Posted in Listening for Part 5: The Classical Era

String Quartets

In this post I will list the string quartets I’ve listened to, including Classical, Romantic, as well as modern and contemporary string quartets. All the compositions I’ve listened to are linked to my post for Research Point 5.2 here.

Classical string quartets

Franz Xaver RichterSix String Quartets Op. 5 (c.1756)

This is the earliest set of string quartets I could find. Interestingly, I found that Richter comes from the school of Mannheim composers, who led a change of musical style in Europe and influenced the Classical style developed in Vienna. I realized that I actually didn’t know anything about the Mannheim school and so this seems to be an area of music history that I’d like to update in the future, especially since I found multiple contributions and innovations by these composers. At any rate, all six quartets are in three movements, contrasting the later four-movement structure of the genre. Although quite polyphonic, Op. 5 quartets clearly follow the melodic-harmonic idioms of the Classic period. For example, in the finales of quartets No. 1 and 2, the fugal episodes are embedded within a sonata structure. In terms of instrumentation, I think there is a variety of writing for all four string instruments with each given concerto-like passages, though there are also moments of duets in the sharing of the melodic material. However, I was really surprised to see in the score that the role of cello and viola were at times reversed. In these moments, in a peculiar way, cello acts as a solo instrument in the tenor register, while viola provides a bass line. Regardless, I found the outer, more spirited movements very invigorating, while the slower movements sound more like operatic arias. Although these aren’t considered as masterpieces, I believe Richter’s quartets hold a historical importance, which show the musical foundations from which Haydn and Mozart built their own string quartets on, but nonetheless, I also find them well-written and interesting in their own right. Since I haven’t previously researched into the Mannheim school, looking at the score, I am aware that I was unable to really distinguish more specific stylistic cues in relation to the Viennese School. As such, I’d like to carry out some future investigations in this area in order to move towards considering the Classical era with more specificity, rather than maintain this generic perspective I have on the epoch.

Joseph Haydn

Op. 1, 2 (c.1767-62) and 9 (c.1769-70)

Op. 33 (1781) and 64 (1790)

Idiomatic writing, consistent motifs and clarity of structure and textural balance. Broad harmonic palette and a thematic transformation, more virtouso violin writing, concerto-like passages

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

K80 (1770) and K155-60 (1772-3)

K387, K428, K458, K464 and K465 (c.1782-5)

Ludwig van Beethoven

Op.18 (1798–1800)

Copied some of Haydn’s and Mozart’s

Expressive contrast is a hallmark of this early set: with its convoluted harmonic scheme. Elaborate textures, complex harmony and intensity of utterance.

Three Razumovsky quartets op.59 (1805–6), ‘Harp’ quartet op.74 (1809) and ‘Quartetto serioso’ op.95 (1810)

Deepening of Beethoven’s style inaugurated by the ‘Eroica’ Symphony
Expansion of the movements, slow introductions. The ‘Harp’, whose nickname derives from the pizzicato effects in the first movement, is in many respects an exploration, not uncommon among Beethoven’s works, of textural possibilities. Op. 95 Minimal, compressing the musical material

Franz Schubert

The A minor and D minor (‘Death and the Maiden’) (1824) and the G major (1826). All three exhibit the expanded scale of Beethoven’s quartets, incorporating quasi-orchestral gestures, the G major in particular is notable for its tremolando writing, programmatic.

Romantic string quartets

Felix Mendelssohn

Op. 12 (1829) and 13 (1827)

Explicitly relate to Beethoven’s late quartets (like op.74 and 95 I mention above) in their technical extremism and experimentation.

Op.44 (1837–8)

‘classicizing’ approach, taking its lead from the quartet style of Haydn and Mozart with an attempt to conflate the principle of the ‘song without words’ with classical techniques of motivic working.

Op.80 (1847)

Withdrawal into subjective introspection notwithstanding its classical formal conception.

Robert Schumann

Op.41 (1842)

Was strangely wary of orientating himself by Beethoven’s example in these three quartets. He is known to have studied Haydn’s and Mozart’s quartets while composing his own. He in fact sought ways of superseding thematic development and the form it generates and to transfer to the string quartet the poetic, associative language of detail that he developed in his piano music, notably in the ‘character’ variations and the use of the variation to develop nuclear thematic ideas.

