A Listener’s Guide to the String Quartet Repertoire

A Listener’s Guide to the String Quartet Repertory

The following pages were included as an appendix to my book The Four and the One: In Praise of String Quartets (Lost Cost Press, 1998). The guide offers one listener’s catalogue of the best string quartets, from Haydn through the 1990’s.  The quartets are listed in chronological sequence and briefly described. The guide reflects my own preferences, of course, although much of it represents a general consensus. As a further reduction in the number of choices, I have proposed, at the end of the guide, a list of twenty best of the best.

(Please note: This material is copyright.)


1. The Viennese Tradition

 Josef Haydn (1732-1809)

Opus 20, No. 1-6 (1772)

Opus 33, No. 1-6 (1781)

Opus 50, No. 1-6 (1787)

Opus 54, No. 1-3 and Opus 55, No. 1-3 (1788)

Opus 64, No. 1-6 (1790)

Opus 71, No. 1-3 and Opus 74, No. 1-3 (1793)

Opus 76, No. 1-6 (1797)

Opus 77, No. 1-2 (1799)

Haydn wrote sixty-eight string quartets, far more than any other of the great composers. The forty-four listed above lie at the foundation of the quartet repertoire.

The composer arranged almost all of his quartets in groups of six. The only exception, among the groups listed above, is the last, Opus 77, which consists of two quartets only. In the first two of these groups, published as Opus 20 and Opus 33, Haydn is still learning. As for the thirty-two quartets in the later groups, all are masterpieces. For a listener wishing to negotiate this overwhelming abundance, I recommend beginning with the last eight quartets — those of Opus 76 and Opus 77.

The six quartets of Opus 76 are — to consider them together as a unit, as they should be — among those works of art that sum up the achievements of a great artist at the height of a long career. Everything that Haydn knew how to do better than anyone else, whether before him or after him, is displayed in these six pieces. The first movements are thrilling, the slow movements sweet and lovely. The triple-meter movements (the minuets and trios) and the finales are witty and inventive, and they focus the listener’s attention on the art of composition itself at its most brilliant and masterful. The six pieces should be listened to in the order in which the composer arranged them, as an album. They are rarely performed that way, unfortunately, but are easily obtained as a group on recordings.

One can easily imagine why Haydn left Opus 77 unfinished after two entries in the series. It was not only that he was busy with the oratorios that dominated the close of his career. Once the first two quartets were written, it must have dawned on him that there was nothing more that needed saying. Opus 77 No. 1, in G major, and No. 2, in F major, are entirely unlike the six of Opus 76, which had been published only two years before. The Opus 76 are works of triumph; the Opus 77, of reverence. In Opus 76, Haydn shows us everything; in Opus 77, he allows only the essentials. The textures are simple, the moods refined. This is music distilled. They, along with some of Bach’s works, are among the few pieces that make me feel for a while, after I have heard them, that there is really nothing else worth listening to.

W. A. Mozart (1756-91)

No. 14, K387, in G major (1782)

No. 15, K421, in D minor (1783)

No. 16, K428, in E flat major (1783)

No 17, K458, in B flat major (1784)

No. 18, K464, in A major (1785)

No. 19, K465, in C minor (1785)

No. 20, K499, in D major (1786)

No. 21, K575, in D major (1789)

No. 22, K589, in B flat major (1790)

No. 23, K590, in F major (1790)

Mozart wrote twenty-three quartets, of which the last ten, listed here, are great works. The first six of the ten, Nos. 14-19, comprise the “Haydn Quartets,” written in response to the elder composer’s Opus 33 and dedicated to him. The next, No. 20, the “Hoffmeister” quartet, stands alone, while the last three, the “King of Prussia” quartets, were, according to tradition, dedicated to Friedrich Wilhelm II, who was a cellist.

The “Haydn” quartets, Nos. 14-19, bring into the quartet, for the first time, the emotional range of opera. Listen to them as an album. The “King of Prussia” Quartets, Nos. 21-23, on the other hand, remind one a little of Haydn’s Opus 77, in that they reduce quartet music to its essentials. The gestures are simple, the contemplations profound. Yet even in these lighter-textured pieces, we can hear the emotional ambiguity that is Mozart’s signature. We hear sadness and delight, torment and release in quick alternation, and very often at the same time. Mozart surrounded his disappointments with the effervescence of serenade, and it is this more than anything else that attracts to Mozart the first loyalty of so many music-lovers.

