A string quartet is essentially a music group or musical ensemble comprising of four string players, generally two playing violins, one playing a viola and the fourth playing the cello. The string quartet is widely acknowledged as among the most prominent chamber classical music ensembles. The outer movements of the quartet can be fast while the inner movements may comprise a slow movement and a minuet or some form of dance movement. In the classical era, quartets could be played with other accompaniments like in an orchestra or a symphony. With the accomplishments of great composers like Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, string quartet grew to be exceedingly important in instrumental music.
The principal traditional structure for a string quartet contains four movements which are in the following forms:
- first movement — Sonata form and Allegro in the tonic key,
- second movement — Slow in a sub-dominant key,
- third movement — Minuet and Trio in the tonic key,
- fourth movement — Rondo-Sonata form and in the tonic key.
Although there had been a few fitful cases of divertimenti for two solo violins, viola and cello by Viennese writers, string quartets rose to prominence with the works of the Austrian composer Joseph Hayden who seemed to have happened upon it while working for a Baron Fürnberg in the 1750s. According to a story, the Baron wanted to have some music but at the time, there happened to be just two violinists, a violist, and a cellist available. So, Hayden had to write a piece that could be performed by just the four strings. At just 18-years of age, he wrote his first quartet which was widely approved.
The great reception encouraged him to perfect the art and produce more work in the form. The feel was unique and special. And since then, the string quartet has been considered a prestigious form and represents a genuine trial of a composer’s mastery of the art. Writing a string quartet is no simple task because while the concerto medium allows for individual characterization and drama, and a composer of symphonies has the necessary assets for providing textural enhancement past the call of his harmonic discourse, the composer of a string quartet must inevitably rely on the power of musical logic.
With four closely related instruments to play with, a composer following the classical key framework has the opportunity to show his mastery of the art by designing a completely vivified string discussion. Hence, in several ways, the string quartet is prominently the dialectical form of instrumental music. At the height of Europe’s era of Enlightenment, string quartets naturally suited the prevailing culture of logical disputation and philosophical inquiry. Mozart, who frequently participated in such discussions, was captivated by Haydn’s Op. 33 and strived to master its innovations. At that point, Beethoven and Schubert also took this musical dialectic form to new levels of intensity and intricacy.
Although the quartet temporarily gave way to the concerto and the symphony during the Romantic era, the 20th-century quartets of Second Viennese School, Bartók, and JanáΩek restored the enthusiasm for intimate discourse. Shostakovitch and Carter also produced great quartets pieces, some of which have been successfully orchestrated. Till date, it remains a vital and refined melodic form.