The most perfect expression of human behavior is a string quartet.

– Jeffrey Tate




CHAPTER AIM: Introducing Chamber Music and the String Quartet




String Quartet

Shostakovich Quartet no 8, 2nd movement  

If you want to be a world-class composer, you’d better make sure you can compose a String Quartet. And make it a masterpiece, the standard is pretty high.

The format is straightforward: Music for four stringed instruments: two violins, a viola, and a cello.

Budapest_String_Quartet_1961 TITLED2

That covers a wide range of pitch. From the lowest string of the cello – two octaves below middle C – to the highest piercing notes of the violins. That’s over six octaves to play with.



You’ve only got four musicians. You can’t just blanket out the sound with instruments, the way you can composing for a symphony orchestra.

And there’s another factor which limits your options further still: you’ve got essentially the same instrument – a stringed one played with a bow – in four different sizes. That means a very similar range of instrumental sound, or timbre. Using that very similar sound palette will need focus and skill. Discipline and control.

There’s no room to flesh out the sound with other instruments. Your work, as a composer, is more exposed, more concentrated, more pure. As Shostakovich himself  said:

“Chamber music demands of a composer the most impeccable technique and depth of thought. I don’t think I would be wrong if I say that composers sometimes hide their poverty-stricken ideas behind the brilliance of orchestral sound.”

Which means we should first define chamber music.



Private Chambers

Beethoven Op 132, excerpt  

Chamber Music

Chamber Music

A chamber is a room, so chamber music is the sort you can have at home. Literally.

Chamber music is traditionally music that was enjoyed in people’s homes, as opposed to opera or symphonic music, which usually requires a larger public space.


There’s an emotional aspect to this. Chamber music is often used as a vehicle to express a composer’s more personal and intimate feelings, whilst the orchestra stands ready for grander more public statements.

If you want to hear Beethoven on the struggle for 19th century political emancipation, check out his 9th symphony. If you want to hear him on the struggle with chronic abdominal pain, you’re better off with his 15th string quartet.


This passage playing now, incidentally, is the music Beethoven wrote to express feeling better after that abdominal pain, or as he titled it his “holy song of thanks to God from one recovering from illness”.



Four’s Company

Shostakovich Quartet 8, 3nd movement excerpt  


A String Quartet has two principal meanings. It’s a genre of chamber music played by four stringed instruments. And it’s also the name of the four-man band that plays that music.

Let’s just remind ourselves of that band:

Budapest_String_Quartet_1961 TITLED2

  1. 1st Violin
  2. 2nd Violin
  3. Viola
  4. Cello


Why a Quartet, not a Trio? In other words, why do we have two violins?

The second violin adds to the tonal space where we expect the most activity, ie the place we associate with melody.

That means if one violin carries the melody, the second can provide harmonic support. Or it can add a counter melody. Or perhaps join with the viola in thickening the mid-range sound. Lots of options, all useful.


It just works

It just works

The string Quartet is a division of instruments that works. Notice the strings sections of a standard orchestra divide the same way, with 1st and 2nd violins ( Mozart 1), although grouped in decks of instruments, rather than as individual ones.

Think of the combination of rhythm and lead guitar in your standard rock quartet. You can even compare the string quartet band to your standard rock quartet.

It’s a format that just works.


Composers certainly seem to like the string quartet. Mozart Beethoven and Shostakovich together composed SIX times more string quartets than string trios.




A Brief History of the String Quartet

Haydn Quartet Op 33 No 2, excerpt  



Papa Haydn

When Mozart arrived in Vienna in 1781, this is the music he heard being played across the capital’s drawing rooms. It was Haydn’s latest offering in a genre he had made his own. Mozart was bowled over by what Haydn had accomplished.


Haydn is the composer  generally credited with inventing/discovering the string quartet. Whatever the exact genesis of this new art-form, there is no doubting Haydn importance in its gestation. He refined the string quartet, over the course of some 40 years and 60 Quartets. In doing so, he set the bar extremely high.


The format: a first movement, usually in sonata form ( Mozart 6), a slow second movement, a third ‘dance’ movement known as a minuet, and a fast final movement. 

Not coincidentally it’s pretty much the same structure as the Symphony, another art-form Haydn invented/discovered.



Mozart Spring Quartet (excerpt)  

Mozart loved Haydn’s work, and was inspired to write a new set of six quartets himself.

They weren’t his first efforts, but Haydn’s work pushed him to expend what was for Mozart an unusually large amount time and energy on the project, finally completing the six by 1785. He sent them to the older and more experienced composer, bearing the dedication to Haydn, and they are known to this day as the ‘Haydn Quartets’.

Now it was Haydn’s turn to be dazzled by Mozart’s work. That spurred him to improve his own work further still. Five years after Mozart’s premature death, Haydn produced his greatest set of string quartets, the six of Opus 76.


Haydn Quartet Op 76 No 3, excerpt  


And so the two greatest musical minds of the Classical era were egging each other on, to produce better work. Between them they had parented the new genre through its earliest infancy, and into an art-form that could proudly stand on its own two feet. Both Haydn and Mozart had demonstrated a composer could realise his best, most disciplined work in this new art-form.

The stage was set for Beethoven.



Chamber Music

Beethoven Op 130, excerpt  

Beethoven wrote string quartets throughout his life. From the earliest, he was pushing the art-form to new limits, but by the time of his late quartets, he had pretty much destroyed Haydn’s structural format. 

Beethoven, 1815

Beethoven, 1815

Now Beethoven wrote pieces with five, six, even seven movements.


More importantly, he pushed the emotional intensity of his music to the highest degree. For Beethoven, it was a search for the highest form of musical expression.

The string quartet is well suited as a vehicle for such intense expression. Remember, the human voice is essentially a stringed instrument ( Beethoven 1).

Those four similar-sounding instruments can together produce something with an intensely human aspect, as if laying out the heart’s thoughts, directly. It’s a subtle, personal, and often intense art-form.


The string quartet seems so often to extract the very best work from a composer. And that very personal quality, that rigorous honesty it demands of its composer…is it any surprise so many of the greatest composers produce their best work in the genre towards the very end of their life, when life is reduced to it essentials?

Such was certainly the case with Beethoven. This music was about the last music he ever wrote. Our Shostakovich piece was also written a few years before his own death.



Public and Private

Shostakovich Quartet no 8, 2nd movement  


So we have a formula. That is that orchestral music is better suited for a public face, and a string quartet for the private?

Well…not quite.


Berlin, III. WeltfestspieleWe have to allow some difference for a composer like Shostakovich, who spent most of his life working under the system of Soviet Communism, specifically under the dictator Joseph Stalin.

The relationship between private and public, between personal and political, was for this composer intertwined in the most complex of fashions. In the Stalinist State, the border between private and public was a dangerous place.


In the topsy-turvey world of Communism, where symphonic music would be expected to toe a devout party line and therefore subjected to the most public scrutiny, chamber music could actually provide a safer way of venting political thoughts.


Shostakovich wrote this quartet in Dresden in 1960, seven years after Stalin’s death. He was visiting the East German city to write music for a film commemorating the bombing visited on the city by Allied bombers during WWII.

But he couldn’t bring himself to write a bar of music for the film. Instead, in three days of intense writing, this entire five movement quartet emerged. This movement – the second – is short and intense. But even these short 2½ minutes are crammed full with history, biography, quotation.

And code.


It’s a fascinating story we shall unpick, layer by layer, throughout this final section of the course.