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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. The string quartet is one of the most prominent chamber ensembles in classical music.



The 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 composition for four players of stringed instruments may be in any form, but traditionally string quartets usually have four movements with a large-scale structure similar to that of a symphony. The outer movements were typically fast, the inner movements in classical quartet consisting of a slow movement and a dance movement of some sort (e.g., minuet, scherzo, furiant), in either order. Despite some notable examples to the contrary, the twentieth century saw this structure being increasingly abandoned by composers, although substantial modifications to the typical structure were already achieved in Beethoven's later quartets.

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.


David Wyn Jones traces the origin of the string quartet to the Baroque trio sonata, in which two solo instruments performed with a continuo section consisting of a bass instrument (such as the cello) and keyboard. By the early 18th century, composers were often adding a third soloist; and moreover it was common to omit the keyboard part, letting the cello support the bass line alone. Thus when Alessandro Scarlatti wrote a set of six works entitled "Sonata à Quattro per due Violini, Violetta [viola], e Violoncello senza Cembalo" (Sonata for four instruments: two violins, viola, and cello without harpsichord), this was a natural evolution from existing tradition.[1]

Wyn Jones also suggests another possible source for the string quartet, namely the widespread practice of playing works written for string orchestra with just four players, covering the bass part with cello alone.[2]

The string quartet arose to prominence with the work of Joseph Haydn. Haydn's own discovery of the quartet form appears to have arisen essentially by accident.[3] The young composer Joseph Haydn was working for Baron Carl von Joseph Edler von Fürnberg sometime around 1755-1757[4] at his country estate in Weinzierl, about fifty miles from Vienna. The Baron wanted to hear music, and the available players happened to be two violinists, a violist, and a cellist. Haydn's early biographer Georg August Griesinger tells the story thus:

The following purely chance circumstance had led him to try his luck at the composition of quartets. A Baron Fürnberg had a place in Weinzierl, several stages from Vienna, and he invited from time to time his pastor, his manager, Haydn, and Albrechtsberger (a brother of the celebrated contrapuntist Albrechtsberger) in order to have a little music. Fürnberg requested Haydn to compose something that could be performed by these four amateurs. Haydn, then eighteen years old,[5] took up this proposal, and so originated his first quartet which, immediately it appeared, received such general approval that Haydn took courage to work further in this form.[6]

Haydn went on to write nine other quartets around this time. These works, published as his Opus 1 and Opus 2.,[7] have five movements, in the form: fast movement, minuet and trio I, slow movement, minuet and trio II, and fast finale. As Finscher notes, they draw stylistically on the Austrian divertimento tradition.[3]

Haydn then ceased to write quartets for a number of years, but took up the genre again in 1769-1772 with the 18 quartets of Opus 9, Opus 17, and Opus 20. These are written in a form that became established as standard both for Haydn and for other composers, namely four movements, consisting of a fast movement, a slow movement, a minuet and trio and a fast finale (see below).

Ever since Haydn's day the string quartet has been prestigious and considered a true test of the composer's art. This may be partly because 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 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, and played a key role in the development of Arnold Schoenberg, Bela Bartók, and Dmitri Shostakovich especially.

The relevance of classical genres and traditions in general, and of the string quartet in particular, was questioned by some prominent composers of the post-WWII era, such as Pierre Boulez, who wrote one early work for string quartet, 'Livre pour Quatuor' (1948-49), before declaring the string quartet a relic from the past. A composer of such seminal importance as Olivier Messiaen never wrote a string quartet.

However, from the 1960s onwards, many composers have shown a renewed interest in the genre. Important quartets were written by Witold Lutosławski (1964), György Ligeti (2nd String Quartet (1968), Henri Dutilleux ('Ainsi la Nuit', 1976-77) and Luigi Nono ('Fragmente - Stille, An Diotima', 1979-80). Elliott Carter's five contributions to the genre have also been highly acclaimed. A radical exploration of noise can be found in the three string quartets of Helmut Lachenmann. In 2001, Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote his 'Helikopter-Quartett', to be performed by the four string players in four separate helicopters. The longest quartet ever written is Morton Feldman's 2nd String Quartet (1983), a fascinating exploration of the limits of the genre lasting approximately five hours.

String quartet traditional form

The main traditional form for the Classical string quartet was set out by Haydn:

  • 1st movement: Sonata Form, Allegro, in the tonic key;
  • 2nd movement: Slow, in the subdominant key;
  • 3rd movement: Minuet and Trio, in the tonic key;
  • 4th movement: Sonata-Rondo form, in the tonic key.

In the 19th century and onwards, this structure, tonal and otherwise, was increasingly abandoned.

Notable string quartets

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

String quartets (ensembles)

For the purposes of performance, groups of string players sometimes group together to make ad hoc string quartets. Other groups continue playing together for many years, sometimes changing their members but retaining their name. Well-known string quartets can be found on the list of string quartet ensembles.