Mozart’s six string quintets, which are scored for two violas, with cello and two violins, must also be mentioned; they are equal to his quartets. The third and the fourth quintets, K515 in C major and K516 in G minor, written as a pair in 1787, are Mozart’s greatest chamber works. Any exploration of his chamber music should begin with, or culminate with, these two quintets. Fortunately, they are favorites with performers and can be heard often in concert.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Opus 18, Nos. 1-6, (1798-1800)

Opus 59, Nos. 1-3, the “Razumovsky Quartets” (1806)

Opus 74, the “Harp,” in E flat major (1809)

Opus 95, “Serioso,” in F minor (1810)

Opus 127, in E flat major (1822-25)

Opus 130, in B flat major (1825-26)

Opus 131, in C sharp minor (1825-26)

Opus 132, in A minor (1825)

Opus 133, the “Grosse Fuge,” originally the last movement of Opus 130;

Opus 135, in F major (1826)

Beethoven’s quartets have inspired many books, both philosophical and technical.  Suffice it to say that, like Shakespeare’s tragedies in literature, Beethoven’s quartets stand alone in music. They are the benchmark.

At first, Beethoven followed the tradition of publishing quartets in albums, but he was ever impatient with convention, and the last eight quartets were published as separate works. Their canvases are too vast to be viewed with companion works.

To my ears, the best introduction to Beethoven’s quartets is not the group of early quartets, the six of Opus 18, which are overshadowed by Haydn’s Opus 76 and 77. Begin instead with the first of the three Razumovsky Quartets, Opus 59 No. 1, in F major. The cello melody in the first few measures swings open the door to the Romantic century. Once you are hooked by this piece, which charms the heart while it is busy demolishing what music had been before it, turn to its emotional opposite, intense and mysterious, the Opus 59 No. 2, in E minor. Listen your way through the difficult Opus 59 No. 3, in C major, then the delightful “Harp” Quartet, so called because of the pizzicato arpeggios in the first movement, and finally the violent “Serioso.” These five are the “middle quartets” and are often recorded together for CD albums.

Listening to the late quartets, like watching Shakespeare’s plays, is an undertaking to be resumed at intervals throughout a lifetime. Quartet players and composers still consider these quartets to set the standard for music in the twentieth century — not to speak of the nineteenth. If the late quartets are new to you, begin with the first, the Opus 127. Its opening E-flat chords knock at the door to the soul. Once you have let them in, music can never be the same for you.87

Of the other late quartets, the most approachable (and the greatest — Beethoven’s Lear)  is the Opus 131, in C sharp minor. Listen to this one next. It was this piece that taught me to listen to quartets — but I could only start at the pinnacle because I stayed there to listen many times. Still ahead, in order of difficulty, are the great A minor quartet, Opus 132, with its transcendent slow movement; the humorous, squirrely Opus 135, in F major; and — hardest of all to assimilate — the monumental, sprawling Opus 130, in B flat. When you are ready to tackle Opus 130, abandon caution and hear it with its original last movement, the Grosse Fuge, which audiences are still not ready for, 170 years after it was written.

Beethoven also wrote a viola quintet, Opus 29, in C major (1801). It is a lovely piece, undeservedly neglected by performers.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

No. 13, D804, in A minor (1824)

No. 14, D810, in D minor “Death and the Maiden” (1824)

No. 15, D887, in G major (1826)

Of Schubert’s fifteen quartets, these last three are the masterpieces. No. 14, in D minor, is by far the most often performed — in fact, too often; it is one of the very few quartets that has attained the status of warhorse. Nevertheless, it is a great work. Schubert’s quartets were the first to build on Beethoven’s Romantic foundations, but in one sense they resemble Mozart’s: their composer thought primarily in terms of a singable line. The second movement of the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet consists of variations on Schubert’s song of that name. The quartet’s companion piece, in A minor, is its equal, though it is programmed and recorded much less frequently.

As for the G major Quartet, it is repetitious and vast, like a song with a dozen verses, and it might well be the most difficult of string quartet masterpieces to perform convincingly. It compares with late Beethoven, too, in its challenge to the listener. The only recording I know of that makes it work is by the Quartetto Italiano. Instead of hurrying through it, the Italiano plays it in long breaths, on its own terms.

Schubert wrote two other great works involving violin, viola, and cello: the unforgettable String Quintet, for two violins, viola, and two cellos, D956, in C major, written in 1828, Schubert’s last year, and the scintillating “Trout” Quintet, for piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass, D667, in A major, dating from 1819.