Antonín Dvořák

A distinctively Czech quartet tradition evolved in several stages, not emerging fully until Dvořák’s substantial contribution: his 14 string quartets (1862–95) are central to his output. His first quartet (op.2, 1862) shows him coming to terms with cyclic structures, under Mendelssohn’s influence. It was followed by three without opus numbers (B♭ major in 1869; D in 1869–70; E minor in 1870), which show the influence of Liszt and Wagner. op.16 (1874), in which Dvořák returned wholeheartedly to classical formal principles and clear thematic structures, which he combined with melodic features of Czech folk music
His later quartets (op.80, 1876; op.34, 1877–8; op.51, 1878–9; op.61, 1881) conform to the same model and intensify the input of national stylistic elements

Modern and contemporary string quartets

Max Reger

Reger became the new central figure in the Austro-German quartet tradition, influencing Schoenberg and Bartók. His no.1, in G minor (1900), has highly chromatic outer movements, fast and driven, checked only by intensive counterpoint (the finale is a double fugue), though the middle movements are more in the nature of genre pieces, the scherzo having a combination of weight and wit equally typical of the composer. His no.3, in D minor (1903–4), has first and slow movements.


D minor, more Dorian, contributes to the aloofness of Sibelius’s only quartet, subtitled ‘Voces intimae’ (1909)


Quartets No. 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6

Bartók had gone forward from Reger to folk music in his no.1 (1908), which begins with a slow, chromatic, meandering fugue and ends with a dance.  moved from the exacerbated Romanticism of his first two turned into style where vividly expressive elements become building-blocks in structures of closely made mirror patterns and symmetries in nos.4 and 5 (1928, 1934), and finally reached a new Romantic style in no.6 (1939). His order was not the old one. His sonata forms are often concealed, and the larger form is established by overarching palindromes (nos.4 and 5) or variations (no.6), while continuity is created at a very local level by intensive imitative textures. less an ensemble of four individuals than a unit, and its resources are increased by string effects and textures Bartók heard from village fiddlers

Second Viennese-School


Schoenberg reacted to this expansion of scale, and perhaps also to the same quartet’s cyclic form, in his own D minor Quartet (1905), an immense single movement in which scherzo and Adagio episodes emerge from within continuous development. Quartet as a polyphonic instrument; unlike Reger, he introduced effects – harmonics, pizzicato, sul ponticello – that can be expressive or ironic

no.2 (1907–8) was the site of his break with tonality, introduction of a soprano to sing poems by Stefan George in the last two movements, quartet is greatly compromised when it has to accompany, rather than play along with the voice.

Nos.3 and 4 are in the usual four movements, but differ in texture and harmonic reach, no.4 being altogether richer.


Lyric Suite follows a private programme relating to the great love affair of his later years, and to that end uses quotation (notably from Tristan und Isolde), an estranged but nonetheless passionate Romantic voice and great delicacy of scoring.


Op.28 weaves a tight canonic skein of sounds through each of its three movements, with an extreme reduction in the intervals and rhythmic values that can appear.



Three Pieces (1914) are even more alien within the quartet context: a mechanism of ostinatos and drones; a clownery with brusque gestures and, at one point, the second violinist and violist holding their instruments like guitars; and finally a homophonic chant.

The introduction to the graveyard scene in The Rake’s Progress (1951), 

Post 1950s

Quartet Kagel’s 

(1965–7) goes to the ultimate point in deconstructing the genre. Near the start, for instance, the cellist is placed as normal while the violist walks across the hall playing and the two violinists are heard from offstage. What the musicians play is similarly heterodox. Not only are strange techniques employed – bowing with notched pieces of wood, drumming the strings with the fingers, attempting to play with a thick leather glove on the left hand—but sometimes the instruments are prepared, in the sense of Cage’s prepared piano, with objects placed between strings.

Brian Ferneyhough

Quartet no.4 (1989–90).

Steve Reich


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