String quartet

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String quartet

From the Viennese classic up to the present day, the string quartet with two violins , viola and cello is the most important genre of chamber music . The term string quartet denotes both the ensemble ( quartet ) and the music genre, or a composition resulting from this .


The string quartet developed in the second third of the 18th century from the baroque trio sonata , in the Italian area the sinfonia , the sonata and the concerto grosso , and in the German-speaking area the quartet - Divertimento . The special feature of the genre is that despite the completely conventional line-up with two violins, viola and cello, which already corresponds to the complete string set of the Italian and German baroque orchestras, the bass part was not supplemented by a chordal continuo instrument such as the harpsichord . As a result, and because of the solo cast, an increasing equality of the voices at a high technical level became possible, in which the cello part no longer only played an accompanying role as a bass line instrument, but received solo passages, as well as the middle parts. Over time, this eventually led to a distinction between orchestral and chamber music movements . The genre was founded almost simultaneously by Joseph Haydn towards the end of the 1750s in Vienna and Luigi Boccherini around 1761 (date of composition of his 1st string quartet) in Milan . A few years earlier, Georg Philipp Telemann and Matthias Georg Monn had presented works for the typical string quartet line-up. Boccherini's style of quartet, which quickly enjoyed increasing popularity after the publication of his works in Paris from 1767, is characterized by a skillful and highly sensitive handling of the string sound, a rather soft, sensitive emotionality and a greater formal openness (both in number, sequence and Character of the sentences), while in terms of content, Haydn soon tended towards jokes, contrapuntal gimmicks and, in terms of form, despite all the joy of experimentation, towards standardization (with a role model function). The quartets of these two composers, despite their obvious differences, are not entirely opposites, so it is known that they valued each other, and Boccherini also took up suggestions from Haydn's works. During their lifetime, both masters had an influence on the quartet work of their contemporaries, whereby Boccherini coined a more Romanesque quartet style, with representatives such as Giuseppe Cambini , Gaetano Brunetti , Giovanni Battista Viotti and French composers such as Hyacinthe Jadin ; and Schubert took more suggestions on by Boccherini and Jadin. In Paris the quartet was referred to by composers like Gossec as a " quatuor concertant " , without it always having to be a really concertante style of quartet in which one (or two) instrument (s) shine or dominate through particular virtuosity (mostly the 1st violin). Examples of the latter can be found by the aforementioned violin virtuoso Viotti or by Paganini's teacher Alessandro Rolla . There are also many movements in Haydn's quartets that he originally wrote especially for his brilliant colleague, concertmaster Tomasini (especially Adagios ).

Due to the increasing dominance of the Viennese classics , the quartet in the Haydn style came more and more to the fore from 1800.

Haydn's quartets

From Haydn's Quartet Divertimenti op. 1 and 2, Haydn's systematic work developed into the type that was accepted as a binding model for the string quartet in 1781 at the latest with op. 33. Haydn took on a rather coincidental music-making situation (in which two violinists, a violist and a cellist were looking for pieces to play at home) in order to test the possibilities of this combination. The pieces op. 1 and 2 follow the five-movement sequence: Schnell - Minuet - Adagio - Minuet - Schnell . The corner movements are in the form of small sonata movements . The elements that were later so important for the string quartet model, such as the motivic work and the equality of the instruments, are only rudimentarily tested.

Unison throw-in from the 1st movement of Joseph Haydn's String Quartet in G minor, Op. 20 No. 3

Despite the great success of the works, Haydn was apparently not entirely satisfied with this model. In Opus 9, written in 1769/1770, and in Op. 17, written in 1771, he made the four movements from the symphony the norm, mostly in the form: Allegro moderato - Minuet - Adagio - Presto . The two middle clauses can also appear reversed. In op. 20, composed a year later, the new quartet style was perfected. Set and motivational ical work are often elaborately to stern and several quartets end with a joint (for which there is at Boccherini already in his op. 2 an example). Here Haydn sounds far more extreme and more willing to experiment than before, his affect language is intense, the contrasts within the movements are more clearly worked out. The first movement from op. 20 No. 3 (see sheet music and audio sample ? / I ) may serve as an example . Here the subject is abruptly interrupted by sudden interjections in unison . Audio file / audio sample

Op. 33, published ten years later, which avoided the extremes of Op. 20 and delivers a finely tuned balance of high musical quality, joy of playing and listening pleasure, was then perceived by Haydn's contemporaries as a definitive classic model of the string quartet. The minuets are here replaced by scherzi for the first time , but Haydn returns to the minuet in later quartet collections (albeit often at a rapid pace).

