The Power of the String Quartet

Written on March 13, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen

Borodin_sq_2If ever something is more than the sum of its parts, it is the string quartet. The simple combination of two violins, a viola and a cello has given rise to a vast and varied body of music and few are those
composers who have not tried their hand at this form. From the moment Joseph Haydn invented it halfway through the eighteenth century, the string quartet  has proven enduring for its balance, versatility and range. Indeed, surveying the vast amount that has been written for string quartet, one is tempted to ask is there anything the string quartet cannot do? Ok, well yes there are. It can’t take you out for a beer (desgraciadamente, Miguel), buy you shoes or make you taller. But a good string quartet relaxes the soul, makes you feel better about things; heck it can make you smarter. They are good for what ails you and with the litany of woe that surrounds us, as Arantza has eloquently reminded us this week, we need the succour and cerebration of the string quartet more than ever. So here, for what it’s worth, are four string quartets that I think demonstrate the mental medicinal value of the string quartet.

#1. The Nostalgic

The memory of a long-ago stolen kiss? Or of a pleasant dinner at Maxim’s back when the food was still good? It must be the opening notes of Alexander Borodin’s famous String Quartet No. 2.

This piece is so much better than everything else Borodin wrote, one almost suspects he cribbed it from somebody else. From its opening notes of nostalgic yearning, the piece keeps its wistful strains and delicate melodies throughout all four movements. The Nocturne is sublime. The accompaniment creates a harmonic cradle of rhythm and harmony that rocks gently as a languorous melody is slowly woven, first by the cello, then by the violin. As he brings the melody back, Borodin actually adds to its quality of longing by playing it as a canon (the melody is repeated in imitation).

This is music that makes you wistful. But in a good way.

#2. The Cerebral

For a string quartet that you can almost feel nourishing your brain, try Beethoven’s late quartet Opus 131 in C# minor.
The opening (below) is like drawing a deep breath, and that is exactly
what one needs listening to this cerebral and intense work.

Beethoven was completely deaf when he wrote his late quartets,
including the C# minor. His soundscape was exclusively internal and the
result was a sense of space and flow that seems unaffected by anything
other than pure musical expression and ideas. The first movement is
like a single, extremely well-formulated argument. If only most Power
Point presentations were so limpid. This quartet has everything,
lyricism, length and balance. The diapason of the long slow movement
contrasts with the following Scherzo’s insouciant cheekiness. The
finale is like a musical declaration of Da Sein. Listen to this quartet. It will make you smarter.

#3. The Ingenious

The list of composers who
only wrote a single string quartet in their career is surprisingly
august: Debussy, Grieg, Verdi and Sibelius are examples. The finest of
the group, however, belongs in my view to Maurice Ravel. Ravel wrote his quartet in 1903 and submitted it for consideration for the Prix de Rome
in 1904. It didn’t win – hardly surprising considering that winning the
Prix de Rome pretty much guarantees future obscurity. (The winner in
1904? Raymond-Jean Pech, whoever he was.) Like all of Ravel’s
compositions, this is a testament to careful and economic construction.
From its opening 8-bar theme, divided into four two-bar statements,
much of the work thrives on understatement. And yet for all its
subtlety of expression, it is remarkably intricate. Ravel’s
craftsmanship is on display in this piece: he makes the complex sound
simple while at the same time extending the instrumental language and
range of the string quartet. On first listening, it seems remarkable
that such a varied sound can be produced by the same instrumental group
as that in quartets by Mozart, Schubert or Brahms.

While it is perhaps a cliché to remark upon the "impressionism" of
Ravel, this quartet is nonetheless all about impressions, impressions
of colour and movement and light.  Until the last movement, that is,
when Ravel erupts into a flourish of rhythmic strength.

A very satisfying last course.

#4. The Refined

Haydn wrote many string quartets
in his career. He published them in sets of six and his publisher
assigned them random opus numbers, by which they are referred to today. The
German national anthem (originally the Austrian anthem) was the slow
movement of Haydn’s Opus 76 no. 3, the "Emperor" quartet, and is still
used as an example of how to create musical balance. In the clip below, you
can hear how Haydn uses the spread of the voices to create accent and
movement. The Cello carries the original melodic line, while the violin
plays a counter melody. This interplay then leads to a thematic
variance derived from the convergence of the two voices in a common


There is an extraordinary clarity to Haydn’s string quartets. To quote someone more eloquent than myself on the subject:

took Haydn many years to perfect the classical style and he first did
so, at the age of about forty, in a form also of his own invention –
the string quartet.  If one was to select one art form that most
closely mirrors the ideals of the period, it would surely be the string
quartet.  Here are four instruments – two violins, viola and cello –
engaged as civilized gentlemen in a musical discussion informed by
clarity and driven by feeling.  As always in a coherent discussion
there is at any one time a leading voice, but all participants play a
crucial rôle, even the normally self-effacing viola (the instrument
preferred by the modest Haydn himself).  In this new medium, which he
continued to elaborate throughout his career, Haydn wrote over fifty
masterpieces covering a huge range of expression and establishing the
string quartet as the ne plus ultra of Western music.

Here is a good example of that civilized gentleman’s discussion: the opening of the Quartet in D, Op. 33  no. 6. 

This is refined music indeed.


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