The String Quartet Now, or From Where I Sit … A Very Personal View

Posted on July 29th, 2013 by

The String Quartet Now, or From Where I Sit … A Very Personal View

Contemporary Music Review 2013(CMR)Published online-26th July 2013

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I spend my musical life moving back and forth, between being first violin of the Kreutzer Quartet and the more isolated world of a solo violinist. Sitting with my colleagues around me is thus a comfort—the wonderful collection of playful intellect and creativity that is the Kreutzer Quartet leads me to ask, ‘what is a string quartet in 2013?’.

In my work, I have been, and remain, completely incapable of specialising. I am as likely to be researching Giuseppe Tartini as to be discussing a new quartet with its composer. My approach to any question of today will always be in concert with the voices of the past that swirl around us in performance and in the minds of composers who take on the challenges of the genre. Almost without exception, any living composer knows that he must stare down perhaps the most intimidating canon of works in the literature. The Maine-based composer Elliot Schwartz offers a charming example. His second quartet takes part of its inspiration from a fragment by Aaron Copland, to be found in the Music Division of the Library of Congress. Copland had intended this fragment, a note row, to serve as the foundation for a quartet, never written. Elliott set it, like a jewel, at the heart of his quartet, a profound and affectionate homage to a parted friend and a particular example of the past–present paradigm at work.

The answer to the question, ‘what is a string quartet?’, has never been as simple as, ‘two violins, viola and cello’. The ‘fixed notion’ of a quartet, exclusive of a 16-foot bass instrument or basso continuo, arrived uncomfortably late, in the eighteenth century. The earlier four-part string works by F. J. Haydn that originally used the word divertimento were very likely intended for performance by at least five players. The cello was the last member of orchestral strings to develop a standard form, an interloper alongside violas and violins (meaning literally, ‘little violas’). As a result, to mid-eighteenth century ears, a chamber group lacking either a contrabass or a violone, or a keyboard, would have seemed incomplete: without a base.

Even in the hegemonic heyday of the string quartet in its ‘pure’ form, the second half of the nineteenth century, the medium was under threat; for instance, the String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 35 (1894) by Anton Arensky eschews a second violin in favour of a second cello. Also, works for four celli were on the rise, standing alongside earlier hybrids for violin, two violas and cello. Indeed, one might argue that the notional ‘purity’ that the ‘traditional’ string quartet represented had its model in the ‘unbroken consort’ of the English Renaissance, or in the solo ‘concerti’ for four violins by G. P. Telemann.

Many composers in the twentieth century challenged the standard formation. Arnold Schoenberg proved in his second quartet that a voice would not transform a quartet into a quintet, a principle later followed by Alban Berg, albeit tacitly, in his Lyric Suite and by George Rochberg in his own second quartet. Still later, Gloria Coates used an organ in place of a voice in her seventh quartet, ‘Angel’, while David Matthews fashioned his seventh quartet as a song-cycle. In a different light, Violin Phase (1967) by Steve Reich could also be seen as a ‘string quartet’.

A decade ago, the British composer Michael Finnissy was asked at a research seminar at the Royal Academy of Music what he thought defined a string quartet. He paused for a moment, then said firmly, ‘well, it’s just four guys in a room really … ’. Finnissy has contributed a large body of work to the repertory yet only three of these works are called ‘String Quartet’, and all of them break aspects of the medium. This ‘breaking’ ranges from Multiple Forms of Constraint, his first work for the Kreutzer Quartet, which is a non-concertante work for violin and string trio, to Six Sexy Minuets Three Trios, a work whose jocular title belies its profundity, which invites the players to use their own choice of household objects as percussion instruments.

This addition of instruments to the quartet, as distinct from effects on the instruments themselves, reached an early peak with Black Angels by George Crumb (1970), which uses maracas, glass rods, tuned glasses, and gongs alongside basic amplification and vocalisation. A ramification of this great work is that, decades later, groups performing new and recent music sort themselves by the amount of paraphernalia necessary for them to play their selected repertory! As a rule, the Kreutzer Quartet is ‘gear-lite’ and prefers works relying on four players and four instruments.

In general, whenever amplification or electronics is used, a fifth person is required. A lively debate continues within the electroacoustic community as to whether this operative should be treated as an integral part of the performance, or should remain in the shadows, like the sound team at rock concerts.

Finnissy sought to render the electro-acoustic contribution to his string quartet manageable by the players themselves, with as little gear as possible. His third quartet, written for the Kreutzer Quartet in 2007, incrementally silences the players with birdsong, which he recorded in the back garden of his house in West Sussex. He conceived it to be executed in the simplest way, with a member of the quartet turning the recorded material on and off as the work progressed. Indeed, at the première in Wolverhampton, violist Morgan Goff managed the sound projection through the use of an iPhone. However, at a later performance in Malmö, composer David Gorton took control of the sound projection, bringing the sensibility of a fifth member into play. This work is the antithesis of pieces using a ‘boombox’ style of ‘lo-fi’electronics, such as John’s Book of Alleged Dances by John Adams, written for the Kronos Quartet, which is, without a doubt, the most paraphernalia-heavy quartet on the circuit.

