), he had established the four-movement structure: fast, minuet, slow, fast. Later he would reverse the placement of the slow movement and minuet, and the sturm und drang would be fully integrated with Haydn's own amalgamation of the galant style -- which was easy for listeners to understand and follow -- and a formal way of writing that uses counterpoint, harmonic modulation, and thematic development to challenge the performers, beginning with the Op. 33 set (1781). Until the late 1780s-early 1790s, Haydn's string quartets were literal chamber music, meant to be played before nobility in private settings. For his trips to London and afterward -- in the quartets from Op. 54 onward -- he wrote in a manner that would appeal to more public and larger audiences. Like many of Haydn's symphonies, most of the quartet sets and quartets themselves are frequently nicknamed, such as The Joke, Lark, and Emperor. Learn a few and just drop them casually into your next music appreciation conversation.
Amsterdam String Quartet - Haydn: String Quartet No. 27 in D major, Op. 20/4, H. 3/34 (C 48178), 1. Allegro di molto
Quatuor Terpsycordes - Haydn: String Quartet No. 30 in E flat major ("Joke"), Op. 33/2, H. 3/38, Finale. Presto
Emerson String Quartet - Haydn: String Quartet No. 53 in D major ("Lark"), Op. 64/5, H. 3/63, 4. Finale. Vivace
Kodaly Quartet - Haydn: String Quartet No. 62 in C major ("Emperor"), Op. 76/3, H. 3/77, 2. Poco adagio, cantabile
Emerson String Quartet - Haydn: String Quartet No. 53 in D major ("Lark"), Op. 64/5, H. 3/63, 1. Allegro moderato
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Much of Mozart's early string quartet music is related to amiable divertimento and Italian trio sonatas type music and is not quite comparable to his mature string quartets, which begin with the six "Haydn" quartets of 1782-1785. It is assumed that Mozart met Haydn in Vienna in 1781, the year Haydn's Op. 33 quartets debuted. Mozart's string quartets Nos. 14-19 were dedicated to Haydn, sent to him, and some premiered before him, and thus, the name "Haydn Quartets" (a little confusing to the SQ novice). Structurally and formally these are similar to Haydn's, but the graciousness and melodies are all Mozart.
Quatuor Mosaiques - Mozart: String Quartet No. 15 in D minor, K. 421 (K. 417b), 3. Meneutto & Trio. Allegretto
Quatuor Mosaiques - Mozart: String Quartet No. 15 in D minor, K. 421 (K. 417b), 4. Allegretto ma non troppo
Quatuor Mosaiques - Mozart: String Quartet No. 17 in B flat major ("Hunt"), K. 458, 1. Allegro vivace assai
Hagen Quartett - Mozart: String Quartet No. 19 in C major ("Dissonant"), K. 465, 1. Adagio - Allegro
Hagen Quartett - Mozart; String Quartet No. 19 in C major ("Dissonant"), K. 465, 2. Andante cantabile
Hagen Quartett - Mozart: String Quartet No. 21 in D major ("Prussian 1"), K. 575, 4. Allegretto
The most important of Schubert's quartets are the last ones, those numbered 12 to 15. The earlier ones were written when he was a teenager and played by him and his family at home. Beginning with the single movement No. 12, the mature Schubert is revealed, complete with his distinctive melodies, and in some ways, the emotional content and energy of the quartets reflects his life at the time. In 1824 he wrote both No. 13 in A minor "Rosamunde," named after a theme borrowed from his incidental music for a play, and No. 14 in D minor "Death and the Maiden," named after his song from which he borrowed a theme. Because of that borrowing, the era's cultural views on dying, and Schubert's own letters, Death and the Maiden often talked about as being a programmatic work, i.e. one that tells a story, in this case ending in a dance of death.
Belcea Quartet - String Quartet No. 12 in C minor ("Quartettsatz"), D. 703
Belcea Quartet - Schubert: String Quartet No. 13 in A minor ("Rosamunde"), D. 804 (Op. 29), II. Andante
Jerusalem Quartet - Schubert: String Quartet No. 14 in D minor ("Death and the Maiden"), D. 810, 4. Presto
Shostakovich's 15 quartets as a group are among the most important sets of music of the 20th century. Each one seems to have its own significance, tied in some way to his other music, his life, or the events of the day. As with most of his music, it will never be known whether those connections were consciously made or not. The ones most frequently encountered on recordings (and generally in performance also), are Nos. 3, 4, 7, and 8. Nos. 3 and 4 begin to expose Shostakovich's reactions to current events. He wrote a rubric for each movement of 1946's Quartet No. 3, but did not allow these to be published. They include "Calm unawareness of the future cataclysm" and "The forces of war unleashed." Because the lyrical No. 4 contains many references to Jewish folk music, its premiere was delayed until after the death of Stalin. The compact Quartet No. 7 is played without breaks in the movements and is dedicated to his first wife, who had died six years earlier. Written in the same year as No. 7 (1960) -- in just three days -- No. 8 holds a special place in the quartet repertoire. Shostakovich used a motto based on his initials -- DSCH, which in German represent the notes D -E flat-C-B -- throughout the five continuous movements. Each movement also contains thematic references to his other compositions.