2. The National Traditions of the Nineteenth Century



Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Opus 44, Nos. 1-3, in D major, E minor, and E flat major (1837-8)

Opus 80, in F minor (1847)

Like Mozart and Schubert, Mendelssohn thought of music above all in terms of melody, and his quartets are graced with soaring songs. For some tastes he is a little schmaltzy, although his best pieces are nonetheless beautiful. The charge that he is superficial, though, is false; he is merely sane. Moreover, his works are a satisfying study for admirers of formal elegance. He published six quartets; the last four are the best. If possible, listen to Opus 44 as an album. Otherwise, choose the second, in E minor. Opus 80, his elegy for his composer-sister, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, is also lovely, and an admirable statement of grieving as experienced by a fundamentally happy man.

When played with the right balance of delicacy and fury, Mendelssohn’s sizzling String Octet, for four violins, two violas, and two cellos, Opus 20, in E flat (1825), brings audiences to their feet. To write a true full-length eight-voice piece for strings is basically impossible, but Mendelssohn, at sixteen, did not know that. No one else among the great composers has managed it.88 With it, Mendelssohn became, and still is, the youngest composer to write a work that remains in the classical repertoire.


Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Opus 41, Nos. 1-3, in A minor, F major, and A major (1842).

Of Schumann’s three quartets, the third, in A major, is the best — a must for Schumann lovers. Like much of his other work, the quartets are episodic and pianistic; they sound like they were written for four hands on the keyboard rather than four bows on the strings. The chamber works for piano and strings that followed in the same year — the Piano Quartet, Opus 47 in E flat major, and the Piano Quintet, Opus 44, in E flat major — build on the string quartets and are, deservedly, heard more often.

Johannes Brahms (1833-97)

Opus 51, No. 1, in C minor (1859, revised 1873)

Opus 51, No. 2, in A minor (1859, revised 1873)

Opus 67, in B flat major (1875)

Brahms had a knack of reaching out with a long-limbed melody and hauling the listener by the ear down into emotional seas. A mere two measures have gone by and we are immersed. Many listeners have noticed the heavy orchestral texture of his three quartets, but Brahms manages to turn weight into power.

The first and third of the quartets are great Brahms, the one stormy, the other as sunny as this composer’s North Sea weather permits. The second quartet, Opus 51, No. 2, though, is one of his lesser efforts.

The Russians

Alexander Borodin (1833-87)

Quartet No. 2, in D major (1881-87)

Of this lovely piece I have already written (in my book The Four and the One) (pp. 63-65). The composer dedicated the piece to his wife, and it seems clearly to be a portrait of the couple’s courtship and marriage. Perhaps to forestall criticism that a string quartet with a narrative subtext could not be taken seriously, Borodin constructed the piece very strictly; all four movements are in sonata-form. The memorable melodies of the two middle movements were brought into American popular culture by the musical Kismet, which was based entirely on Borodin’s music.

Borodin’s first quartet, in A major (1877-79), is not a match for the second.


Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-93)

Opus 11, in D major (1871)

Opus 22, in F major (1874)

Opus 30, in E flat minor (1876)

The Russian ensembles that are now touring and recording frequently in the West have at last made it possible to hear Tchaikovsky’s three quartets. All are superb, but are neglected by Western performers, audiences, critics, and recording companies. Tchaikovsky, who was Mozart fan, used the formal discipline of chamber music to contain the sprawling emotions of his larger works, and the sentimentality of the concertos and symphonies is therefore elevated to tragedy. The quartets are notable for their use of folk dances — for example, the 7/4 pulse (actually two measures of 6/8 alternating with one of 9/8) in the wonderful slow movement of the second quartet, Opus 22. The quartets are elegantly written: don’t be surprised to hear a fugue (Tchaikovsky? a fugue?) in the second quartet’s last movement. The sweet melodies of Opus 11 and the monumental chordal slow movement of Opus 30 are not to be missed; however, Opus 22 is the masterpiece.

More frequently heard is Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet, “Souvenir de Florence,” Opus 70 (1887-90, revised 1891-92). This, too, is a marvelous piece.

The Bohemians

Bedrich Smetana (1824-84)

No. 1, “From my Life,” in E minor (1876)

This autobiographical quartet, written as the composer was going deaf, is dramatic and touching, especially in live performance.

Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904)

Opus 51, in E flat major (1878-79)

Opus 61,  in C major (1881)

Opus 96, “American,” in F major (1893)

Opus 105, in A flat major (1895)

Opus 106, in G major (1895)

Of Dvorák’s fourteen quartets, these last five comprise one of the finest quartet cycles of the nineteenth century.

The composer spent his early career as an orchestral violist, and his skill in string-writing has no peer. Not even Mozart matched Dvorák’s ability to make the string quartet sound gorgeous. No one else has given the viola such prominence, either; in these quartets, the viola, instead of the cello, takes the role of secondary melodist after the first violin. Like Schubert, Dvorák was above all a writer of melodies; after listening, expect to have some trouble getting these tunes out of your head.

Three of Dvorák’s last five quartets, Opus 51, 96, and 106, are graced with Bohemian folk melodies. (Opus 96, the “American,” was written during a three-year stay in the United States, but its pentatonic tunes are Czech.) Opus 96 has become something of a warhorse. All five are equally beautiful.


Other National Schools

Good quartets were written in France, England, Scandinavia, and Italy during the Romantic period. Their composers are not among my own favorites, but I list them here for those who enjoy the composers’ other works. If you like the symphonies, operas, or oratorios, you’ll no doubt like the quartets.

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

String Quartet in E minor (1873)


César Franck (1822-1890)

String Quartet in D major (1889)

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

Opus 27, in G minor (1877-78)


Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Opus 83, in E minor (1918)

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

“Crisantemi” (1890)



3. The Modern Period: Modal Nationalists


For the sake of clarity, we can organize the great quartet composers of the modern period into two groups: those who continued the national schools of the previous century, often reaching into folk music to take up Debussy’s experiments in modal scales; and those who extended the nineteenth-century German experiments in chromaticism to their logical conclusion in atonalism. But the two paths cross, and many composers tried out both of them.


Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

String Quartet, Opus 10 (1893)

For quartets, the twentieth century begins in 1893, with Debussy. In this masterpiece, the great French innovator imported into the sanctum of the quartet the experiments in tonality and harmony that he was carrying out in his vocal and orchestral works. In Germany, composers were pushing traditional harmony into a tortured chromaticism in order to find a way out of the limits of key relations. It took a Parisian to find an elegant solution: instead of abandoning harmony, he took leave of the major and minor scales. He wrote modal and whole-tone melodies, and, as a result, harmonies are set pleasantly adrift.

Unlike most of his other pieces, Debussy’s string quartet is in the traditional four movements, and it is the only piece to which he gave the traditional opus number. The composer seemed to be signaling his conscious intention to wrench the quartet out of the hands of the nineteenth century and to demonstrate that even this musical icon could be reforged into a modern shape. Begin your exploration of twentieth-century quartets with this piece.

Leos Janácek (1854-1928)

No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata” (1923)

No. 2 “Intimate Letters” (1928)

Like his countryman Smetana, the Czech composer Leos Janácek wrote autobiographical quartets. Both these pieces expressed his autumnal, unfulfilled love for another man’s wife. As befitting the quartets of a great opera composer, Janácek’s string voices seem to be conversing throughout. These beautiful works present Romantic storytelling in twentieth-century sound. Fortunately, now that Czech ensembles are bringing their great quartet tradition to Western audiences, Janácek’s masterpieces have caught on among North American performers and are programmed fairly often.


Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

No. 1, Opus 7 (1908)

No. 2, Opus 17 (1915-17)

No. 3 (1927)

No. 4 (1928)

No. 5 (1934)

No. 6 (1939)

The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók wrote six quartets, and he was planning another when he died. Many performers and listeners place the Bartók cycle second in greatness only to Beethoven’s. I myself would place Haydn’s and Shostakovich’s quartets before Bartók’s — but not by much. The six quartets span Bartók’s life and should be listened to in sequence.

Already in the first of these, Bartók continues Debussy’s experiments in tonality by writing melodies outside the major and minor modes. The composer was a pioneering ethnomusicologist, and he brought back from his excursions among Magyar peasants not only folk modes but the use of drones to establish the modal home-note, and, also, the driving rhythms that make all his music as thrilling as Haydn’s.

Like Beethoven in his last quartets, Bartók broke open the quartet’s traditional four-movement box and cast his quartets in a variety of molds. He carried much further the experiments in string sound that Beethoven initiated — creating, for example, the mysterious, squeaky “night music” that first appears in the second quartet.

