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String quartet

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The resident string quartet of the Library of Congress in 1963 The resident string quartet of the Library of Congress in 1963

A string quartet is a musical ensemble of four string instruments—usually two violins, a viola and cello—or a piece written to be performed by such a group.



Close-up photo of a violin. A string quartet usually has two violinists. Close-up photo of a violin. A string quartet usually has two violinists.

Although any combination of four string instruments can literally be called a "string quartet", in practice the term refers to a group consisting of two violins (the "first", which usually plays the melody line in the higher register of notes, and the "second" violin, which plays lower notes in harmony), one viola and one cello. Should a composer create music for four other string instruments — for instance, three violins and a bass, or violin, viola, cello and guitar — the instrumentation is indicated specifically. The standard string quartet is widely seen as one of the most important forms in chamber music, with most major composers, from the late 18th century onwards, writing string quartets.

A piece of music for four players of stringed instruments may be in any form, but if it is simply a String Quartet (with or without a subtitle) it is usually in four movements, with a large-scale structure similar to that of a symphony. The outer movements are typically fast, the inner movements in classical quartet form are a slow movement and a dance movement of some sort (e.g., minuet, scherzo, furiant), in either order.

Many other chamber groups can be seen as modifications of the string quartet, such as the piano quintet, which is a string quartet with an added piano; the string quintet, which is a string quartet with an extra viola, cello or double bass; the string trio, which contains one violin, a viola, and a cello; and the piano quartet, a string quartet with one of the violins replaced by a piano.


Violin and viola Violin and viola

The form first came to be used after the middle of the 18th century. Joseph Haydn's first works for string quartet have five movements and resemble the divertimento (a title which they carried in some editions) or serenade, but the opus 9 quartets of 1769–70 are in the form which was to become standard both for Haydn and for other composers: four movements, a fast movement, a slow movement, a minuet and trio and a fast finale. Because his example helped codify a form that originated in the Baroque suite, Haydn is often referred to as "the father of the string quartet." Haydn occasionally played his quartets on social occasions in an impromptu quartet ensemble of which Mozart was also a member.

Ever since Haydn's day, the string quartet has been prestigious, and considered a true test of the classical composer's art. This may be partly due to the fact that the palette of sound is more restricted than with orchestral music, forcing the music to stand more on its own rather than relying on tonal color; or from the inherently contrapuntal tendency in music written for four equal instruments.

Quartet composition flourished in the Classical era, with both Mozart and Beethoven writing famous series of quartets to set alongside Haydn's. A - very slight - slackening in the pace of quartet composition occurred in the 19th century; here, a curious phenomenon was seen in composers who wrote only one quartet, perhaps to show that they could fully command this hallowed genre. With the onset of the Modern era of classical music, the quartet returned to full popularity among composers, as the extensive listings below document.

Popular string quartets

Some of the most popular or widely acclaimed works for string quartet written between the 18th century and the 1980s, include:

Joseph Haydn's 68 string quartets, especially the late Erdody Quartets, Op. 76.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's 23 string quartets: the six he dedicated to Haydn in particular (K. 387, 421, 428, 458, 464, 465, Opus 10) are generally considered to be the pinnacle of the classical quartet form. String Quartet No. 19 in C major ("Dissonance"), K. 465 is still surprising for its dissonant opening.
The sixteen quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven are highly acclaimed. The String Quartets Nos. 1-6, Opus 18 are thought to demonstrate his total mastery of the classical string quartet as developed by Haydn and Mozart. The next three, or the Razumovsky Quartets are extremely popular even today, as they greatly expanded the form and incorporated a new degree of emotional sensitivity and drama. These were followed by String Quartets Nos. 10 - 11, Opus 74 "Harp" and 95 "Serioso" (Beethoven). Finally, the Late Beethoven String Quartets, which group includes his last five quartets and the Große Fuge, are the composer's last completed works. Though these works are widely considered to be among the greatest musical compositions ever written, their uncompromising intellectual complexity and their apparent rejection of the romantic pathos which pervades Beethoven's middle period both ensure that they remain considerably less popular than the Razumovsky quartets.
Franz Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor "Death and the Maiden". Also his String Quartet No. 13 in A Minor "Rosamunde" and his final String Quartet No. 15 in G Major
The six string quartets of Felix Mendelssohn
Bedřich Smetana's String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor "From my Life"
The three quartets by Johannes Brahms
Antonín Dvořák's "American" String Quartet No. 12 in F Major
Peter Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11, especially the second movement "Andante cantabile."
Alexander Borodin's String Quartet No. 2 in D Major, especially the third movement "Notturno."
Claude Debussy's String Quartet in G Minor, op. 10
The four string quartets by Arnold Schoenberg
Maurice Ravel's String Quartet in F Major
Leoš Janáček's String Quartet No. 1 "Kreutzer", inspired by Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata, which in turn was inspired by Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 9, the "Kreutzer Sonata."
Frank Bridge's String Quartet No. 3
The six string quartets by Béla Bartók
Alban Berg's Lyric Suite, originally composed for string quartet
Bohuslav Martinů's Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra
The fifteen string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich, especially String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110
Elliott Carter's five string quartets are among the most widely acclaimed series in recent years
Toru Takemitsu's Quartet No. 1 for Strings "A Way a Lone'

Further reading

David Blum (1986). The Art of Quartet Playing: The Guarneri Quartet in Conversation with David Blum, New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc. ISBN 0394539850,
Arnold Steinhardt (1998).Indivisible by four, Farrar, Straus Giroux. ISBN 0374527008
Edith Eisler (2000). 21st-Century String Quartets, String Letter Publishing. ISBN 1890490156
Paul Griffiths (1983). The String Quartet: A History, New York: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 050001311X
David Rounds (1999), The Four & the One: In Praise of String Quartets, Fort Bragg, CA: Lost Coast Press. ISBN 1882897269.

External links

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