Debussy began work on the composition of his only string quartet in 1892. Little documentary evidence, save for one or two passing oblique references in letters to friends remains to indicate his rate of progress. The final movement, however, caused him no little trouble, and only in August 1893 did Debussy feel able to write to his colleague André Poniatowski that "I think I can finally show you the last movement of the quartet, which has made me really miserable!"
Cast in the traditional four movements, Debussy's Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 has as its most distinctive feature its overarching preoccupation with timbre and sonority. The work as a whole offers a compendium of string-playing techniques, yet it also displays a concision of thought rare, perhaps, in a composition often regarded (along with the quartet by Ravel) as one of the seminal impressionist works in the string quartet genre.
Its fascinating and readily palpable thematic concentration seems all the more remarkable when one realizes that the very first theme of the opening movement (Animé et très décidé) comes to furnish almost all of the diverse thematic components for the entire work. Another ingenious feature (possibly less immediately apparent to the listener at first hearing) is that the quartet is less dominated by melodic or harmonic considerations than by a rhythmic flexibility which carries the potential for seemingly endless variety. In this respect, Debussy's string quartet seems to strongly prefigure those by Bartók. Yet it remains unmistakably a work dominated by the sensuality and longueurs of French late nineteenth century Romanticism, a strong feature of the slow third movement (Andantino doucement expressif).
The work is also strongly predictive of the disjunctive and highly polarized new musical language that would assert itself in the two decades following its completion. The Scherzo (Assez vif et bien rythmé), for example, makes use of the disruptive sonic confrontations that can occur when rapidly alternating pizzicato and bowed passages produce what one commentator has described as "a confusion that forces the listener to concentrate on the textures, rather than the linear form of the music." These apparently disparate elements are then welded together in a finale of striking economy of means, and only at the close does it become really clear that the opening gestures of the work have actually altered themselves and coalesced to produce an organic unity of some 25 minutes' duration.
The work was to be dedicated to Ernest Chausson, whose personal reservations eventually diverted the composer's original intentions. Debussy sold his score for a mere 250 francs to the publishers Durand & Cie, who, as he later recalled, "were cynical enough about it to freely admit that what they were paying me didn't cover all the labor this 'work' has entailed." Not surprisingly, the quartet was widely misunderstood at its premiere, given by the Ysayë Quartet on December 29, 1893. At the time, the composer Guy Ropartz was the lone voice in a wilderness of critical lack of interest; he described the quartet as a work "dominated by the influence of young Russia (interestingly, Debussy's patroness in the early 1880s had been Nadezhda von Meck, better known for her support of Tchaikovsky); there are poetic themes, rare sonorities, the first two movements being particularly remarkable."