As in Shostakovich’s fifteen quartets, one can hear in Bartók’s six an emotional record of the first half of the twentieth century — of its violent despairs and its wild sorrows. Listen to these stunning pieces at night, in a quiet place, when you are ready for a earful of plain speaking. Of the six, the fifth is the masterpiece.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75)

No. 1, Op. 49, in C major (1938)

No. 2, Op. 68, in A major (1944)

No. 3, Op. 73, in F major (1946)

No. 4, Op. 83, in D major (1949)

No. 5, Op. 92, in B flat major (1953)

No. 6, Op. 101, in G major (1956)

No. 7, Op. 108, in F sharp minor (1960)

No. 8, Op. 110, in C minor (1960)

No. 9, Op. 117, in E flat major (1964)

No. 10, Op. 118, in A flat major (1964)

No. 11, Op. 122, in F minor (1966)

No. 12, Op. 133, in D flat major (1968)

No. 13, Op. 138, in B flat minor (1970)

No. 14, Op. 142, in F sharp major (1972-73)

No. 15, Op. 144, in E flat minor (1974)

A brief portrait of Shostakovich as a quartet composer, along with an appreciation of his great Third Quartet, is given in the second appendix to this book. A proper appreciation of his fifteen quartets would take an entire volume. Into these private pieces, Shostakovich felt free to pour out the expressions of a musical mastery that has had no equal since Beethoven. Like Beethoven, he preserved the truth of an epoch — of its aesthetic perceptions, its emotional depths, and its social and political history. He is the pre-eminent quartet composer of the twentieth century. One of the many happy results of the collapse of the Soviet tyranny has been the release of this composer’s work from its prison of obscurity and misrepresentation. Much credit for this belongs to the Borodin String Quartet, which has frequently performed the full quartet cycle in North America.

The fifteen quartets can be divided into four groups. In the first two, the composer is learning his craft. The first is quite simple, and both are conservative compared to the rest. (Like Beethoven, Shostakovich waited till his thirties to tackle quartet writing.) The third through the tenth quartets, comprising the middle group, are masterpieces. They display, each differently, all the composer’s gifts: for melody, for thrilling sounds, for tragic storytelling, for bitter social comment, for technical virtuosity, for devastating emotional journeys. Like Beethoven’s middle and late quartets, these pieces can be listened to again and again without satiety. They are inexhaustible.

The third group, the eleventh through the fourteenth, replace the tragedies of the earlier group with statements of despair. The musical language sometimes approaches atonality, the dissonances are brutal. This is challenging work for the listener.

The fifteenth returns to straightforward tonality and thus is as easily approachable as the middle quartets. But it does not sound like they do. Its textures are bare, full of silences in one or another of the instruments; its mood is grief. The piece is unique in the quartet repertoire in consisting of five slow movements. The dark key, E flat minor, one of the most awkward of keys for string players, was perhaps chosen in honor of Tchaikovsky’s last quartet in the same key. Both quartets seem to mourn the tragedies of their composers’ own lives, and, for the listener, to commemorate the ineluctable sorrows of the human condition.

Also important is Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet (for string quartet and piano), Opus 57, in G minor (1940). It has long been rather popular with Western audiences, in part for its relatively lighthearted moods.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

String Quartet, Opus 11 (1936)

This American composer’s sole quartet is not to be missed. It is best known through the “Adagio for Strings,” an arrangementof the quartet’s chordal slow movement that the composer made for orchestra at the behest of Arturo Toscanini. (Barber also arranged the movement for a cappella choir.) It is harder to play the adagio as a string quartet; the intensity of the music, when distilled back down to the original four voices, is almost beyond bearing. When played right, it can reduce an audience to tears.

Barber draws on the Romanticism of nineteenth century Germany, rather than on anything originally American. His outright emotionalism and conservative harmonies earned him the scorn of modernist critics and performers. He was considered behind his times. The advent of post-modernism has now shown otherwise: he was ahead.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

No. 1 (1941)

No. 2 (1945)

No. 3 (1975)

England’s greatest composer wrote three great quartets. Like his friend Shostakovich, Britten was a melodist, a virtuoso in compositional technique, and a pioneer in soundmaking. Without straying far from the major and minor scales, the mesmerizing sound of these quartets seems to emerge from a lost tradition — unless their precedent be the reverberations of voices in the vaults of English cathedrals. Most remarkable of the three works is the second, with its monumental last movement, a set of twenty-one variations on a short, arresting theme.

