Posted in Project 2: String Quartets

Research Point 5.2: String Quartet

The aim of this research point is to inquire into the history of string quartet from its beginnings in the 18th century to the present day, as well as note down important composers of the genre and the quartet’s relationship to social and cultural contexts. To start off, I will first write about the origins of quartet with some points on the emergence of the term and then move through the history of the genre up to the present day.

Obscure early origins

String quartet denotes an ensemble of musicians consisting of four string players – two violinists, a violist and a cellist, as well as a musical genre that follows the large-scale sonata structure and considered by many the supreme form of chamber music. Once I began researching, I found that the string quartet’s origins are very obscure with no clear-cut, direct precursor (Eisen, 2001)

Although there were perhaps Renaissance ensembles in the 16th century that might have resembled the quartet structure, composers at the time were not concerned with definite instrumental color, though according to Pincherle and Norton (1929: 78) “the instrumentation by ‘families’ of “homogenous type in which the four members, each defining a different tessitura, were graduated in exact imitation of the four parts of the vocal quartet” in the polyphony style of the time. However, with the development of the figured bass system in baroque music, the medium of four stringed instruments were abandoned except in England with the genre called fancy based on the Italian fantasia (Apel, 1969: 306).

Development of the classical quartet

Leaving the Renaissance period behind, the closer antecedents of the string quartet were first the baroque trio sonatas for two violins, cello and basso continuo, and then later the classical symphonies, consisted of works for the string orchestra. As the classical era approached, the textural idea of four solo instrumental performers began to rise as the baroque continuo started to decline, which led to the replacement of the keyboard with the viola part, though as Paxman (2014: 253) points out this was only a symptom and not a cause of the new genre. This four-part string texture was subsequentely adopted by various informal chamber genres in Austria, which came to be known as ‘divertimento’ (Randel, 1986: 809). Though not always soloistic, these were performed without keyboard continuo owing to the custome of playing outdoors.

However, I found that at the time, the generic terms were variously applied and so before 1750s, when the majority of ensemble works were trio-sonatas, these could be called partita, sonata, trio, divertimento, and even sinfonia. As such, similarly, even though quartets were on a rise to become an essential part of the Austrian chamber repertory from the late 1750s until after 1800, the pre-1770s quartets were primarily titled ‘Divertimento’ and the title quartet became familiar only in the 1770s, not dominant as a term until the 1780s. Interestingly, the terminological changes reflect not only the rise of Viennese music printing, but also the rise of public music in Vienna around 1780 (Webster, 1974: 214-24; 229-30).

In light of the above, instead of restricting themselves to private compositions for the Kapelle that are distributed only through manuscripts, composers now began to achieve wide dissemination of their music to the public by printed editions, while performances for patrons also started to receive detailed reporting in the public press. As for the quartets in particular, the French word started appearing on title pages with dedications to the public, signifying a new social function given to this genre. It is within this context of the four-part divertimento string textures and the terminological transitions that Haydn created his first string quartets, with his input in the genre sebsequently reserving him the nickname of ‘the father of string quartets’.

Interestingly, according to Wester (1974: 230-1), in the conventional histories of the classical quartet, Hadyn’s Op. 33 and Mozart’s ‘Haydn’ quartets are said to represent the maturity of the genre, but historically these quartets happen to be the first sets published. Prior to this, Haydn’s and Mozart’s quartets were rather sporadic than continuous, that is “local in both inspiration and immediate effect”. Webster argues that this further demonstrates the cultural phenomena of “the deification of Mozart after his death, the idolization of Haydn in his later year, the canonization of their late quartets as ‘models’ of their kind.” Nonetheless, be that as it may, the two composers still helped establish the string quartet into a definite ensemble and helped define the genre as we know it today.

For example, while in his early quartets Haydn appropriated the trio sonata writing with the viola and cello resembling basso continuo (Drabkin, 2000: 12-3), as well as the orchestral paradigm of the symphony, in his later quartets, Haydn started to find a more idomatic texture with equal distribution of thematic material among the parts (Randel, 1986: 809). Curiously, Mozart’s earliest quartets actually have little to do with Austrian chamber music traditions and were initially based on Italian models, such as Sammartini’s works. However, following Haydn, Mozart’s later quartets intensified both the structure and expression of quartets through novel devices including multiplicity of motifs and chromaticism, representing a unique fusion of strict and galant styles, espeically in eleborate slow movements (Eisen, 2001). Influenced by Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven’s dramatic intensity and time span heralded by his ‘Eroica’ Symphony No. 3 were now applied to his quartets.

