The String Quartet

The longer I live, and the more music I hear, I become further convinced that the string quartet offers the greatest musical experience.

This year, I have been lucky enough to see and hear perhaps the best two string quartets in the world. The Brodsky Quartet and the Emerson Quartet. Also, local string quartets here in Australia are some of the best in the world as well. The Australian String Quartet has a fine reputation going back 35 years. We have a newly formed group who call themselves the Phoenix Collective. They come in a variety of forms, like a quartet, a trio and a duo. Phoenix are making their mark on the chamber music world with their unique programming and quality playing.

Joseph Haydn, composer of many string quartets

Franz Josef Haydn © Wikipedia

All of these groups have one thing in common, the music they perform is the most intimate and powerful of all written music.

It was Joseph Haydn who gave the string quartet its voice. His string quartets must have shocked people of the time through their intimacy. Haydn’s second movement from his String Quartet Op. 76 No.1 in G Major is an ethereal experience. It is like the soft touch of a lover; the tenderness just melts you away.

Haydn: String Quartet No. 60 in G Major, Op. 76, No. 1, Hob.III:75 (Giovane Quartetto Italiano)

Haydn had a long life for his time. He lived to 77, and when he died in 1809, life expectancy was just 30 to 40 in Europe. Haydn managed to amass an amazing 68 string quartets. No other composer comes close, but the string quartet holds a fascination for many composers across the world. Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe wrote 18. Beethoven composed 16. His last quartets still boggle the mind of many music historians.

If you want to hear the best string quartet writing you can go to Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 Death and The Maiden. Here played by another great Australian group the Omega Ensemble. Philip Glass has many fine string quartets too, if you like Philip Glass, I do.

My favourite composer Prokofiev only wrote two string quartets, his second is my preferred. It seems most composers have a go at writing for the string quartet. And there’s a good reason for that. The small format of only one type of instrument in different sizes gives a composer a unique grounding to build things upon. The intimacy of chamber music sets it apart from other music; it’s something that gets close to you.

Most string quartet writing is done in the head of the composer and not at an instrument. And that is why most of the music sounds idiomatic. A large number of composers were string players, and you can hear that in their string music. With people like Paganini and Boccherini who played the cello, this is especially evident. Boccherini’s many cello concertos are some of the best in the repertoire for that instrument.

String quartets are looked upon as being the most mature compositions of composers who tackle the format. After a lifetime of learning how to write music, composers will only then confront the mastery that is expected in string quartet writing. I began my first string quartet after nearly 40 years of composing; I am yet to come close to mastering the format. The challenge is substantial; it requires a composer to think on another level. One has to put everything they have ever learned into string quartet compositions and then some.

The form of string quartet writing is famous for allowing composers to run away with experimental ideas. Varying bow stroke techniques developed over the years include things like the Ricochet, Fouette, Sautille, Bariolage, Spiccato and even Whipping the bow through the air. The Burning Wood Quartet make some of the most unusual sounds ever to be heard from a string quartet. They create a wall of sound through experimental and improvisational techniques.

The players that make up a string quartet can be divisive and temperamental beasts. Such an up-close and personal atmosphere can test the most professional players. The Emerson Quartet, when travelling, they specifically request that they do not get consecutive rooms in motels, so they don’t disturb each other.

The dynamics of creating such intense and sometimes the most challenging music ever to be composed can put any player on edge. While some things can go wrong, here’s a little video that offers a comical look at What Not To Do In a String Quartet.

I have been so overpowered by the authority that the string quartet holds in the musical world that I have written three string quartets and am working on my fourth. While I’ve had none performed, that does not stop the will and drive to create new music for the string quartet. Because this format offers countless possibilities in which to create music that contains the greatest emotional expression known to humans.

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  1. I really enjoy the string quartet ensemble. The intimacy is something I value when collaborating musically, and this medium certainly offers it! Excellent article.

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