I would place the following composers in the second rank of the quartet writers who carried national traditions into the twentieth century.

Charles Ives (1874-1954)

String Quartet No. 1 “A Revival Service (1896)

String Quartet No. 2 (1907-13)

The American composer Charles Ives’ first quartet is a compendium of American folk songs, the second an essay in his characteristic polytonality. The two pieces are, understandably, championed by American performers, but I cannot say I like the music much.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

String Quartet in F (1902-03)

This piece has become a warhorse and is one of the few quartets that one hears too often in concert.  Still, it is a splendid and — more to the point, perhaps, in explaining its popularity — an entertaining piece. It often recorded in company with Debussy’s quartet.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914)

Despite his periods of neo-classicism, Stravinsky did not attempt a full string quartet. He wrote only occasional short works in the medium, and, one of them, the set of “Three Pieces,” is sometimes encountered in the concert hall and on recordings. It is vintage Stravinsky: iconoclastic, theatrical, sometimes humorous, and fiercely rhythmic.


Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959)

Quartets Nos. 1-17 (1915-57)

The seventeen quartets written over forty-two years by the great Brazilian composer combined modal modernism with folk melodies and rhythms. They are only recently gaining much attention from North American performers and listeners. The young Mexican ensemble Cuarteto Latinoamericano, for example, is now recording the cycle.


Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Opus 50 (1930)

Opus 92 (1942)

Prokofiev’s two quartets show the influence of both the French and the Russian traditions. They skimp disappointingly on the exhilarating wildness of his piano works, but they are delightful nevertheless. The second, with its Tatar folk elements, is the better piece.


Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)

No. 1, Op. 10 (1918)

No. 2, Op. 16 (1920)

No. 3, Op. 22 (1921)

No. 4, Op. 32 (1923)

No. 5 (1943)

No. 6 (1945)

The German-born Hindemith (who emigrated in 1940 to Switzerland and the United States) was a professional quartet player, both as a violist and second violinist, and also a neo-classical theorist. Only some of his music deserves its reputation for a too-cold formalism. The third quartet, which combines elegant string-writing and late-Romantic chromaticism, is a beautiful piece.

William Walton (1902-83)

String Quartet (1946-47)

This English composer’s quartet, in which the influence of Debussy can be heard clearly, is a lovely piece which deserves more frequent performance.

Other twentieth-century nationalists are:

Gabriel Fauré, French (1845-1924)

Opus 121 in E minor (1923-24)


Jean Sibelius, Finnish (1865-1957)

Opus 56, in D minor, “Voces Intimae” (1908-09)


Ralph Vaughan Williams, English (1872-1958)

No. 2 in A minor (1942-44)


Ernest Bloch, Swiss (1880-1959)

String Quartets Nos. 2-5 (1946-56)


Darius Milhaud, French (1892-1974)

String Quartets Nos. 1-18 (1912-62)


Michael Tippett, English (b. 1905)

String Quartets Nos. 1-5 (1934-92)


Alberto Ginastera, Argentinean (1916-83)

No. 1 (1948)

No. 2 (1958)

No. 3, with soprano voice (1973)


4. The Modern Period: The Second Viennese School and its Followers


Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

No. 1, Op. 7, in D minor (1905)

No. 2, Op. 2, in F sharp minor (1907-08)

No. 3, Op. 30 (1927)

No. 4. Op. 37 (1936)

Most classical audiences have heard that Arnold Schoenberg was the inventor of atonal music and the leading apostle of musical modernism, but rather few people have actually heard his music. Schoenberg’s reputation has made them afraid to listen to him, and, as a result, presenters and performers are for the most part afraid to program him. Nevertheless he was one of the greatest of composers, as his four numbered quartets attest.

Listened to in sequence, these quartets unfold Schoenberg’s journey from Romanticism into modernism. The extremes of chromaticism characterize the first quartet. By the final movement of the second quartet, Schoenberg has almost entirely committed himself to the logical step of treating all twelve tones of the chromatic scale equally. No note stands as the tonic, and there are no more keys. This is atonalism. Musical reality has been reconstructed; Romanticism has become Expressionism. Schoenberg added a soprano to the second quartet’s last two movements (thus the work is really a quintet); the singer’s angular, homeless melodies define the sound of angst.

