Exploring the String Quartet—The First 250 Years

This string quartet exhibit is inpsired by San Franciso Music Day 2016, the 9th annual ensemble music showcase created and produced by the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music. In 2016, they entrusted me to curate an indepth field report highlighting the string quartet which I titled The First 250 Years. Here you will find an inspiring overview and introduction to this extraordinary musical genre. The sidebar offers numerous string quartet "lists" to accompany your exploration as well as some fine books for further reading. Welcome to the vast, enchanting world of the string quartet. You could spend the rest of your life here. I know I will.

Hidden Musical Treasures at the Heart of the Matter

String QuartetSince its birth around 1760, the string quartet has maintained a vital and profound hold on composers, players and listeners: it has been the vehicle par excellence for a rich continuum of some of the finest music composed throughout the last 250 years. Across time, nationality, and centuries of changing style, the string quartet has formed the backbone of small ensemble chamber music with a rich lore. Music for the string quartet consistently features lyrical beauty, complex harmony, intense passion, powerful rhythm and elegant formal design. From the most intimate personal expression to the most brilliant virtuosity, from the ancient and otherworldly to edgy grooves of the present day, the string quartet appears to be an infinitely flexible ensemble engaging great composers and performers in one of the richest living traditions of music in all of history. For many, if not most, however, it is a rarely encountered “hidden” genre, while historically, culturally, musically, for others, it is the mother lode. Take some time to discover this stunning genre, the heart of the matter. It is the best music you have never heard.

The String Quartet Ensemble

String QuartetA string quartet combines four independent but meticulously coordinated players featuring closely related instruments from the violin family: two violins, viola and cello. Perfected in the late 17th century by master Italian luthiers, these are among the supreme instruments of the Western tradition. A bowed string can produce a huge range of sounds from the initial percussive attack to the extended draw featuring everything from a whisper to an electric growl with such beautiful, resonant singing in between: brought to life by infinite shades of vibrato. A quartet of bowed instruments spans a sonic range of several octaves from bass (the cello) to soprano (the violin) with a dynamic range from soft to loud. Although each player is generally restricted to a single, singing line (chords are possible but relatively infrequent), the four parts can combine to sound the richest harmonies as a perfectly blended whole, or diverge into a complex web of counterpoint and innumerable textures between these extremes. Each voice is important, exposed, transparent but engaged in conversational give and take, with solos, duets, trios and quartets ever changing in a fluid texture. The string quartet is a living, breathing thing with vividly transparent sinews.

Perhaps less obvious, but no less crucial to its brilliance, is the remarkable rhythmic capability of a string quartet: with virtuosic agility in the fingers and the bow, a quartet can achieve an astonishing range of rhythms from a nearly static sheen to the most violent, rocking groove. The time-keeping percussive effects are “embedded” in the sound, inseparable from the pitches and sonorities of the notes themselves. There is no "external" rhythm section: the notes are the beats.

The String Quartet’s Beginnings

Joseph HaydnThe string quartet was born sometime around 1760. Following the Baroque Era that ended around 1750, at least a few early classical composers began composing for string quartet, but exact composition dates are difficult to determine. The Austrian composer Joseph Haydn is appropriately named the father of the string quartet, but he was not the first or the only one, although he quickly became the greatest. His creative genius and lifelong dedication produced a series of outstanding quartets that defined the new genre, closely entwined with the emerging Classical style. While Haydn’s first sets of quartets bore titles like “divertimento” and comprised five movements, by the 1770’s Haydn had started using the official title “quartet” and settled on a four movement design that would dominate the string quartet for well over a century. He published his quartets in sets and the six quartets, Op. 20, written in 1772, are universally considered the first string quartet masterpieces. Haydn composed a total of 69 quartets, the last in 1799, with no less than 30 universally regarded classics.

