The string quartet is one of my favorite musical groups to listen to. I am not a string player myself, but have long been a fan of quartets, the upper royalty of chamber ensembles. Musicians in a great string quartet perform at some of the highest levels of human artistry and expression. Robin Stowell writes in the preface to The Cambridge Companion to the String Quartet:
“From tentative beginnings, the string quartet has evolved for over 240 years, serving as a medium for some of the most profound and personal musical expression. At first it was a medium that allowed four gentlemen amateurs to converse musically, an aspect of its function that has retained its significance throughout the years. But this aspect has long been interconnected with a view of the genre as one that is appropriate for music of the deepest personal expression, as well as sophisticated humour and wit.”
The instruments that make up a string quartet include two violins, a viola, and a cello. The luthier that creates the string instrument must be part engineer and part magician. These gifted human beings start with wood from a couple of different kinds of trees, lacquer, and hair from a horse’s tail that started out life swishing flies off an equine’s rear. Strings for the instruments were originally made from gut (now fashioned from steel), and rosin for the bow is basically dried tree sap. The luthier crafts all of these humble materials into one of the finest miracles that human hands have created. A well made violin vibrates with life when played. When a bow plays a string on a cello in tune, a listener in the back row of the hall can feel it in their chest.
Composers write music for string quartets for more than one purpose. As Stowell alluded to in the previous quote, many quartets were written mainly for the enjoyment of the players. This is music of participation, for the artistic interaction of the members of the quartet, for musical moments shared between the four players with no audience. Indeed, good quartet writing treats the four instruments as equals, and each player gets a chance to support the others as well as be in a lead role with support from their peers. Originally, if there was any audience at all for the quartet performance, it was a small one. Chamber music gets its name because it was played in the “chamber” of a palace or large home, for some nobility and possibly their guests. Later on, larger audiences gathered for live performances, and with the development of recording technology, this very intimate form of music could reach to even greater numbers.
Some of the world’s greatest composers have written their best works for string quartets. The only place to start a series of articles on string quartets is with Franz Joseph Haydn. Papa Haydn is called the “Father of the String Quartet”, and although was not the earliest composer to write for four strings, the genre came into maturity under his pen. Haydn wrote 68 quartets during his prolific career, partly because he was commissioned to do so. He spent decades in the employ of the Esterhazy family, and was in charge of writing, rehearsing and performing music for use at the estate. There was a court orchestra, a theatre, and of course, a string quartet. Haydn might be called upon to write a new quartet for performance at the upcoming visit of the Grand Archduke of some long dead noble family, and Haydn dutifully cranked out new works with genius. (Haydn did so with such skill that even Mozart composed a set of six string quartets dedicated to Joseph Haydn.)
A quartet is a perfect vehicle for the tonal harmonic language of Haydn’s music. The group can play all four notes of a dominant seventh chord, which is about the most complex harmonic chord required for Haydn’s time. The group can also sound all three notes of a major or minor chord, and still have one voice free to play a melody with it. The four homogeneous string instruments blend their sound together perfectly, and the range of pitch from the lowest note on the cello to the top sounds of the violin give Haydn a great deal of real estate to explore.
Many elements of quartet writing became standardized in Haydn’s output. He had a habit of composing and publishing his quartets in groups of six, something even Beethoven followed in his set of six quartets Opus 18. The standard four movement structure of a quartet also became the norm for Haydn, with an opening sonata form movement, a slow movement, a minuet, and a finale. I would like to offer Haydn’s String Quartet in G major, Opus 77, number 1 as an example of Haydn’s mature quartet writing.
Haydn is one of the great composers of the period in musical history we label the “Classical” period. Indeed his music is a showcase for many of the aesthetic elements that make up musical classicism. Where the earlier “Baroque” period had a great deal of florid complexity, the Classical period emphasized clarity and balance. The musical texture has a clear melody and clear accompaniment. In the first bars of the G major quartet, we hear a good example of this kind of writing. The group sounds an opening chord to get the sound of G major in our ear, then the first violin plays the melody while the other three voices take a subordinate role playing a repeated chord rhythm. This is music that values elegance, refinement and emotional restraint. There is emotional expression, but within a dignified range that always keeps its manners. We do not have the emotional excesses of the later “Romantic” period of musical history.
Opus 77 lasts about 22 minutes in performance, not too long, nor too short. The opening sonata form is inventive and shows great creativity. It is followed by a contrasting slow movement, and then by the courtly dance music of a minuet. The lively finale brings the performance to a close, and the pleasant nature of the music is both enjoyable to play and fitting for the kind of noble social evening for which many of Haydn’s chamber works were intended. I realize that twenty minutes is an eternity in our fast paced modern lives, but I urge you to carve out a piece of your day to take a listen. Marvel at the resonant sound of the instruments, the balance and interplay between the four players, and some of the genius of Haydn’s composition. I guarantee it is worth your effort.