The third and fourth quartets are entirely atonal, but, in mood, less unsettling than the second. Because Schoenberg does not abandon traditional rhythms, the emotional content of the pieces remains accessible, despite the lack of harmony and key, and despite the resulting rootlessness of the melodies. Both pieces are approachable, likable, and beautiful — not at all scary. Once you elbow your way past their formidable reputation, you will find great music.

Early in his career Schoenberg wrote one of the outstanding chamber works of the late Romantic period: “Verklärte Nacht” (Transfigured Night), Op. 4 (1899), for string sextet. Together with Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence,” it is the finest sextet in the repertoire.

Alban Berg (1885-1935)

Opus 3 (1910)

“Lyric Suite” (1925-26)

Two of Schoenberg’s senior pupils, Berg and Anton Webern, were great composers, and the three composers together are often said to comprise the “Second Viennese School” (with Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert composing the first). Berg’s two quartets are probably performed more frequently than any other atonal work for string quartet, and with good reason. More so than any other composer, including his teacher, Berg managed to employ atonalism as a medium for emotional expressiveness. The “Lyric Suite” is an encrypted love letter. If you are one of the many listeners who have never been able to stand atonal music for more than a minute or two, try this fine piece.


Anton Webern (1883-1945)

Five Movements, Op. 5, 1909

Six Bagatelles, Op. 9, 1913

String Quartet, Op. 28, 1936-38

Webern’s expressionist miniatures are rather strange, but lovely.

I will not attempt to list here a selection of the many works for string quartet that have been written in an atonal or an almost-atonal style. Few have managed to enter the permanent concert repertoire, and it is hard to say which will ever do so; my own guess would be, “Not many.” The American Ned Rorem and the Russian Alfred Schnittke, each of whom have written four string quartets, are exceptions. Yet more important are the works of Elliott Carter, who belongs in any history of the string quartet.

Elliott Carter (b. 1908)

No. 1 (1951)

No. 2 (1958-59)

No. 3 (1971)

No. 4 (1986)

No. 5 (1995)

In his quartets, Carter deconstructs not only melody and harmony, but also rhythm. That is to say, the listener cannot identify a tune, a key, or a beat. With the composers of the Second Viennese School, there is always a sense of rhythm, even when melody and harmony seem absent, and so the music can still express feeling. But Carter’s quartets are, to my ears, pure abstractions; they are music divorced from its roots in emotion. Listening to them is rather like visiting an exhibit of the geometric paintings of Piet Mondrian. Both artists are interesting, challenging, and in their aesthetic integrity and virtuosity altogether admirable, but the works lack the means to convey warmth or to inspire it.

Carter is comparable to Bach, it seems to me, in that — just as Bach brought Baroque music to perfection after the Baroque period had ended and younger musicians had moved onward — Carter has brought modernism to its logical conclusion while post-modern aesthetics have already begun to flourish all around him.

5. Post-Modern Quartets

Guiding a listener through the vital profusion of contemporary quartet-writing is rather like guiding a group of hikers through a redwood forest: the way is so open that any path is likely to be as valid as another, and, looking up from the ground, it is impossible to tell which are the tallest trees. I can do no more than guess which post-modern quartets will last, and the only way to guess is to say which I like.

For post-modern quartets — most of them written after 1970 —  composers seem to be taking one of two paths: syncretism or revisionism. Both paths aim toward the audience. All these composers want to repair the breakdown in communication between classical musicians and their audience that was occasioned by the uncompromising difficulties of modernist music.

            What distinguishes the syncretists is their attempt, in one way or another, to combine the various discoveries of modernism with the communicative power of Romanticism. They want the classical audience back, but at the same time they don’t want to abandon all of modernism’s aesthetic advances. They are unwilling to return to the straightforward scales, keys, and harmonies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but in other ways they have embraced the Romantic aesthetic — its direct appeals to emotion, its story-telling, its dramatic journeys, its philosophical meditations.

A second group of post-modern composers is made up of revisionists. To them, modernism has reached a dead end, and the only way for music to find its bearings again is to start over. These composers have turned to the musics of much earlier times — including the traditional musics of Asia. They have also embraced popular music and jazz. In this group are minimalists, composers in the world music movement, jazz and pop crossover composers, neo-romantics, and neo-medievalists.


