ClassicalRap is a forum for discussion and information on classical music genres from the Baroque through the 20th Century eras in particular. Information will be provided on the various genres of classical music in these eras, and discussions will involve the lives of composers, their works, and standard and new recording releases. This is not a blog about Rap music.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Evolution of the String Quartet (Part One)

In Classical music, styles and genre tend to evolve for a purpose, not by chance, but often by necessity.  As such, the String Quartet genre arose rather late in the Classical era under the guidance of Joseph Haydn.  There were forms of this prior to Haydn, of course, with Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652).  His addition of a 2nd violin to what was then known as a Trio Sonata for strings was perhaps the start.  Later with Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725), we see examples of the further development of this genre with his Sonata à Quattro per due Violini, Violetta, e Violoncello senza Cembalo (Sonata for four instruments: two violins, viola, and cello without harpsichord).  So Allegri achieved something similar to Scarlatti by adding an instrument, while Scarlatti removed an instrument, or replaced it.  The "without harpsichord" would suggest that the sonatas of the time were commonly played with the harpsichord (and indeed they were), so removing the instrument would indicate an interesting transition similar to Allegri's and arriving at a similar genre but for different purposes.  

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

It wasn't until Haydn (1732-1809) in the Classical era, that this transition was set more firmly in the repertoire of popular music.  Starting very early in his compositional work with Opus 1, and over the course of nearly 42 years starting in 1762,  Haydn completed up to 68 quartets (although some remain spurious). The quartet listed as No. 68 is incomplete.  With Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) following suit with 29 quartets, and other composers soon to follow after his first few, Haydn started a particular evolutionary branch of classical music, which has developed and sustained to this day, and has become one of the most common and predominant ensembles in classical music.

In this multi-part post we will explore the development of the string quartet beginning with Haydn.  There's no better way to do this than to listen.  I will try to find examples of the written music that we can all take a look at, but the purpose of this blog is primarily to expose the reader to classical music in all of its forms, so written examples will be minimal and only if they add to an understanding of the elements of a particular genre.  We're not here to teach nor to learn theory or composition.  That can be achieved elsewhere.  Besides, I'm a little rusty on the theory and composition part.

We're fortunate that YouTube has quite a selection of String Quartets, including a number of Haydn's.  We will start with 3 of Haydn's quartets from early to late.  The first quartet is in 5 movements, so it's not strictly in the form of a typical quartet, which would have 3 or 4 movements.  However, there are many exceptions to this commonly accepted format throughout the history of the quartet.  Many have labeled this a Divertimento for that reason. However, if it is in fact a Divertimento, it is one for a string quartet.  So we have an issue here of classification.  The string quartet, as other common pieces in Classical music, is defined according to it's instrumental breakdown.  If one were to remain technical, some string quartets are Sonatas for strings, some are Serenades for strings, and so on.  In order to simplify the genre, string quartet has remained sufficient with the understanding that it varies in number of movements and other such structures.  Beethoven's Grosse Fugue for String quartet has only one movement, yet it's usually included among his quartets.

The common instrumental breakdown for a string quartet is: 2 Violins, Viola and Cello.  If there is any diversion from this breakdown, it will often be noted in the title of the piece, and will not be strictly considered a string quartet.

Here we have Haydn's very first quartet:

String Quartet No. 1 in B-flat major, Opus 1, No. 1, HOB III.1 "La Chasse" - I: Allegro - 1762-1764.

String Quartet No. 1 in B-flat major, Opus 1, No. 1, HOB III.1 "La Chasse" - II: Minuet?

String Quartet No. 1 in B-flat major, Opus 1, No. 1, HOB III.1 "La Chasse" - III: Adagio

String Quartet No. 1 in B-flat major, Opus 1, No. 1, HOB III.1 "La Chasse" - IV: Minuet

String Quartet No. 1 in B-flat major, Opus 1, No. 1, HOB III.1 "La Chasse" - V: Finale: Allegro?

If anyone knows the correct and more refined tempo markings for these, please inform me.  I took an educated guess.

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