Mozart reacted to these works promptly by composing six of his own quartets (1782–1785) dedicated to Haydn , which, in addition to the successful assimilation of the Haydn pattern, also documents Mozart's engagement with the counterpoints of Bach and Handel . Through Haydn's following quartets (from op. 50), which gradually become more complex in their musical language and harmony, as well as through Beethoven's quartets, the view of the string quartet as the “most demanding genre of chamber music” developed. This point of view was additionally supported by the ideas of the theory of composition about the "special perfection of the four-part movement", which also has the character of a conversation.


Fate of the quartet ; Pencil drawing by Hermann Voss , violist of the Melos Quartet , 1985
Illustration by Reinhold Max Eichler to the poem Chamber Music by Hugo Salus (1896). You play the first string quartet by Beethoven.

The genre experienced its heyday at the time of the Viennese Classicism and early Romanticism . The decisive factor for this was the examination of composers with their colleagues' string quartets. The so-called Haydn Quartets by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart drive the development towards a complex intellectualization and a rational and absolute claim to art, even if Mozart himself appears a bit more pleasing in his later quartets.

The string quartets by Ludwig van Beethoven , which testify to the highest intellectual penetration , set new standards for all subsequent generations of composers. With its (partly still today) avant-garde boldness in form and expression, the genre finally said goodbye to mere entertainment for the audience. Not least caused by Beethoven's works, the form of cast - initially cultivated by amateur or aristocratic ensembles - experienced increasing professionalization with the move of professionally oriented ensembles from salon and music room to the public concert hall in Vienna ( Schuppanzigh Quartet ) in 1804 .

Franz Schubert's string quartet works are as extensive as Beethoven's. At least his last three quartets ( Death and the Maiden , Rosamunde , G major quartet) are now on a par with Beethoven's works in terms of their importance and popularity. A large number of string quartets were written by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and Antonín Dvořák (e.g. American Quartet, Op. 96 ). Mendelssohn's String Quartet, Op. 13, can be seen as the inspiration for Edvard Grieg's String Quartet, Op. 27, which the encyclopedia The Music in Past and Present rates as one of the most remarkable compositions of the Romantic period. With Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms , the string quartets are more on the fringes of chamber music creation. Bedřich Smetana composed his tinnitus suffering acoustically in his quartet “From my life” . Giuseppe Verdi wrote his only string quartet as an occasional work in 1873 , as rehearsals for the planned Neapolitan premiere of Aida were delayed due to the indisposition of the prima donna Teresa Stolz .

Development of the 20th century

From this point of view, the post-romantic contributions to the string quartet genre seem like a consistent further development. The individual works by Maurice Ravel ( string quartet in F major ) and Claude Debussy ( string quartet in G minor ), the two programmatic string quartets by Leoš Janáček , the four numbered string quartets by Arnold Schönberg and the six string quartets by Béla Bartók formulate this at the highest level Quintessence of the tonal language of the respective composers, in the case of Bartók clearly recognizable from different creative periods. While the quartets of Debussy and Ravel are pioneering in their tonal differentiation, the quartets of the Second Viennese School around Schönberg (Berg, Webern) and Bartók are also entering new harmonic and sometimes formal territory: Schönberg adds the four instruments in two movements of his 2nd string quartet a soprano voice added; in nos. 3 and 4 he abandons the harmonic-tonal way of composing that had shaped the formal course of a string quartet from the beginning of the genre: the poem text of the 4th movement (Stefan George) that is set to music is downright programmatic: “I feel like something else planets [...] I dissolve myself in tones, circling, weaving ”. Anton Webern takes the decisive step into free tonality or atonality (a term that Schönberg rejected, but which has caught on ) with his three string quartets, developing new musical forms derived from the twelve-tone technique . But only the name of the dodekaphone string quartet op. 28 refers to the tradition of the genre: The compositions from op. 5 are simply called “movements” for string quartet, op. 9 is entitled “bagatelles”: Both works are freely composed atonally, but are found even here there are still scattered triad formations and other vague associations with the tonality; the title “Bagatellen” does not go back to Webern himself, but to the publisher. The Bagatelles op. 9, in turn, are a compilation of a three-movement string quartet from 1911, to which an opening and a final movement have been added for the Bagatelles op. 9. These two corner movements date from 1913: they originally formed a complete work unit with a middle movement that also included a singing part; However, Webern only published these two framework movements within the Bagatelles Op. 9 (the middle movement of the cycle from 1913 remained unpublished during his lifetime). The compositional condensation of the expression that is typical for Webern is found again later in the three string quartets by the Hungarian composer György Kurtág , whose string quartet Officium breve (1988/89) consciously refers to Webern both with opus number 28 and with a quotation.