Post-Modern Syncretists

R. Murray Schafer (Canadian, b. 1933)

No. 1 (1970)

No. 2 “Waves” (1976)

No. 3 (1981)

No. 4, with soprano voice (1988-89)

No. 5, “Rosalind” (1989)

No. 6, “Part Wild Horse’s Mane” (1994)

Perhaps the most distinguished quartet-writer among the post-modern syncretists is the Canadian Murray Schafer. Of his eight string quartets to date, the first five quartets have been recorded by the Orford Quartet, and the first seven more recently by the Molinari Quartet. Anyone curious to explore post-modern syncretism will do well to begin with these excellent pieces, which, in their theatricality and their uninhibited wit and inventiveness, remind one of Haydn. They deserve a much wider currency in the United States (like his compatriots, indeed like Canada itself, Schafer is much better known in Europe than in America).

Other syncretists whose quartets I like include the Canadian composer Sydney Hodkinson, the American composers Martin Bresnick and Robert Greenberg, the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki, and the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. No doubt there are many others whose music I will like when I hear it.

Post-Modern Revisionists

Terry Riley (American, b. 1935)

“Cadenza on the Night Plain” (1984)

“Salome Dances for Peace” (1985-86)

Riley’s stunning “Cadenza” and  monumental “Salome” are, in my opinion, as good as anything written for string quartet since the death of Shostakovich. They are as dramatic and moving, as full of beautiful sounds and melodies, as the best quartets of the nineteenth-century national schools, without resembling them at all.

Riley spent ten years in India studying with the Hindustani master Pandit Pran Nath. As a performer, he improvises on saxophone and keyboard. Jazz, Indian music, and story-telling based on Native American myths inform his compositions. As did the composers of the Middle Ages, he sees music primarily as a medium for spiritual awakening. In his words: “The purpose of music is to bring people to a heightened state of awareness.”

His radical revisionism has not endeared him to critics and to most performers, who — unfortunately for listeners — continue to ignore him. However, my best guess is that, when the dust has settled, he will be included among the great quartet composers.

Riley is sometimes credited as the initiator of minimalism, but he does not consider himself a minimalist. He does not use the radical harmonic simplicity and the static pacing of two better known American minimalists:

Philip Glass (American, b. 1937)

No. 3 “Mishima” (1985)

No. 4 “Buczal” (1990)

No. 5 (1991)

Many listeners find Glass’s early works tediously repetitive, but his later works, including these beautiful quartets, are much more complex and dramatic.


Steve Reich (American, b. 1936)

“Different Trains”

This remarkable work, for string quartet, pre-recorded train-whistles, and fragments of spoken voice, evokes memories of American passenger trains in contrast with recollections of the trains that transported victims of the Holocaust. It is a superb example of quartet story-telling and of the collaboration of electronic and acoustic instruments.

The works of Riley, Glass, and Reich have helped establish the first true American quartet style. These composers’ interest in clear tonality, repetitive figures, dance-rhythms, and religious themes is echoed in the neo-medievalism of such European composers as the Estonian Arvo Pärt and the Englishman John Tavener, both of whom have written beautiful quartets.



6. Twenty Best of the Best

The foregoing list of great quartets is a long one. The following summary is offered for listeners who want more guidance and fewer choices in getting started with quartet listening. The summary below includes representative great quartets from each historical period. All the works listed are available on recordings.

1. Josef Haydn, Opus 77, No.1

            Alternate: Any one of the six quartets of Opus 76

2. W.A. Mozart, String Quartet No. 15, in D minor

            Alternate: No. 19, in C minor

3. Ludwig van Beethoven, Opus 59, No. 1

            Alternate: Opus 59, No. 2

4. Ludwig van Beethoven, Opus 127

            Alternate: Opus 131

5. Franz Schubert, No. 14, “Death and the Maiden”

6. Johannes Brahms, Opus 51, No. 1

7. Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Opus 22

8. Alexander Borodin, String Quartet No. 2

9. Antonín Dvorák, Opus 106

            Alternate: Opus 96, “American”

10. Claude Debussy, Opus 10

11. Leos Janácek, String Quartet No. 2

            Alternate: No. 1

12. Samuel Barber, Opus 11

13. Béla Bartók, String Quartet No. 5

            Alternate: No. 6

14. Arnold Schoenberg, String Quartet No. 4

            Alternate: No. 3

14. Alban Berg, “Lyric Suite”

15. Benjamin Britten, String Quartet No. 2

17. Dmitri Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 3

            Alternate: No. 8

18. Dmitri Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 15

19.  R. Murray Schafer, any of Nos. 1-8

20. Terry Riley, “Cadenza on the Night Plain.”


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