Both the new classical style and Haydn’s particular approach to the string quartet were uniquely associated with Vienna, home to the aristocratic patrons that commissioned the music and provided the exclusive, private venues for performances. It was also home to a number of outstanding composers who would join Haydn, including three that became the next masters of the Viennese classical quartet: Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

Wolfgang Amadeus MozartMozart composed many quartets but, after moving to Vienna, he met Haydn, witnessed a performance of his latest works (Op. 33), and became so inspired that he composed a new set specifically dedicated to his mentor. The next masterworks in the genre were henceforth known as Mozart’s “Haydn” quartets. Towards the end of the 19th century, after Mozart died and Haydn was about to retire, a young Beethoven joined the scene. He published his first set of quartets in 1801, strongly in the mold set by Haydn and Mozart. Beethoven’s Op. 18 quartets became the next set in the canon.

Ludwig van BeethovenThe mature Beethoven revolutionized nearly every genre he touched. With his “middle period” string quartets, Beethoven vastly increased the length, complexity, virtuosity and profundity of the string quartet. In the process, his string quartets became too difficult for the amateur, requiring, for the first time, a professional string quartet ensemble. He composed five epic quartets in his heroic period. In his last period, after the symphonies, concertos and sonatas, Beethoven turned once again to the string quartet, spending his final few years composing his “late” quartets. These are transcendent works of novel form, intense expression and rarefied style that mystified many listeners for the rest of the 19th century. Eventually, they entered the canon and today are universally regarded as the zenith of the Viennese string quartet, perhaps the greatest string quartets of all time, unsurpassed to this day. To many, including, famously, Richard Wagner, as well as Beethoven himself, the epic Op. 131 of 1826 is the finest of them all.

Fanny Mendelssohn HenselAfter Beethoven (and Schubert, whose many excellent string quartets would remain unpublished during his lifetime), composers throughout Europe would take up the string quartet. Germany would be quick to follow Austria with outstanding composers like Mendelssohn and Schumann coming into the fold as the Classical period gradually transitioned into the Romantic. It was still extraordinarily rare for women to compose, much less become professionals. But Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny represents an outstanding isolated example. Though her family, including her brother Felix, strongly discouraged her from publishing, the young Fanny composed some wonderful music including a string quartet featured on the program today. Her quartet represents the genre as it moves beyond Vienna, a quartet in the classical style with an emerging Romantic personality.

The 19th and 20th Century

The Joachim QuartetFollowing the deaths of Beethoven and Schubert and the passing of the zenith of the Viennese String Quartet, the genre moves out, expanding across Europe propelled by a number of factors. The rise of professional, permanent, string quartet ensembles and a growing market for public performances beyond the aristocratic salon contributed to the solidification of a “canon” as well as pro- viding impetus and outlet for new composers. The rise of Nationalism inspired composers across Europe to establish or further develop uniquely National styles often reflecting local folk traditions and the lineage and legacy of a school of compatriot composers. Over the course of the 19th century, string quartets appear in Germany, Bohemia, Russia, Scandinavia, France, Hungry, England and, eventually, the New World. While the Romantics emphasized different-sized ensembles and new forms, sometimes regarding the string quartet as conservative or overly formal, the Romantic quest for subjective, personal utterance found ample expression in numerous string quartets sometimes with programmatic narratives and coded meanings.

Maurice RavelBy the end of the 19th century, classical music in all forms seemed to many to have reached its limit, its means of expression, particularly the ever-expanding harmonic system, having exhausted all possibilities. The 20th century brought extraordinary change and the string quartet continued to play front and center as an important means of artistic innovation and expression. Debussy and Ravel transformed the quartet with their French “Impressionism”, while a new, Second Viennese school of Schoenberg and his students Berg and Webern deployed the string quartet to explore a new, atonal system of composition eventually named serialism. Webern in particular abandoned the traditional four-movement form finding new expression in compressed, epigrammatic miniatures.

