A Brief History of String Quartet Music

 

 

During the Classical period, Haydn was responsible for creating what is known today as the ‘string quartet’. It’s composition is still thought of by many as representing the purest form of instrumental music. The harmonizing balance of the four stringed parts, add to the overall significance of a musical piece. Characteristically, a string quartet comprises of two violins, a viola and a cello - which follow four movements similar to the structure of a symphony.



 

 'Father' of the String Quartet - Hadyn

 


To write quality string quartet music, composers have to be competent enough to create the harmonizing balance between the individual yet complimentary parts. In the Classical era, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were amongst the greatest composers of the quartet music.


It was during the 18th century, the Classical period, that chamber music developed most of the qualities seen in modern day string quartet music, namely:

  • Intimate instrumental ensembles played music that typically involved two to six musicians, with each one playing a separate part of the piece.
  • Quartet music emphasised individual expression and communication amongst players, as opposed to rigid orchestral conducting and playing.
  • Between the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the late Baroque period, increasingly elaborate pieces were created by masters such as Mozart and Beethoven.

 

It was in the mid-1700’s that the classical movement gathered momentum. The aim of this movement was to make what was "ordinary and down to earth" - popular again. At this time, composers focused on balance and minimalism in their attempts to create outstanding music.

 

Single melodic lines are a feature of string quartet music, as also are its heightened emphasis on simplicity and ease of playing. In practice, this means that other instruments provide accompaniment to the violin. Historically, the violinist has always been responsible for playing the attractive melody, whilst the other players produce what is considered to be the more mundane, repetitive chords and notes. This developed into the most embracing form of quartet music, namely, violin solos with accompaniment.

 

The Classical period saw chamber music mostly played by amateurs, as the players usually used the activity for leisure and enjoyment. Normally an audience was not present to listen to the playing and the performance was viewed by the players simply as a way to relax and socialize in ‘chambers’ or living areas. Hence the term, ‘chamber music’ came into being. It was not uncommon to see such players improvising and creatively harmonising as they followed the music. 

 

Chamber music was quite popular amongst some of the greatest composers of the time - and they all wrote their fair share of quartet instrumentals. Significantly, there was a gradual shift away from the infamous "violin solo"  towards experimentation with more interesting compositions that used different instruments. With this newfound confidence and flexibility of expression, chamber music gained status and with it a more widespread audience. 

 

Out of all the different configurations associated with chamber music, the string quartet evolved into the most popular for a variety of reasons. It produced some of the best examples of what is called, ‘four-part harmonic language'. This music still kept the familiarity and organization pertaining to its execution, but with the beauty of harmonic blending. Additionally, stringed instruments were thought of as the instrument closest to the human voice in quality. Composers, who wanted to share deep emotions without the use of words, usually favored such such an approach.


 



Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

 

 

Josef Haydn holds the distinction of being the 'father' of the modern day string quartet. Warmly nicknamed "Papa Haydn" by the orchestra he guided at the Esterhazy Court, Haydn developed and directed what made the string quartet a truly multi-faceted, significant arrangement. Indeed, his work attracted some of the most famous and talented composers of the time, including Mozart and Beethoven.

 

20 years older than Mozart and 40 years older than Beethoven, Haydn was an inspiration to both masters in the skills of writing and playing ensemble music. Both of them took pleasure in playing string quartets with one another - Haydn on first violin and Mozart playing the viola. In 1785, it was for Haydn that Mozart dedicated a collection of six quartets.



 



Beethoven - 'Composing'

 


As for Beethoven and Haydn, a brief teacher-student relationship formed, but the two soon cut ties, as Beethoven’s ‘iconoclasm’ was too much for Haydn’s ‘classicism’. Latterly, Beethoven would heighten the levels that the string quartet would reach, by producing musical pieces that offered a combination of setting, form and harmony.

 

As time passed, string quartet music gathered quite a following, as performers, composers and audiences alike gained an appreciation and love of the style. Indeed, string quartet music still holds its place in the classical music scene of the 20th and 21st century. Typically, it represents the evolution of diverse ideas that have emerged amongst quality composers and players. The only difference is that when you see a string quartet or ensemble nowadays, you’re just as likely to hear ‘Moon River’ or ‘All You Need is Love’ as you are to hear ‘Arioso’ by Bach or the ‘Queen of Sheba’ by Handel.

 


String quartet music and playing has certainly come of age.

 

 






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"Our company event wouldn't have been the same without your quartet. Your musical choices were perfect and really did add to the atmosphere." D. Cosgrove, London

"All our guests were extremely moved by your music and thoroughly enjoyed the performance." S. Shepherd, Leeds

"....they all commented on your performance and said it was a lovely change to hear nice music and still be able to chat without shouting .... your choices on the day were piece perfect. Hope to hear you again soon. P. Barrett, Cardiff

"Thanks for playing at my daughter's wedding! Your personal presentation was immaculate and stylish, your repetoire extensive and musicianship - excellent. You greatly contributed to the elegant ambience of our special day. Thanks!" W. Smith, Glasgow

"I heard nothing but rave comments! The timing of the music and the seamless switching between pieces was perfect. All in all, your music was exquisitely performed and brilliantly played." J. Harding, Edinburgh