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 Richter – Six 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.
Op. 1, 2 (c.1767-62) and 9 (c.1769-70)
In relation to my research, I would call the six quartets in Op. 1 five-movement diverimenti. The opening Presto movements are fast and vivid in their irregular phrase-lengths with sudden contrasts in texture, dynamics and register, wherein the quartet seems to engage in some witty conversations of banters and repartees. Among these, one my favorite is the first movement of No. 1 in Bb major in 6/8, which sounds very youthful and fresh in the rising arpeggios, surprisingly sounding both bold in the attacks of the bow, but also balanced with the softer, piano notes. In terms of the topical content, I believe it recalls the fanfarish elements of the hunting music. In the places of second and fourth movements are the slower minuets, which often receive a comic take on the relative minor in the trios (secondary section of the ternary form). This is something I found quite peculiar, but I soon learned to be a stylistic trait of Haydn’s. One of the minuets that really caught my eye was the second movement of No. 5, which I found very eloquent in the way it contains moments chromaticism and often shifts between the major and its relative minor in surprising ways. Near the end there is also an interesting passage that uses unisons. I also have to mention that to me, generally, all these slower movements sound like accompanied arias for the first violin. The central, third-movement adagios in their sostenuto, lyrical phrasings often reminded me of hymns especially when these were chordal. Finally, the finale prestos are quite similar to the first movement to me, also with unpredictable phrase-lengths and energetic drive, making the whole form almost cyclical. Op. 2 contains another six quartets, also representing the five-movement divertimenti. Although quite similar in form, these are set in minor keys and I also found the minuets a bit more folk-like and adagios even more soulful. Comparing to all the others, however, to me No. 6 is the most interesting, since it somewhat breaks the mold of these early quartets, beginning with a slow theme and variations, also replacing the central adagio with a scherzo. This quartet to me signals Haydn’s desire to challenge the form and content of this still novel genre to explore its possibilities more fully and inventively.
In this direction, I listened to Op. 9, which represent Haydn’s more ‘mature’ quartets. Curiously, these were still dubbed Divertimenti a quattro, however, I found them miles different from the Op. 1 and 2 divertimenti. Instead, Op. 9 is structured into weightier four movements, which I thought to be a lot more symphonic, spacious and serious in sound. Comparing to the quick-firing rhetorical gestures of the early quartets, the opening movements of Op. 9 have a much more leisurely pulse in Moderato, allowing elaborate figuration to take place, especially in the first violin. My favorite is the sonorous opening of No. 1. with musette-like drones and multiple pedal points. However, No. 5 and 6 abandon this format, with No. 5 in particular being a set of variations like Op. 2 No. 6, while the No. 5 seems to recall the musette-like fanfares of Op. 1 No. 1. In my opinion, this conveys the way Haydn as a composer oscillates between convention and invention in his own music – how the development of new pieces are never linear, but rather circular in one’s stylistic vocabulary. Although minuet and trio from early quartets is somewhat retained in the second movements with rustic textures and folk-like sound carried over from Op. 1 and 2 quartets, I found them more developed in the rhythmic content, where, for example, in No. 3, the first violin in duple meter seems to play a stubborn game against accented triple time of lower instruments. The trio in No. 1 is also quite interesting in the way it doesn’t seem to reach a formal close, but lingers on the dominant. More interestingly, No. 4 represents an exceptions, since the minuet is no longer rustic, but points more towards the traditional courtly dances with moments of fluttering at the cadences and the persistent, rich-sounding double stops in the trio’s first violin that makes the sonorities much thicker. Nonetheless, my favorite are the third movement adagios, which are at times reminiscent to Italian virtuoso arias with rhapsodic openings or ending cadenzas, like in No. 1’s, where the strings seem to recall a Sicilian-like ornate serenade. I also found the opening of the C minor adagio in quartet No. 2 extremely poignant in the way it seems like a keyboard improvisation transcribed for strings, which make me perhaps question if Haydn indeed reused this from his previous material. Lastly, the lively final movements are much more contrapuntal comparing to Op. 1 and 2, almost like baroque toccatas or fugues, though No. 3 for instance is more rustic and folk-like. My favorite is No. 5 finale, which is set in sonata form and based on dominant seventh chords, where I particularly enjoyed the way it seems to fade into pianissimo in the coda. Though the No. 6 finale is also very peculiar in the way it concludes the whole quartet set in binary dance form in a more comic way. In general, I think I could spend hours analyzing Op. 6 quartets and marvel at the way their elements interact with past and future stylistic traits of Haydn.
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
Knowing that Beethoven 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
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
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.
‘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.
Withdrawal into subjective introspection notwithstanding its classical formal conception.
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.
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
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
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),
(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.
Quartet no.4 (1989–90).