Schönberg's brother-in-law and friend Alexander Zemlinsky composed four string quartets, in each of which he reflected the compositional status quo of his time: The 1st Quartet in D major seems like an exaggeration of Brahms' musical language and crosses it with Wagnerian harmony; the 2nd quartet op.15 quotes themes, motifs, form models and key arrangements of works by Schönberg (one observes the pre-drawn key in F sharp minor, which is reminiscent of Schönberg's 2nd string quartet: Schönberg breaks the key within the movement cycle, Zemlinsky almost reaches it nowhere). The third (op. 19) and fourth quartet (op. 25) act like an inventory of the available 'musical material' at the time of their composition: they contain unresolved dissonances, diatonic, themes that include almost all 12 tones, rhythmic-metric Puzzle games, ostinati, late romantic exaggeration of expression and neo-baroque formal language, transformed by the 'tone' typical of Zemlinsky, side by side.

Stravinsky avoids the term “string quartet” and strings together loose movements for this instrumentation. Bartók adds folk music elements, writes a one-movement quartet (No. 3) and develops new playing techniques for the four strings, including the so-called "Bartók pizzicato", in which the player lets the string snap noisily onto the fingerboard. In some of his works, Gershwin also treads new paths by allowing the isolated string quartet, for example in his Piano Concerto in F in the second movement, to appear as a kind of 'interlude' for a short time, while the rest of the work is carried by a full orchestra. Completely turning their backs on the genre, but not the cast, compositions by Bernhard Sekles , Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Philipp Jarnach . This contrasts with works from the same period by Paul Hindemith and Dmitri Schostakowitsch , which are far from dealing with or turning away from tradition and recall the heyday before Beethoven.

Notable contributions to recent string quartet compositions can also be found in film music, for example in works by Philip Glass .

Recent developments

While the first string quartets initially (in the case of the Gewandhaus quartet until today) consisted of the section leaders of the respective instrument groups of an orchestra , from the second half of the 20th century the type of chamber music ensemble that acted independently of the orchestra became increasingly established. The best-known string quartets of our time work on a freelance basis, but increasingly based on the American model as "quartet in residence", in which a string quartet is employed at a university for some time and is involved in shaping musical life at the university location as well as in teaching at the affiliated musical institutes are involved.

While the fragmentation of the conception of the genre at the beginning of the 20th century initially seemed to lead to a crisis in the genre, since the 1960s at the latest, composers have shown increased interest in this genre, which is now emerging in a stylistic variety that can hardly be delimited. Major contributions came from Witold Lutoslawski (1964), György Ligeti (1968, String Quartet No. 2) and Luigi Nono (1979/1980). Krzysztof Penderecki makes a foray into the noisy, Karlheinz Stockhausen blows up the performance framework by distributing the four players on four helicopters ( helicopter quartet of light ). The exploration of new noisy tonality can also be found in the three contributions on the genre of string quartet by Helmut Lachenmann .

American composers such as John Cage , Steve Reich , Terry Riley and above all Morton Feldman , whose 2nd string quartet (1983), with a performance duration of five hours, went beyond traditional performance practice, took a path independent of European tradition . In the subsequent middle and younger generation, there are some composers who, from the 1970s onwards, conscious of a new beginning and the abandonment of strictly structuralist thinking, have now presented several string quartets; They include Wolfgang Rihm , who has already produced 13 quartets to date, Michael Denhoff , who now has 9 string quartets, and Jörg Widmann , who began writing string quartets in 1997, who regards his quartets 1 to 5 as part of a large work; a work that was completed in 2005.

Composers with important contributions to the history of the genre

See also: List of Chamber Music Works by Haydn , List of Chamber Music Works by Mozart without Piano , List of Chamber Music Works by Beethoven , List of Chamber Music Works by Schubert , Quatuor concertant

Well-known ensembles

See: List of String Quartet Ensembles


Szöke Szakall wrote a comedy called the String Quartet . The joke is related to the fact that four musicians are to perform, none of whom can play an instrument. It was launched in the early 1960s a. a. Produced as a TV piece with Dieter Hildebrandt , Klaus Havenstein , Hans Jürgen Diedrich , Jürgen Scheller , Fritz Benscher and Ursula Noack .


  • Friedhelm Krummacher: History of the String Quartet. 3 volumes. Laaber-Verlag, Laaber 2005, ISBN 3-89007-587-8 .
  • Paul Griffiths: The String Quartet - A History. Thames and Hudson, New York 1983, ISBN 0-500-01311-X (English)
  • Francis Vuibert: Répertoire universel du quatuor à cordes. ProQuartet-CEMC, 2009, ISBN 978-2-9531544-0-5 (French)

Web links

Commons : String Quartets  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: String Quartet  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Klaus Henning Oelmann: Edvard Grieg as a string quartet composer - a conceptual and historical study. (= Musicology / Music Education in the Blue Owl. Volume 11). Verlag Die Blaue Eule, Essen 1992, ISBN 3-89206-462-8 .
  2. ^ Norbert Graf: Quartetto in Mi minore. In: Anselm Gerhard, Uwe Schweikert: Verdi manual. Metzler, Kassel / Bärenreiter, Stuttgart / Weimar 2001, ISBN 3-7618-2017-8 , p. 521.