Questions of ‘extra materials’ may be used to sort most of the quartets being written today, most of all when the question is used to look at minutiae of instrumental technique. The British composer David Matthews eschews most extended techniques in his string quartets, yet vocalisation appears in his writing for solo violin. The opinions of Hans Keller, a powerful influence on the aesthetics and ethics of the British quartet in the latter part of the twentieth century, are doubtlessly in play here. Keller was very particular about what was ‘allowed’ in quartet writing, casting a dim eye on what he regarded as ‘orchestral’ techniques, insisting that works not rising to the purity of the ‘Haydn model’ had no business calling themselves ‘string quartets’:

Quasi-orchestral textures … will always strike the true quartet-player as ultimately unsatisfactory, marginally inadequate, not fully and subtly expressive. (Keller, 1993, p. 206)

The ‘Keller challenge’ has resulted in a rich legacy of British quartets, the twelve of Matthews being a good example, but other composers are pushing the acceptable technical boundaries harder. The Swiss composer Ansgar Beste, currently residing in Bamberg, has developed an entire language based around the ‘prepared’ string instrument. He follows earlier quartets by Pano da Costa, George Crumb, Stephen Montague, Sidika Özdil, etc., involving the use of objects held in the hands during performance. However, Beste takes this practice to new levels, affixing metal paper-corners and ‘rawl-plugs’ to the strings, on the playing side of the bridge, or plastic foam-cones between the strings behind the bridge. In the process, he unintentionally evokes the early history of string instruments, hearkening back to La Battalia (1673) by H. I. F. Biber, who ‘prepares’ the bass instruments with parchment between the strings to produce a shawm-like buzzing, as well as providing an early example of snap-plucking, or what is now called the ‘Bartók pizzicato’.

The preparation of string instruments from ca. 1780–1840, fuelled by a sophisticated understanding of harmonics and acoustics resulting from the work of Giuseppe Tartini and, a century later, Félix Savart, focused on techniques to refine the projection and resonance of the instruments themselves. This age was the high-water mark of the use of scordatura and specialist techniques for rendering subharmonics more audibly. In his L’Art du Violon (1834), Pierre Baillot recommended fixing a key of precise measurements to the belly of the violin to clarify its harmonics. The retuning of a whole quartet has been used intermittently in the past half-century. Giacinto Scelsi offered some demonstrations in this domain and David Gorton has more recently found retunings based on a web of partials generated by the retuned strings of the whole quartet, leading to his first and third quartets, both written for the Kreutzer Quartet. Gloria Coates has developed a ‘signature’ scordatura, where one half of the quartet is tuned a quarter-tone tone away from the other half, yielding a rainbow of harmonics.

The most common ‘preparation’ of string instruments is the use of the mute, which continues to cause dispute amongst players. Composers of the late eighteenth century are quite restrained in their use of muting in chamber music, further stimulating the mid-twentieth century notion that the mute was not suited to the high ambition of the string quartet or string quintet. Per Keller,

… there is no great quartet, no insider’s quartet or string quintet in which any instrument or movement or section, however short, is muted. (Keller, 1993, p. 9)

Keller had the grace to acknowledge one great exception, although he mislabelled it: W. A. Mozart used the technique in the heartfelt introduction to the finale of his String Quintet in G Minor, K 516. Keller should have known better! With a cavalier stroke of the pen in 1985, he dismissed masterpieces from Johannes Brahms to P. I. Tchaikovsky, Béla Bartók to Dmitry Shostakovich to Elliott Carter and beyond. Controversy continues to swirl around excessive use of the mute as a technique in quartet writing today, with the suspicion that it is an ‘orchestration technique’ sweepingly applied to chamber music by composers of lesser experience or nuance. However, some refined examples of its use have appeared, such as in Étude d’un prélude X and the second quartet by Richard Beaudoin, both written for the Kreutzer Quartet, featuring ‘normal’ mutes as well as rubber ‘practice-mutes’ (Hoteldämpfer).

Perhaps the biggest bugbear that the string quartet has faced with the turn of the millennium has been the question of pre-planned interpretation; here, living composers are leading a brave sally. Well into the nineteenth century, the most common method of playing string quartets was ‘reading’; until the second decade of that century, the majority of works in the medium were designed to function within the ambit of sight-reading. Felix Mendelssohn wrote his quartet, Op. 12 (1827) for the Parisian quartet of Pierre Baillot, which sight-read exclusively; he enthused at the excitement and quality of the performance. Also worth bearing in mind is the fact that the first chamber work with strings by Ludwig van Beethoven to appear in ‘full score’ was the quintet in C Major, Op. 29, in a celebratory edition in 1825. The practice, the expectation of study and preparation of a quartet using a Partitur would be alien to composers of the period. I take the view that many of the feints and surprises in Beethoven and Haydn are aimed at the players themselves, to experience as they ‘read’ in a salon environment, and that their reactions, their surprises, were part of the pieces themselves. This experience is relevant to the intimate aesthetics in play in chamber music of 2013 and demands a closer look.