Béla BartókYet another approach witnessed Béla Bartók writing a seminal cycle of six quartets evolving his own unique and modern vocabulary infused with his extensive research into the genuine folk music of Hungry and the Balkans. Russia finds its own distinctive 20th century voice in composers such as Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Weinberg and Schnittke. Shostakovich composed a cycle of 15 quartets closely associated with friends, personal confessions and private reflections on war, fascism and life in the Soviet Union. (Myaskovsky and Weinberg composed substantial cycles).

Terry RileyIt is not until the 20th century that America comes on line with its own distinctive classical music featuring numerous outstanding string quartet composers including Ives, Barber, Porter, Babbitt and Carter (to name but a few). These composers reflected the most cutting edge approaches while evincing uniquely American sensibilities. For many in the post WWII era, music had retreated into the academic ivory tower where, still, the string quartet played a central role. In the late 60’s and 70’s, a distinctly American movement dubbed “Minimalism” staged a kind of revolution against the ostensibly inaccessible European and American avant-garde with a fresh, simplified style informed by repetitive rhythmic structures found in classical music from Indian music, Jazz and Rock. Composers such as Riley, Glass, Reich and John Adams (again, to name a few) all produced string quartets in this distinctive style.

The String Quartet Today

Inspired by the piece “Black Angels” for “electric” string quartet by American composer George Crumb, reflecting the war in Vietnam, the Kronos Quartet was founded in 1973. In a career spanning over 40 years and more than 40 studio recordings, the Kronos Quartet has revitalized the ever-renewable string quartet in a wide variety of ways, including first and foremost a broad range of new music from living composers, collaborations with world musicians and an infusion of diverse genres and styles from the avant-garde to rock, folk and classical traditions from around the world, and even the compelling resurrection of ancient music from Medieval Europe. The Kronos has continually demonstrated that the string quartet is not a museum piece nor an esoteric academic vehicle, but a hip, contemporary ensemble capable of tackling just about any musical domain you can think of.

In the last several decades, numerous string quartet ensembles have formed around an increasingly broad artistic agenda featuring such things as pop “covers”, Jazz improvisation, Bluegrass and Americana, amplification and electronica, Tango, Klezmer, world music, ambient and the latest “classical” composers featuring post-modern mash-ups, minimalism, spectral, neo-Romanticism, digital multi-media performances and ever more fascinating explorations. The possibilities now seem endless.

Del Sol QuartetFounded in 1992, the San Francisco-based Del Sol Quartet embraces a panoramic and emotionally rich purview with “collaborative performances and programs exploring narratives and cultures from around the world reflecting the stories and sounds of the Pacific Rim as vibrantly as those heard in European concert halls or East Coast art spaces.” Founded in 2001, the Quartet San Francisco aims to make the string quartet a spontaneous, improvisational and popular music ensemble featuring authentically swinging Jazz, award- winning Tango and sophisticated pop treasures from Broadway to Hollywood. It would seem that the string quartet is capable of absorbing and reflecting the entire modern world, an apparently everlasting instrumental ensemble par excellence.

Exploring the String Quartet Further

Tip of the IcebergWith over 250 years of string quartet music to explore, you can imagine we have only scratched the surface here. You could pursue any one of the string quartet ensembles featured in this field report and discover all kinds of wonderful music featuring numerous styles and composers. Besides an endless diversity of music to explore, really cultivating some familiarity through repeated listening to a nice handful of great works will deepen the experience and begin to reveal your favorites: a particular piece, a particular composer, a general style or a time period. You can engage in a lifetime discovery and enjoyment of the string quartet, ideally through live performance, but also here at earsense.org.

earsense - the chamber music exploratoriumearsense is a website devoted to small ensemble chamber music including an astonishingly vast collection of string quartets (you can browse over 11,000 quartets here). You can browse and search hundreds of composers and thousands of string quartets with videos, historical information, articles, scores and related links in a virtual “exploratorium” of music. You can even start with a thoughtfully chosen list of 50 Great String Quartets, a wonderful way to further explore this amazing, ongoing musical tradition.

— Kai Christiansen, 2016

(Just one more)