A string quartet is both a piece of music written for an ensemble of four string instruments and also the name given to the ensemble itself.
Here's one that really ought to be self-explanatory. String quartet: an ensemble of four solo strings, traditionally two violins, viola and cello. Through the achievements of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, it has come to symbolise the loftiest form of discourse in instrumental music. Need any more be said?
Well, yes. The point at which this first became an issue was the publication of Haydn’s set of Op. 33 String Quartets in 1781, written – the composer insisted – in ‘a new and special way’.
There was more to this than commercial hype. In Haydn’s earliest quartets the typical texture is tune-plus-accompaniment: there’s no reason why it couldn’t be played by a string orchestra, keyboard, or anything else that takes your fancy.
But look at the opening of Op. 33 No. 1. For two bars the leader has the tune, the second violin accompanies. But then the cello seizes the leader’s motif and repeats it. By bar four the violin has wrested back the melodic interest.
Silence – then all four instruments repeat the first two notes of the motif in imitation. The effect is of an animated discussion, like four individuals round a table arguing over the meaning of a phrase.
In broader cultural terms it makes sense. In 1781 Europe was at the height of the ‘Enlightenment’, an era in which the notion of God-appointed leaders was being challenged. Discussion groups were the fashion: men would meet to thrash out ideas – no more authoritarian preachers and passively receptive congregations.
Mozart, frequenter of Masonic discussion meetings, was fascinated by Haydn’s Op. 33 and worked hard to master its innovations. Beethoven took this conversational dialectic to new levels of intensity and intricacy.
The Romantic era saw the quartet lose ground to the concerto and the symphony, but in the 20th century the idea of close, intimate dialogue was revived in the quartets of Bartók and JanáΩek.
Some of Shostakovich’s quartets have been successfully orchestrated, yet something of the music’s ‘confessional’ directness is lost when transferred from to massed voices.
It’s striking that in Soviet society, where the collective was raised above the individual, he should have chosen this intimate, solo-voice ensemble for his most impassioned, private songs of protest. Haydn’s ‘new and special’ medium may well turn out to be infinitely adaptable.
This article was first published in the January 2012 issue of BBC Music Magazine