By the end of the twentieth century, the practise of high-level quartet playing had become oriented towards a highly ‘thought-out’, perhaps monolithic, approach to interpretation. The combination of the commercial domination of a small number of recording companies, with predominantly conservative aesthetics, with the blossoming of classical broadcasting in the years after World War II was a large factor in this development. However, dissenting voices began to emerge and continue to emerge.

Many lifelong players in quartets find rationalising the two basic models of a ‘super-controlled’ performance aesthetic with democratic or egalitarian politics difficult. The first model is a hangover from the late nineteenth century, when touring virtuosi, such as Lady Wilhelmina Neruda Halle or Henryk Wieniawski would ‘lead’ three other players, often standing, in ‘quartet evenings’ in the various cities that they visited, leading to the moniker primarius for the quartet ‘leader’ in Germany. This dictatorial approach informed much quartet playing during the twentieth century; some exciting, but ‘top-down’, performances were the result; for instance, my teacher Norbert Brainin is an example of how exciting this practice could be. When it crumbled, and particularly in Europe, a peculiarly un-dynamic playing aesthetic took its place, often to be witnessed in the very quartets who were trained by the great primarii as they themselves turned to teaching at the end of the century. They had a tendency to advocate a highly pre-ordained approach to scores, with careful attention paid to structure and voicing, but an even less dynamic approach to the real ‘life’ of a work, its internal ebb and flow, disputes and concordances. Many of us find this practice as suffocating as the old primarius system.

In recent years, the study of nineteenth century performance practice, in particular the work of the scholar Sarah Callis, has shed light on the relationship between, for example, Brahms’ quartet ‘model’ and the performances of the Joachim–Hausmann–Wirth–de Ahna quartet, which worked with the composer. What is very clear is the correlation between the argumentative, trenchant conversations that were the substance of this group’s performances and the internal machinery of Brahms’ quartet, Op. 67, a fact not in line with either the ‘hyper-led’ or the ‘pre-programmed’ approaches outlined above.

Quartets wrestling with these issues as the millennium neared found themselves strained in the works of their collaborating composers, which often rejected either approach. Perhaps the most obvious, and most obviously counterintuitive, examples of this rejection are the later string quartets of John Cage and Sir Michael Tippett.

Four (1989) by John Cage is constructed in such a way as to ensure that the players never know what they will hear from their colleagues. It pushes towards the notion of the ‘perfect non-rehearsal’, which Karlheinz Stockhausen seemed to be advocating in Richtige Dauern (Right Durations) from Aus den Sieben Tagen (1968):

But whether you play or stop:/keep listening to the others/At best play/When people are listening/Do not rehearse.

Rehearsing or planning Four is impossible, but ways must be found to develop an ensemble aesthetic that is simultaneously independent and collaborative, which will result in a ‘truthful’ outcome.

At the other end of the spectrum is the fourth quartet (1977–1978) of Sir Michael Tippett, a vigorously virtuoso quartet, which takes the Grosse Fuge, Op. 133 by Beethoven as a jumping-off point. It demands a similar super-energetic, every-man-for-himself type of teamwork, where the virtuosity and energy exuded by each player is vital to shore up their colleagues, all of whom are in extremis for much of the time. The ‘interpretation’ is the result of how the players support each other when the ensemble is most under threat from the wanton insanity of much of the material. Tippett loved the danger of quartet playing; he once walked past the members of our quartet as we were about to go on stage to play a concert of his pieces, saying, ‘it had better be bloody good!’. He grinned and bounded into the hall.

Yet again, Michael Finnissy has provided a model that has proved important in recent decades, for understanding this notion of independent-voiced teamwork, perhaps offering a unifying thread among the four centuries in discussion. His Nobody’s Jig (1980–1981) was neglected by the group for whom it was written; the Kreutzer Quartet picked it up in the late 1990s. It consists of four part-books, without a score, and with each voice written at very high levels of instrumental, rhythmic and colouristic virtuosity. Each part takes ca. 20’ to play; linking cues or signposts are absent and each part has a distinct number of bars and different rhythmic and agogic profiles (


The only vertical alignment that the composer demands is that the piece should start together and, without cheating, finish at roughly the same time, a feat that is almost impossible, given the complexity of each line. The result is that, at every given moment, each player will be hearing their material in a new context, whilst recognising the material roaring around him and being able only to remain afloat in the turbulence. By chance or deliberation, this notion of chamber music evokes an episode in the Taoist book Zhuangzi: Confucius shows his disciples a wild river, where the water sweeps over waterfalls and rocks. An old man is blithely swimming in the dangerous river; the disciples cannot understand how he could be unharmed. The point is that the old man is a man of Tao, he says that he has learnt to intuit the shapes of the crashing waves around him, as they happen, and to harmonise with them, provide balancing counter-energies to enter the tangled currents surrounding him.

Perhaps this model is the one increasingly seen as integral to the notion of the string quartet today. For all of the diversity of language offered by the myriad composers writing in this field now, the allure of independent individuals offering a counterpoint of energy and ideas, in the moment, the result of deep preparation and thought aiming towards true spontaneity, seems to be a unifying ideal for the medium today.


1. Keller, H. (1993). The great Haydn quartets—their interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.