Sunday, April 13, 2014

The String Quartet since 1900

The string quartet was the invention of Joseph Haydn in the early 1760s. He wrote some pieces for himself and some friends to play. Now this would not have been much of a muchness if he hadn't followed it up by writing a lot more string quartets. In the early 1770s he wrote a set that were hugely important in the development of musical structure and compositional techniques, the op. 20 quartets. He followed this set with a lot of others, writing a total of 68 in all. This genre, a four-movement work for two violins, viola and cello, has proven to be one of the most successful in all of music history, right up there alongside the symphony, piano sonata and concerto.

Composers that lent their efforts to Haydn's, making the string quartet perhaps the most prestigious musical medium, were Mozart and Beethoven, followed soon after by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. But it can be said, I think, that the preferred medium in the 19th century was really not chamber music, but rather the symphony and opera. So you can see a decline in both quantity and quality of the string quartet throughout the century.

Rather surprisingly, though, it saw a considerable revival in the 20th century and that was through the efforts of a number of composers. The first on the scene was actually Arnold Schoenberg whose first quartet was written in 1905:

Schoenberg's quartet dates from before his innovative ideas on serialism and didn't make much of a splash. You might think of it as more post-Brahmsian than as the first 20th century quartet.

That title is usually given to Bela Bartók whose first quartet dates from the beginning of 1909. Here is the first movement played by the Emerson Quartet:

That does have a new air to it and Bartók followed it with five others. One of the most characteristic is the String Quartet No. 3, written in 1927:

That is full of new and striking ideas. Another interesting quartet was written just the next year by Leoš Janáček:

One of the most well-known quartets of the century is by Schoenberg's student, Alban Berg. His Lyric Suite dates from slightly earlier, 1925/26. Oddly, there doesn't seem to be a complete version on YouTube, so here are the first three parts:

A bit later one of the most important bodies of string quartet repertoire was begun by Shostakovich with his String Quartet No. 1 dating from 1938:

After this modest beginning, he wrote a lot more important quartets, such as this one, dating from 1960:

A composer who also wrote a lot of interesting quartets was Mieczysław Weinberg. Here is an excerpt from his String Quartet No. 3

Composers have continued to write string quartets pretty regularly as it became a 20th century medium of choice. Some of note are George Crumb's Black Angels for electric string quartet from 1970:

Morton Feldman, String Quartet No. 2 from 1983:

You don't get the whole thing because it is six hours long! Both Steve Reich and Philip Glass have made important contributions. Here is Steve Reich's Different Trains:

And the first part of Philip Glass' String Quartet No. 5:

Like the violin concerto, the string quartet just seems to go on and on, inspiring each new generation of composers.

I want to end with one of the newest pieces for string quartet that I heard just a couple of months ago in a concert by the young Catalyst Quartet. The piece is called Strum and it was composed by Jessie Montgomery, one of the violinists in the ensemble. In the photo accompanying the clip, she is the young woman in the black dress on the right. This piece is just a year or so old and it has a pretty good groove:


Bridge said...

I am saddened that you didn't mention Ravel's string quartet - the second movement alone is to die for (the Debussy is probably worth a note too even though I'm not very familiar with it.) I think Ligeti's quartets are also well worth mentioning as well as Webern's Five Movements for String Quartet.

Bryan Townsend said...

You know, I thought of mentioning the Debussy quartet, but of course it was written before 1900 and for some reason I thought the Ravel was too. Perhaps I should say something in an update. I hadn't thought of the Ligeti, but there were quite a few that I didn't mention by other composers as well: Stockhausen, Golijov and Rochberg to name just a couple. If I were going to mention Webern, I probably would have selected the String Quartet op. 28 instead.

Bridge said...

Ah, I had no idea the Debussy was written so early. Perhaps it's because I haven't listened to Webern's actual string quartet that often nor heard anybody really talking about it that I didn't really consider it worth mentioning. I'm sure it's not a bad piece, but the Five movements I mentioned are to me a very interesting bit of pre-serialist atonality (along Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra,) and they were also written in 1909, so pretty early in the 20th century as well.

I don't know Golijov or Rochberg, are they good? The juxtaposition of their names with Stockhausen makes me somewhat suspicious because I don't really take his music very seriously even though he had some interesting thoughts on music.

Bryan Townsend said...

I once spent a whole bunch of theory classes analyzing the Webern string quartet (which is full of canons), so it does stick in my mind. There is a CD of several quartets (some with added instruments) by Osvaldo Golijov by the St. Lawrence String Quartet called "Yiddishbbuk" that is quite good, as is his Tenebrae for string quartet. George Rochberg wrote several string quartets in the 1970s in which his intent was to revive some of the ideas of the Beethoven late quartets. But I haven't listened to them for a long time... Stockhausen I mentioned because of his helicopter quartet. Not a good piece, but...

In a blog post all you can do is hit the high points.

Rickard said...

Interesting selection. It's nice that string quartets had such a significant role in the 20th century. Too bad the symphony form didn't have a such crucial role during that time, at least when looking from it in terms of modernist progression (sure there were plenty of other orchestral works but referring to symphonies specifically). Of course there were many late (nationalist) romantic composers writing interesting symphonies and then we had Shostakovich so needless to say there were exciting things going on in that direction too, just not from the modernist historical point of view.

Anyways, Schoenberg's first string quartet is good even if it's not atonal, it clearly shows that Scheonberg was capable of writing nice tonal music if he wanted. As for Bartok's string quartets I find the 3rd to not be so interesting except for the last movement. The 4th, 5th and 6th quartets are much more interesting imo. Good idea to include Janacek's 1st quartet, I enjoyed it. His 2nd one is even more interesting. Wasn't familiar with Alban Berg's Lyric Suite but it's certainly very nice. Shosty's quartets are amazing needless to say. I didn't realize that Feldman had such a minimalistic style, it seems to be a sort of dissonant minimalism. Speaking of minimalism I also found Glass' string quartets intreresting. I was already familiar with Reich's Different Trains, a nice piece of course.

Bryan Townsend said...

That's an interesting observation: yes, the modernists did embrace the string quartet, but mostly stayed away from the symphony. Of course there is the Symphony op. 21 by Webern, but in general the progressives like Schoenberg, Berg, and even Debussy, avoided the symphony. Perhaps that was partly because it had been so very successful a genre for people of the previous generation like Mahler, Bruckner and Dvorak. The modernists were very focused on finding new ground. This might also explain why they were more attracted to the string quartet because it was not such an important genre for the romantics. While there are important ones by Brahms and Dvorak, Mahler, Bruckner and the other big symphonists tended to avoid the string quartet. Also, with the examples by Berg and Webern, Schoenberg's second quartet and Bartók's early ones, the modernists put their stamp on the genre early on.