String Quartet


A composition for four solo string instruments, usually two violins, viola and cello.  These were four relatively independent solo performers, as opposed to the continuo texture of the Baroque trio sonata.  The genre was not firmly established until the time of Haydn, though its origin may be located in various late Baroque compositions, such as the opera overture which utilized four-part writing for string orchestra.  Another predecessor is the concerto grosso with its four-part concertino section.  Other important genres in this development were the informal soloistic string trios and quintets of the Austro-Bohemian style.


With Haydn's op.9 (1769-70) a four-movement scheme was established, along with a generally well-distributed four-part texture. In his op.33 quartets (1781), which introduce the scherzo into the genre, Haydn achieved a new clarity of structure and balance of texture (though brilliant writing for the first violin always remained part of his style). In his op.76 a new experimentalism appears, with features anticipating Beethoven.
Early works
  • light, informal
  • 5 movements
  • 2nd and 4th movements were Minuet and Trio
Middle Works
  • 1769-72
  • four movement format
  • longer movements
  • 2nd movement Minueto and Trio
Mature works in the genre
  • 3 movement works
  • same design as symphonic set - fast-slow-fast
  • works grow increasingly more serious in nature
  • balanced, varied, and idiomatic texture
  • equal distribution of thematic material among all parts
  • formal and stylisitc inventiveness
  • wide range of expression, characterisitc of his late works in every genre
(See also Haydn String Quartet Op. 20, No. 1)


No contemporary except Mozart reached the level sustained by Haydn in the medium, but many other composers, among them Vanhal, Boccherini (some 100 quartets each) and Ordonez (over 30), made quartet writing a major preoccupation. Mozart's quartets were influenced by the Milanese style of G.B. Sammartini's with their 'singing allegros' dominated by the first violin, and it was not until he wrote the set dedicated to Haydn (1782-85) that Mozart attained a fully integrated quartet style.  He closely copied the style of Haydn, but his quartets do not demonstrate his genius as do his quintets.


Vienna remained an important centre for the quartet in the first quarter of the 19th century and nourished the most important developments in the medium. Beethoven's op.18 quartets are written largely within the framework of an established convention, but no.1 in F already hints at the expansion of scale that marks the Razumovsky Quartets op.59 as belonging to the post-'Eroica' period. With op.59 counterpoint assumes a new dramatic purpose, and the slow movements of the middle-period quartets are scored with an ear for richly sonorous and elaborated textures. The late quartets show still more contrapuntal interest and textural variety; the range of Beethoven's imagination outdistances that of his contemporaries in every respect, and individual quartets may encompass both deep seriousness and lighthearted gaiety without incongruity.

(See The String Quartets of Beethoven)

The Romantics

The early Romantics, among whom Schubert and Mendelssohn were outstanding quartet writers, took the middle-period rather than the late quartets of Beethoven as their starting-point. They also borrowed features (including the tremolo, much used in Schubert's three masterpieces of 1824-26) from orchestral and piano writing; pianistic figurations play an even larger part in Schumann's quartets. Many lesser composers in Germany chose to follow Spohr's example, writing variations on popular airs, potpourris and "quatuors brillants". In France, few composers escaped the tyranny of the "quatuor brillant", though the quartets of M.A. Guénin and Cherubini rise above the average; Berlioz (like such other 'progressive' composers as Liszt and Wagner) wrote no quartets. Italy had little to offer before Verdi's "E Minor Quartet" of 1873.

The string quartet seemed to present few possibilities to late 19th-century composers preoccupied with the grandiose conceptions of the symphony and symphonic poem; Smetana's "E Minor Quartet 'From my Life'" (1876) is a rare instance of a programmatic quartet. The genre found stronger adherents among composers such as Brahms and Reger, who continued in the Classical tradition, but it also attracted the attention of Dvorak and of the Russian nationalist school. Both Borodin and Tchaikovsky introduced folktunes into their quartets.

The 20th Century

The revival of chamber music in France owed a good deal to Franck, whose D Major Quartet (1889) uses cyclic methods. It has been followed by the quartets of Debussy and Ravel (also with cyclic elements), Fauré, Milhaud and others. The medium has absorbed the various neo-classical, atonal, serial, nationalist and other idioms of the 20th century, and explored a wide variety of experimental textures, but few important composers have made the genre central to their output. An exception, perhaps, is Bartók, whose six quartets have been widely recognized as the true successors of Beethoven's late quartets in the sense that they extend the expressive range of the medium and have been enormously influential. The 15 of Shostakovich also represent a significant contribution to the form. Most other composers of intemational repute have been content to write a few or even isolated examples. Among the best known are those of Bloch, Ives, Hindemith, Schönberg, Webern, Berg, Britten, Tippett, and Carter.