String Quartet Series

There are so many string quartets…

The obvious contributors:

  • Haydn has 68 numbered quartets
  • Mozart has 23
  • Beethoven has 16 numbered quartets (and the Große Fuge)

But that’s not all. There are composers the average classical music listener (including myself) has never heard of who made significant contributions to the form:

  • Johann Baptist Wanhall wrote more than 70
  • Václav Pichl wrote more than 30
  • Luigi Boccherini wrote 91
  • Guiseppe Cambini, not to be outdone, wrote 149….

Franz Anton Hoffmeister and Ignace Pleyel wrote 50 and 70-ish quartets, respectively, while Franz Krommer wrote around 100. And all of them were born within only a few decades of each other. The above composers together composed more than 650 string quartets… and we’re not even to the Romantic era yet.

So basically, how in hell will we ever get through that backlog? Granted, there’s no way I’m going to sit and listen to and write about all 149 of Cambini’s string quartets; I have no intention of doing so, nor with Boccherini, and maybe not even Haydn (probably Haydn, eventually).

In any case, the string quartet is a unique and fundamental form in the classical music canon. Haydn could be (or rather is) said to be the father of the string quartet, even if others had started working with the same compliment of four instruments earlier than he did (but more on that later). Regardless, it is a special form, one that provides the four fundamental voices of an ensemble, soprano, alto, tenor and bass, and does so with voices that have quite uniform yet distinct timbres. It’s a bare-bones, exposed, pared down, raw but delicate, limber, adaptable, expressive ensemble (made up of two violins, a viola and a cello, if you didn’t know).

So what now? Well, I thought about having a series where we feature a string quartet each weekend, called String Quartet Saturday (or Sunday), for the nice alliteration, but after looking and planning and pondering, at least for now, we’ll be doing string quartets on both days of the weekend, for at least a little while. There’s a lot of that to get through, but it’s not just homework. There’s tons to enjoy about these works, and many of them are just as significant in the oeuvres of their composers as those scored for larger ensembles. That is to say that blazing through two a week isn’t to diminish their importance, and if need be, we’ll cover less and give only one quartet the attention it deserves for an entire weekend.

To start, though, we’ll be giving attention to some solo string works, and one of the most famous string cycles in the entire classical music canon, at that: Bach’s cello suites.

We haven’t done Bach. Ever. There was this article some months ago about that, where I sort of had this plan in mind, but we will introduce the first two suites tomorrow and Sunday as a way to kick off the increased attention I’ll be giving to the string quartet repertoire.

1 and 2 go quite well together, and I don’t want to blaze through all six in three weekends, so we’ll be breaking them up: 1 and 2 this weekend, and maybe 3 and 4 next month. We’ll see. The first two are a nice start.

In any case, our first traversal of the quartets will last a few months, and will be in semi-chronological order, putting more focus on the classical-era quartets for a while. Spoiler alert: we begin with Haydn and Mozart.

This series will be (mostly) independent of whatever’s going to continue to happen on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with a few satisfyingly serendipitous synchronizations along the way, so look out four that. I think the series will just be titled SQS for String Quartet Series, or Saturday, or Sunday, depending on when it is, so look out for that. It eventually will be more (or less) than string quartets, too. Expect quintets, sextets, trios, including instruments other than strings. Chamber Music Series didn’t sound as catchy. Whatever. Stay tuned.

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