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,
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
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
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
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.