String Quartet 101

All You Need to Know About the String Quartet

The Jerusalem Quartet, a string quartet made of members (from left) Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler, Kyril Zlontnikov and Ori Kam, perform Brahms’s String Quartet in A minor at the 92nd Street Y on Saturday night, October 25, 2014.
The Jerusalem Quartet, a string quartet made of members (from left) Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler, Kyril Zlontnikov and Ori Kam, perform Brahms’s String Quartet in A minor at the 92nd Street Y on Saturday night, October 25, 2014. Photo by Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Although any combination of four stringed instruments can be called a string quartet, the term usually denotes a musical ensemble that consists of two violins, one viola, and one cello.

String Quartet Variations

  • Add a piano and call it a Piano Quintet
    Listen to Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A Major on YouTube
  • Add an extra violin, viola, cello, or bass and call it a String Quintet
    Listen to Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major on YouTube
  • Take away one violin and call it a String Trio
    Listen to Beethoven’s String Trio in C minor, Op. 9., No. 3 on YouTube

History of the String Quartet

Franz Joseph Haydn is known as the father of the string quartet. Before him, string quartets were little more than coincidence; because the genre didn’t really exist, music wasn’t written for it. Haydn began composing for string quartets largely because of the circumstances he encountered when he was invited to Baron Carl von Joseph Edler von Fürnberg’s castle. When asked to perform chamber music, the only people he could gather to perform were two violins, a viola, and a cello. From Haydn’s first quartet to his last, a glorious progression of the composer’s development of the form is remarkably apparent. The model of composition of his Opus 9 quartets became the standard string quartet form. Listen to Hadyn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 9, No. 1 on YouTube.

Generally, the music composed for a string quartet reflects the four movement form of an orchestra: a fast first movement followed by a slow second movement, a dance-like third movement, and a fast forth movement. Due to extreme limitation to only four instrumental parts, the musical form flourished in the classical period - a time where musical conservatism and the perfection of form abounded. It’s said that a composer’s true musical ability can be judged by how well he or she can write music for a string quartet. After Haydn, there were a handful of classical and romantic period composers that excelled in writing string quartet music.

Notable String Quartet Composers

Though there are many notable string quartet composers, the composers listed below are considered by most musicologists to be the most influential. 

  • Listen to Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13, No. 2 on YouTube
  • Franz Joseph Haydn
    Listen to Haydn’s String Quartet, Op. 76, No. 3 “Emperor” on YouTube
  • Franz Schubert
    Listen to Schubert’s String Quartet in D Minor, No. 14 “Death and the Maiden” on YouTube
  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Listen to Beethoven’s String Quartet in E Flat Major, Op. 127, No. 12 on YouTube
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    Listen to Mozart’s String Quartet in D minor, No. 15,  K. 421 on YouTube

Modern String Quartet Music

Today, string quartet music isn’t limited to the pages of Haydn’s great works. Many performers and ensembles are finding ways to attract audiences by covering songs by popular artists. As much as I love a Haydn quartet, to someone with an untrained ear, a cover of Taylor Swift's “Love Story” (watch on YouTube) is more likely going to capture their attention and spark their interest. I know it’s not a string quartet, but look how much fun these young musicians in the Berklee Pop String Ensemble are having performing Pharrell Williams hit song “Happy” (watch on YouTube). If any of these covers attracts a student to learn and develop a talent for performing on a stringed instrument, that student may well become the next great composer to write for and revolutionize the string quartet.

Adam Neiman, a pianist and composer I recently discovered, wrote his first string quartet in 2011, and premiered it on July 16, 2012, at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival. With five movements, it’s quite different than the classical period quartets. I find it to be an exciting piece of music and I hope it’s the first of many string quartets. Listen to a performance of Neiman’s String Quartet on YouTube.

Popular Uses of the String Quartet

Apart from concert halls and small theaters, string quartets are extremely popular at weddings (view my recommended classical music wedding albums) and other special events. Why? Their small instrumentation is quiet enough for conversation, they are able to play indoors and outdoors, and their music is sophisticated and elegant enough for any formal event. String quartets for hire can easily be found by searching the yellow pages, Internet, or bulletin boards at music stores, churches, and public/private event halls.

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