String quartet

The term string quartet can refer to either a type of musical composition or a group of four people who play them. Many composers from the mid 18th century onwards wrote string quartets. The associated musical ensemble consists of two violinists, a violist, and a cellist.

The Fitzwilliam Quartet

The string quartet was developed into its present form by the Austrian composer Joseph Haydn, whose works in the 1750s established the ensemble as a group of four more-or-less equal partners. Since Haydn the string quartet has been considered a prestigious form; writing for four instruments with broadly similar characteristics both constrains and tests a composer. String quartet composition flourished in the Classical era, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert each wrote a number of them. Many Romantic and early-twentieth-century composers composed string quartets, including Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Antonín Dvořák, Leoš Janáček and Claude Debussy. There was a slight lull in string quartet composition later in the 19th century, but it received a resurgence in the 20th century, with the Second Viennese School, Béla Bartók, Dmitri Shostakovich, Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter producing highly regarded examples of the genre, and it remains an important and refined musical form.

The standard structure for a string quartet as established in the Classical era is four movements, with the first movement in Sonata form, Allegro, in the tonic key; a slow movement in a related key and a Minuet and Trio follow; and the fourth movement is often in Rondo form or Sonata rondo form, in the tonic key.

Some string quartet ensembles play together for many years and become established and promoted as an entity in a similar way to an instrumental soloist or an orchestra.

A string quartet in performance. From left to right – violin 1, violin 2, viola, cello
String quartet score (quartal harmony from Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 1). Play 
A string quartet in performance. From left to right – violin 1, violin 2, cello, viola

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