Mandelring Quartet - Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 3 in F major, Op. 73, 1. Allegretto
Manhattan String Quartet - Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 4 in D major, Op. 83, 1. Allegretto
Borodin String Quartet - Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor, Op. 108, 1. Allegretto
Kronos Quartet - Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110, 1. Largo
Many casual fans of classical music have heard Dvorák's Humoresque and/or the Largo from the "New World" Symphony, but Dvorák was also had a great talent for chamber music. The most popular of his 14 string quartets is No. 12, the "American," which comes from the same time and place as the New World symphony. There are differing opinions as to the inspirations for the melodies and rhythms in the quartet's four movements, but there's no denying its charming and infectious nature. The 13th and 14th follow in popularity and have an intertwined history. No. 14, which is Op. 105, was begun before Dvorák left New York in April 1895, but set aside when he arrived at home in Bohemia. He then wrote No. 13, Op. 106, before returning to the score for No. 14. The two are his last pieces of absolute music, i.e. music without a program or story to go with it, and are his best writing for chamber ensemble in the opinion of many.
Prazák Quartet - Dvorák: String Quartet No. 12 in F major ("American"), B. 179 (Op. 96), 1. Allegro ma non troppo
Alban Berg Quartet - Dvorák: String Quartet No. 13 in G major, B. 192 (Op. 106), 4. Finale: Andante sostenuto - Allegro con fuoco
Prazák Quartet - Dvorák: String Quartet No. 14 in A flat major, B. 193 (Op. 105), 3. Lento e molto cantabile
Mendelssohn published six quartets, and a seventh, written when he was only 14 and not considered to be a mature work, was published posthumously. The Op. 13 quartet was actually his first mature quartet, inspired by Beethoven's late quartets, and thematically linked through the movements with quotes from his own song Ist es wahr? The quartet published first, as Op. 12, was written two years later. It also has thematic links between the movements. The three quartets of Op. 44 date from the late-1830s. They sound more like Mendelssohn was paying homage to the Classical era, and the D major quartet, the first of the set, also often sounds like he was anticipating writing a violin concerto. Mendelssohn mentioned in his letters that this quartet was one of his favorites. His final quartet, like much of his music, is colored by his emotional response to the events of his life. It was written after the death of his sister, Fanny, and is more profoundly sorrowful and bitter than anything else he wrote. It is also his last major work; he died less than two months after completing it.
Pacifica Quartet - Mendelssohn: String Quartet No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 12, I. Adagio non troppo - Allegro non tardante
Batholdy Quartett - Mendelssohn: String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13, 1. Adagio - Allegro vivace
Bartholdy Quartett - Mendelssohn: String Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op.44/1, 4. Presto con brio
Talich Quartet - Mendelssohn: String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80, 3. Adagio
Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel
The quartets of Debussy and Ravel go together like peanut butter and jelly, figuratively speaking. Both are delicious on their own, but together they present a tasty treat. The two are frequently paired as prime examples of French, early modern -- or to use a term Debussy disliked, Impressionist -- chamber music. Debussy's quartet, with its unusual tonal colors and a momentum that owes as much to the rhythms and textures as to the melodies or harmonies, was at first misunderstood by audiences, but when Ravel's followed 10 years later, listeners could hear that Ravel reaped what Debussy had sown. (The ubiquitous contemporary commentary on the similarity of the two quartets actually led to a breach in the relationship between the two composers.) Ravel's quartet uses the techniques found in Debussy's quartet, combined with more traditional structure for more refined results.
Quatuor Ysaÿe - Debussy: String Quartet, L. 85 (Op. 10), Assez vif et bien rythmé
Panocha Quartet - Ravel: String Quartet in F major, 2. Assez vif - Très rythmé
The two quartets of Leos Janácek are late works, masterfully written, yet with an intense passion that would seem more likely to come from a youthful composer than one in his early 70s. The first one, dating from 1924, is subtitled The Kreutzer Sonata after the novella by Leo Tolstoy. It re-tells the story -- or at least the emotional narrative of it -- through music, and just as Tolstoy referred to Beethoven's violin sonata, so does Janácek refer to it in an oblique melodic quote. The 1928 Quartet No. 2 "Intimate Letters" is just as emotionally charged. In 1917 Janácek had met a young couple and fell in love with the wife, Kamila Stösslová. Over the next several years, the two corresponded frequently and met when they could, but Janácek's feelings were not returned until late in the relationship. Each movement of the quartet represents one of Janácek's letters, with the viola representing Kamila as Janácek saw her. Both quartets are based on short motifs that are developed and juxtaposed rhythmically and harmonically.
Melos Quartett Stuttgart - Janácek: String Quartet No. 1 ("Kreutzer Sonata"), JW 7/8, 1. Adagio. Con moto
Melos Quartett Stuttgart - Janácek: String Quartet No. 2 ("Listy duverné," "Intimate Letters"), JW 7/13, 1. Andante - Con moto - Allegro
That should be enough to get you started. Be sure also to click through to find bios for some of the ensembles playing the samples and get to know a few of the best groups out there. In the next installment, we'll look at other popular string quartets, plus a handful of works written for the string quartet ensemble, but not in the conventional string quartet form.