Some 20th Century String Quartets: A small series

I have come to love string quartets.
It seems this group of four instruments has the perfect balance of succinct compactness, clarity, cohesion, and range of expression. There are times when a quartet sounds perfectly like a quartet, with four perfectly layered, distinct voices one would expect with four parts, but at other times, depending on the piece, it is just as full, just as growl-ish and impassioned and intense as an entire symphony. This limber, intimate, versatile group of four musicians can make some beautiful music, and it’s this ensemble we’ll be spending just a little bit of time with for the next four weeks (interspersed, for at least one week, with some of one composer’s other works. You’ll see).
In contrast with that long, intense traversal of early piano works of Mozart and Beethoven and Chopin and (less so of) Schumann and Brahms and at least one concerto from each of them, this itsy bitsy series will be a bit different.
For one, it’s much shorter. For two, we will be working in reverse chronological order because why not?
I’ve picked four string quartets not entirely at random, with publication dates as follows:

  1. 1976
  2. 1954
  3. 1936
  4. 1931
Maybe that is enough of a clue for at least the first one (and maybe the last?). These works are only somewhat related (at least the latter (earliest) three).
What’s the reasoning behind this collection then? It is not because they’re the most important, nor is it because they’re my favorites (although one likely is), nor because they’re better than any of the other truckfulls of quartets written in the past century. It’s merely somewhere to start.
What we will not be seeing here is anything too terribly… Classical or Neoclassical or Romantic, no Ravel (whose quartet we will surely get to), no Hindemith, no Bartok, no Shostakovich, (ditto for them), but also no Schnittke, no Ferneyhough. Somewhere in between those extremes. If that makes sense.
These are also not the first string quartets we will be addressing. For some reason or other Zemlinsky’s fourth string quartet made it into the mix a while back, and then there was Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, which is actually a sextet, but more recently we had Webern’s Fünf Sätze and Berg’s string quartet, excellent works for the string quartet.
That early Second Viennese School stretch with the Webern and Berg pieces was kind of the impetus for this short series, and we will see some relation show up in the pieces here.
There are four links already included in this article to string quartet (and sextet) works (want another? Here’s Mozart’s clarinet quintet, just a quartet with a guest soloist). These works will likely be less challenging and more pleasing to the ear at first pass than what we’ll be discussing starting this week, at least for … who? the amateur/casual listener. (Someone recently told me they find ‘amateur’ a beautiful word, rooted in the Latin word for love, not as a disparaging comment for a nonprofessional. I like that). Perhaps stick with the Berg and Schoenberg.
Thursday’s work is considered to be one of “the most important works in the genre,” but is a work from a composer that most non real-serious-classical-people have probably never heard of. That’s okay. You will on Thursday. It’s also the oddest man out, sort of, of the bunch of four here.
That’s all for now. Stay tuned.

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