Due to the increasing technical difficulties introduced by the three composers, quartets now required performance by professional quartets. With this increasing professionalization, quartets no longer represented music for amateur gatherings, but slowly became a genre suitable for large-scale concert comparable to the symphony itself.

Romantic, modern and contemporary quartets

Strangely enough, probably following the popularity of the salon music in the Romantic era, despite the public environment being the main sphere that had fostered string quartets in the Classical period, the genre now also entered the middle-class and domestic sphere through the small recital rooms, appropriate to the intimate nature of the genre in acoustics and atmosphere (Baldassarre, 2001). In terms of new compositions, however, there had been a gradual decline in the string quartets, with those like Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner turning away from the genre, while those who continued composing treated them as miniature orchestra works or virtuoso showcases like the violinist Spohr (Randel, 1986: 809-10). This is with the exception of Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumman, who endowed the genre with their lyricism, extending the tonalities and sonorities in the focus on the expressive content. New peaks were reached with Brahms, but this soon came to conclusion with the works of Dvorak and Smetana, who included Czech folk material in the genre, while Franck, who experimented with cyclic form in the quartets, inspired Debussy and Ravel to combine his formal procedures with their impressionist procedures.

Although the composers of the 20th century produced a modest repertory of the genre, the string quartets came to signify the most stylistic innovations comparing to other forms, often serving as testing waters for new theoretical models, including the neoclassical composers who extended timbral possibilities, harmonics, percussive effects quarter-tones, the second Viennese School for atonality and twelve-tone system, and those like Bartok who had a unique, intermediary approach through his polymodal chromaticism, which I previously wrote about here. (Apel, 1969: 810) After the second world war, string quartets had a somewhat sceptical position in the works of certain composers, especially those like Messiaen who tried to avoid them altogether, while those who still composed for the genre pushed as far as to deconstruct it like Kagel.

More recently, quartets enjoyed a renewed interest becoming a kind of ‘postmodernist phenomena’ (Griffiths, 2001). This was both backward and forward looking. For example, some string quartets focused on performing the old repertoire from Haydn to Bartok, while others like Kronos and Arditti focused on novel works. Interestingly, these two quartets also show the two diverging routes in the contemporary music itself in the tension between simplicity and tradition on one side and high modernism and complexity on the other. In this regard, while Kronos focuses on performing minimalist pieces with the works of composers from other cultures, Ardetti is more focused on performing indeterminacy, new complexity and similar avant-garde works.

In conclusion, as a former solo violin student, I never really had an opportunity to look into string quartets before. As such, this was a great chance to learn more about the medium, its history and shifting socio-cultural contexts, since I would really love to experiment with this genre as a composer. Having originated from the baroque trio sonata and early classical symphony to reach modernism, as well as contemporary minimalism and new complexity, I was truly fascinated by a range of styles, as I have noted in my listening log, which I could potentially draw from when I get to compose my own quartet sometime in the future. It would also be interesting to maybe even play through a work or two, and perhaps even find an ensemble to join to get more familiar with the repertoire.


Apel, W. (ed.) (1969) Harvard Dictionary of Music. (2nd ed.) Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Baldassarre, A. (2001) ‘1830–70.’ In: String Quartet. [Online] Grove Music Online. At: (Accessed on)

Drabkin, W. (2000) A Reader’s Guide to Haydn’s Early String Quartets. London: Greenwood Press.

Eisen, C. (2001) ‘Early development.’ In: String Quartet. [Online] Grove Music Online. At: (Accessed on)

Eisen, C. (2001) ‘1780–1800.’ In: String Quartet. [Online] Grove Music Online. At: (Accessed on)

Griffiths, P. (2001) ‘ After 1975.’ In: String Quartet. [Online] Grove Music Online. At: (Accessed on)

Paxman, J. (2014) A Chronology of Western Classical Music 1600-2000. London: Ornibus Press.

Pincherle, M. and Norton, H. (1929) ‘On the Origins of the String Quartet.’ In: The Musical Quarterly, 15 (1), pp. 77-87.

Webster, J. (1974) ‘Towards a History of Viennese Chamber Music in the Early Classical Period.’ In: Journal of the American Musicological Society, 27 (2), pp. 212-247.

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