Now that we've covered the biggest guns in the string quartet genre (here), let's go over a few more quartets and composers that you should get to know.
Bela Bartók composed six full quartets over the course of his career, and they reflect the changes in his approach to composition in that time. As a group, the six, in a way, also represent an arc -- one of Bartók's characteristic shapes -- in terms of the amount of personal emotion that seems to infuse them. The first quartet was written at the end of an unrequited love affair; the last during the dark days of the World War II. In between are quartets that seem more oriented toward Bartók's exploration of new compositional techniques. The arc shape is found in the five-movement Quartet No. 4, his most popular quartet. It also features Bartók's distinctive use of motivic themes and precise harmonic intervals, which unaccustomed listeners tend to mistake for complete atonality or serialism.
Takács Quartet - Bartók: String Quartet No. 4 in C major, Sz. 91 - I. Allegro
Brahms wrestled with the shadow of Beethoven before writing a quartet he deemed worthy of publication, as he did when decided to begin composing symphonies. As a result, he only published three string quartets: two of Op. 51, published in 1873 when he was 40 years old, and the Op. 67, published in 1876. Also like his symphonies, the quartets are typically, thoroughly Brahmsian in the use of motivic and thematic development and recurrence throughout the movements of each one, and in the intensity and immediate communication of mood. The opening movement of the Op. 51, No. 2 quartet features the three note F-A-E theme, the initial letters of the motto "Frei, aber einsam" ("Free, but solitary") of violinist Joseph Joachim, and Brahms' own play on that motto F-A-F, "Frei, aber froh" ("Free, but glad").
Mandelring Quartet - Brahms: String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 51/2 - Allegro non troppo
When Robert Schumann decided to embark on composing chamber music, he began by studying the string quartets of Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn. Then, within five weeks, he had written the three quartets of his Op. 41. This was the first and last time he would write chamber music that did not include the piano. Some musicologists have described these as being piano music transcribed for string quartet. There are many similarities in the way Schumann wrote melodies and accompaniments in the quartets to his previous piano works and songs. But there are also sections that fully realize the contrapuntal potential of having the four separate string instrument "voices." The three together can be viewed as a cycle, moving from A minor to F major to A major the way the movements of a symphony or concerto move through different keys.
Cherubini Quartet - Schumann: String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Op. 41/1 - 1. Introduzione: Andante espressivo - Allegro
Jean Sibelius wrote several small pieces for string quartet, plus a few string quartets as a student, all of which culminated in his one fully mature work, the Voces Intimae quartet in D minor. This also happens to be the only piece of his chamber music published in his lifetime, generally considered to be the only significant or substantial piece of chamber music he wrote. There is some thematic unity to the five movements, but it is the overall lush sound and somewhat mysterious atmosphere of it that embody the Intimate Voices or Inner Voices sobriquet (not to be confused with Leos Janácek's Intimate Letters quartet). Each movement also has a distinct character, making this quartet seem more like a suite than a traditional string quartet.
Tempera Quartet - Sibelius: String Quartet in D minor ("Voces Intimae"), Op. 56 - 3. Adagio di molto
When Sibelius began his string quartet, he was ill with a throat ailment that doctors were at first unable to diagnose and that uncertainty as to the future of his health influenced his writing. Likewise, when Bedrich Smetana began working on his Quartet No. 1 in 1876, he was realizing that he was losing his hearing. He intentionally set out "to paint a tone picture of my life" in string quartet form, hence the quartet's name From My Life. The quartet, like most of his music, contains elements of folk music, but the most striking feature is in the last movement. It begins as a joyful folk dance, but towards the end, it suddenly stops. The violin then plays an insistent high E which represents the ringing in Smetana's ears that blocked out other sounds. The coda continues with references to themes from the preceding movements, summarizing the quartet as it summarizes his life. His viewed his Quartet No. 2 (1882) as picking up where the first one left off, after completely losing his hearing. Although he was showing signs of mental disability from syphilis, it is still a technically challenging and musically satisfying work.
Prazák Quartet - Smetana: String Quartet No. 1 in E minor ("From My Life") - 4. Vivace
Many people are surprised to learn that Giuseppe Verdi wrote anything other than operas. It's true that most of his other music is vocal or choral, but there it is: his String Quartet in E minor. In 1873, he was in Naples to supervise the local premiere of Aida, but an unexpected delay left him with three weeks of free time, which is when he composed the quartet, seemingly as a challenge to himself to see if he could master the form. It was first performed in his hotel by friends, and he was reluctant to publish it, believing that string quartets weren't quite suited to Italian musical tradition. Despite that, it has become a repertoire standard, giving string players first-hand experience with Verdi's well-known sense of drama and lyricism.
Artemis Quartett - Verdi: String Quartet in E minor - Scherzo-Fuga
Turning to Russia, a tradition of home-concerts of chamber music grew with the development of a nationalistic music in the mid- to late-19th century, and from that, the formal composition of chamber music for public performance. Tchaikovsky wrote three string quartets between 1871 and 1876, and his Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11 -- still considered one of his early works, although he was over 30-years-old -- was and remains his most successful. It was written for a concert of his smaller works to raise some money. This is the work where his famous Andante Cantabile originates. It's a combination of a folk song and one of Tchaikovsky's own simple yet highly memorable melodies that has been heard arranged for all kinds of instrumental combinations.
