You are here

The String Quartet

This semester I will be offering a 6 session course on "The String Quartet" at Ryerson's LIFE Institute. This being a course offered by a senior (me), for seniors (LIFE Institute Members), the focus is on improved understanding and appreciation. Theory will play only a minor role - LIFE members are not there for theory, and I'm not competent to present it. But there is a basic question of "Why has the string quartet been so popular?"

By the middle of the 18th century, the string quartet established itself as the musical form used to express a composer's purest and most intimate musical ideas. Clearly, not every composer had this view of the string quartet, but there is a long and very distinguished list of composers for whom that was the case. By common agreement, the list starts with Haydn and Mozart. It includes Beethoven and Schubert. And continues with many of the leading composers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

What's so special about the string quartet? In part, it's an almost inevitable consequence of the composition of the orchestra. Every orchestra has a first violin section and a second violin section and a viola section and a cello section. Given all of the musicians that staff an orchestra, the players for a string quartet - two violins, a viola and a cello - are relatively easy to find. It was also an ensemble often found in the musical salons of the 18th century. There were (and are) string quartets available to play music composed for the string quartet.

Once the cycle starts, it becomes almost self perpetuating. The string quartet exists, therefore composers write for it. Since there is a musical catalog of string quartet compositions, more players are encouraged to form into a string quartet to play that music. And as more string quartets are formed, more composers are encouraged to write for it. And so it has gone since the middle of the 18th century. That's clearly part of the story, but it's not the full tale.

There's a fascinating question about how many simultaneous musical lines we can hear. Many people report that it's quite possible to hear two simultaneous musical lines. Indeed, Bach's two-part inventions are often viewed as a natural starting point in the appreciation of complex musical ideas. Can we really hear a three-part composition, or does our attention shift between different pairs of musical lines? Depending on how the verb "hear" is defined, different answers are offered for that question. But simultaneously hearing four musical lines is generally seen as impossible.

What does that say about the potential four musical lines from a string quartet? On a practical level, often the composer has only one or two leading voices, with the other players providing support. Four simultaneous musical lines are relatively rare - Bach's Art of Fugue is a famous exception, having been written as four parallel musical lines. One consequence of this human cognitive limitation is that we can hear something new every time we listen to a four part composition. Our recognition can shift from different pairs or triplets of musical lines, sometimes encouraged by our mental state and sometimes encouraged by the performers. A simple translation of this is that a rich four part composition can be endlessly fascinating, being different every time it's heard.

The possible four simultaneous musical lines is part of what makes the string quartet special. Another special feature of the string quartet is the similarity of the tonal colors from the four instruments of the quartet. Yes, the violin, viola and cello can play different ranges of notes, but aside from pitch, the tonal colors are similar. Mentally compare the sounds from a woodwind quintet from those from a string quartet. The composer can use tonal color as well as pitch to distinguish musical lines from a woodwind quintet. With a string quartet, the composer is almost required to put the musical ideas above their tonal expression.

What emerges can be an endlessly fascinating pure expression of musical ideas - it's the architecture of the ideas rather than their cladding. That, of course, is a mixed blessing. You don't just sit back and let the music from a string quartet flow over and around you, the very structure of the music encourages you to get inside and really hear what the composer has to say. String quartet music is, in a sense, the antithesis of "easy listening" - its very structure encourages the listener to think.

A natural hypothesis is that many composers recognized this aspect of music for the string quartet. String quartet music was seen as pure, intimate and personal expression of musical ideas. The string quartets were often composed with just this in mind. Beethoven used the string quartet to express some of his purest, most intimate and most powerful musical ideas. And so did a long line of composers from Haydn through to Schoenberg, Schostakovich, Bartok and Britten.