  1. ^ Wyn Jones (2003, 178)
  2. ^ Wyn Jones (2003, 179)
  3. ^ a b Finscher (2000, 398)
  4. ^ The exact dates are unknown; the dates given are from Finscher (2000, 21); Webster and Feder (2001) suggest 1755-1759.
  5. ^ This would put the date earlier, around 1750; Finscher as well as Webster and Feder judge that Griesinger erred here.
  6. ^ Griesinger (1810/1963, 13)
  7. ^ One quartet went unpublished, and some of the early "quartets" are actually symphonies missing their wind parts.
  8. ^ Morris, Edmund. Beethoven: The Universal Composer. New York: Atlas Books / HarperCollins, 2005. ISBN 0-06-075974-7

See also

Further reading

  • Francis Vuibert (2009). Répertoire universel du quatuor à cordes, ProQuartet-CEMC. ISBN 978-2-9531544-0-5
  • David Blum (1986). The Art of Quartet Playing: The Guarneri Quartet in Conversation with David Blum, New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc. ISBN 0-394-53985-0,
  • Arnold Steinhardt (1998).Indivisible by four, Farrar, Straus Giroux. ISBN 0-374-52700-8
  • Edith Eisler (2000). 21st-Century String Quartets, String Letter Publishing. ISBN 1-890490-15-6
  • Paul Griffiths (1983). The String Quartet: A History, New York: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-01311-X
  • David Rounds (1999), The Four & the One: In Praise of String Quartets, Fort Bragg, CA: Lost Coast Press. ISBN 1-882897-26-9.
  • Robin Stowell, ed (2003) The Cambridge Companion to the String Quartet, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-00042-4. A general guide to the history of string quartet ensembles, their repertory, and performance.
  • Charles Rosen (1971). The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Faber & Faber. ISBN 0 571 10234 4 (soft covers): ISBN 0 571 09118 0 (hardback).
  • Reginald Barrett-Ayres (1974). Joseph Haydn and the String Quartet, Schirmer Books. ISBN 0 02 870400 2.
  • Hans Keller (1986). The Great HAYDN Quartets - Their Interpretation, J M Dent. ISBN 0 460 86107 7.


  • Finscher, Ludwig (2000) Joseph Haydn und seine Zeit. Laaber, Germany: Laaber.
  • Griesinger, Georg August (1810/1963) Biographical Notes Concerning Joseph Haydn. Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel. English translation by Vernon Gotwals, in Haydn: Two Contemporary Portraits. Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Webster, James, and Georg Feder (2001), "Joseph Haydn", article in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (New York: Grove, 2001). Published separately as a book: The New Grove Haydn (New York: Macmillan 2002, ISBN 0-19-516904-2).
  • Wyn Jones, David (2003) "The origins of the quartet. in Robin Stowell, ed., The Cambridge companion to the string quartet. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-00042-4.

External links

Simple English

A string quartet is a piece of music for four string instruments. A string quartet can also mean the four people who play a piece for four string instruments. The four instruments in a string quartet are almost always 2 violins, 1 viola and 1 cello. The reason that a double bass is not used is that it would sound too loud and heavy. The balance between 2 violins, viola and cello is perfect. String quartets are the most popular form of chamber music. Many composers have written string quartets.

String quartet writing started in the 18th century. Italian composers like Sammartini (1698-1775) wrote music for two violins, viola and continuo. The continuo was either just a harpsichord or harpsichord with cello. Gradually composers started to leave the harpsichord out. The cello often played the same as the viola but one octave lower.

Composers of the Classical music period started writing cello parts which had a life of their own. Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote many string quartets, making it a very popular form. His quartets from op.33 were, he said, “written in a new and special way”. All four parts were very clear and individual. There were always four movements: a fast movement, a slow one, a Minuet and Trio and a fast Finale. Haydn often played in a quartet with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and two other players. Mozart also wrote lots of string quartets and dedicated some of them to Haydn. Three of Mozart’s later ones were written for the King of Prussia who played the cello well, so Mozart gave the cello lots of difficult music to play.

By the time Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was growing up string quartets treated each of the four instruments as important. Beethoven wrote 16 string quartets. The middle ones became particularly famous and later composers took ideas from them, for example the slow introductions, and the idea of having a fast scherzo instead of a minuet and trio for one of the middle movements. Beethoven’s last quartets are very beautiful, but also very complicated and sometimes quite aggressive. Beethoven was becoming very frustrated because he was deaf and could not hear his own music, but he could imagine it all in his head. Franz Schubert (1797-1827) admired them and wrote several string quartets himself.

In the Romantic period many composers wrote string quartets: Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), Robert Schumann (1810-1856), Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) and many others. Some of them, like Dvořák, included folk song from their own country in their quartets.

In the 20th century composers have continued to write string quartets. Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1934) each wrote one. Arnold Schoenberg even added a voice to his first String Quartet. Béla Bartók (1881-1945) wrote six string quartets which are very hard to play. They have very exciting rhythms which often come from his native Hungarian folk music, as well as complicated harmonies. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) wrote fifteen and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) wrote three.

String quartet groups

Playing in a string quartet is great fun. There are lots of great works by famous composers, as well as some music which has been written for young players who are learning.

There are professional players who form string quartets and who play together for many years. In the early part of the 20th century the Rosé Quartet was thought to be the best in Europe. Later the Amadeus Quartet became very famous.

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