Franz Schubert Quartett - Tchaikovsky: String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11 - Andante cantabile
The second movement of Alexander Borodin's String Quartet No. 2 is just as famous as that second movement of Tchaikovsky's quartet. This is the Nocturne that is most often heard in its string orchestra form. The theme of the Scherzo third movement was used as the basis of the song "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads" in the musical Kismet. The quartet as a whole has a warmth and charm to it, and given that it was written while he was on vacation, exactly 20 years after first meeting his wife, and is dedicated to her, some people think of it as a love letter to his wife even though he never prescribed a program to the music.
Borodin Quartet - Borodin: String Quartet No. 2 in D major - Notturno: Andante
In addition to these significant, traditional three- or four-movement quartets, there are a few other pieces for string quartet that do not follow the formula and are worth getting to know.
In 1785, Haydn was commissioned to write an orchestral accompaniment for a church service in Cadiz. The music would introduce sermons based on the seven sentences spoken by Christ on the cross. He then arranged Die Sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze for string quartet (and for keyboard also) so that smaller groups or amateurs could perform the work, and eventually turned it into an oratorio. There is an overture and a finale -- representing the shuddering of the earth at Christ's death -- and in between, the seven movements begin with a melody which fits the text of each sentence perfectly. Each movement is also in sonata form, with a development and recapitulation, but at a slower tempo than Allegro to encourage reflection.
Kodály Quartet - Haydn: Die Sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze, H. 3/50-56 - L'introduzione: Maestoso ed adagio
As a young man, Antonin Dvorák composed a set love songs he called Cypresses, based on the poetry of Gustav Pfleger-Moravský. Being infatuated by an actress and still green as a composer, the songs were a mixed success. More than 20 years later in 1887, when he was at the height of his popularity, he revived 12 of the original 18 songs as instrumental songs for string quartet. The melodies are as warm and lovely as they were in their original form, but the settings are much more mature and show his understanding of the interplay possible among the four instruments. Cypresses in this version are much more popular than the songs, although they are almost never heard all at once, maybe to make sure the listener doesn't experience too much of a good thing.
Prague String Quartet - Dvorák: Cypresses, B. 152 - Moderato (No. 4, Thou only, dear one, but for thee)
Another sweet something for quartet, actually more bittersweet, is Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums) by Puccini. It's a lush elegy in memory of his friend, the Duke of Aosta, who died in early 1890. It's one of a handful of works Puccini wrote for quartet, but it's the only one remembered today. Even so, the single movement featuring two of his famous flowing melodies is another work more often heard performed by string orchestra than in its original quartet version.
Leipziger Streichquartett - Puccini: Crisantemi
Moving into the 20th century, the brief Five Movements (or Pieces) for String Quartet, Op. 5 (1909), were Anton Webern's first atonal works. He didn't call the set a string quartet because he did not see the movements as being linked, however, there are elements of the tradition within it, such as the bones of the sonata form in the first movement. The expression in the movements is intense, created by very specific articulations, rhythms, harmonic intervals, and dynamics. His even shorter Six Bagatelles, Op. 9 -- running less than five minutes -- are just as precisely indicated. These mark the point where Webern's thoughts about 12-tone writing began to solidify. He wrote to Arnold Schoenberg: "Here I had the feeling, that when the 12 notes had all been played, the piece was over."
Alban Berg Quartet - Webern: Five Movements, Op. 5 - 1. Heftig bewegt - etwas ruhiger
Alban Berg Quartet - Webern: Six Bagatelles, Op. 9
Around 1919, George Gershwin wrote a Lullaby for string quartet, an compositional exercise while he studied formal harmony and orchestration. The work wasn't published until long after Gershwin's death, in 1968, but has become a favorite since then and is another one often heard at orchestra concerts as well as quartet recitals. It has bluesy themes, but the warm, rich harmonies and gentle swing make it an ideal, comforting accompaniment for falling asleep.
Quartetto d'Archi di Venezia - Gershwin: Lullaby
La Oración del torero (The Bullfighter's Prayer) by Joaquin Turina was originally composed for a quartet of lutes in 1925, but since lute quartets are rare, plus the fact that the original manuscript was lost (copies of the parts were eventually discovered decades later), his version for string quartet (or string orchestra) is the one encountered more often. In the single movement, Turina uses parallel ninth chords -- the influence of Debussy's music -- and a generous amount of Spanish character to depict a bullfighter in a chapel just before going into the arena.
Hollywood String Quartet - Turina: La Oraciên del torero, Op. 34
Astor Piazzolla wrote Four for Tango in 1987, for the Kronos Quartet. The four musicians provide their own percussion accompaniment in the movement that is a combination of dance and experiment in quartet writing. It perfectly suits the instruments and perfectly conveys the grittiness and earthy nature of the tango's origins. The title is a play on words: not only are there four musicians, tangos -- including this one -- are usually written in a 4/4 meter.
Kronos Quartet - Piazzolla: Four for Tango
That's your crash course on string quartets. What' been left out are the works of Heitor Villa-Lobos, Darius Milhaud (his Quartets Nos. 14 and 15, can be performed simultaneously as an octet), Alban Berg, Edvard Grieg, Benjamin Britten, Arnold Schoenberg, Sergey Prokofiev, Elliott Carter, Charles Ives, Samuel Barber (the origin of the famous Barber Adagio), just to name a few. All of these are worth sampling sometime. You just might like what you hear!