The string quartet is my favourite classical form. Out of all the prototypes of the eighteenth century, the string quartet is perhaps the one which continued to be fruitful for post-war composer. (Even the symphony was largely jettisoned and perceived as being archaic.) They are also overlooked. The composers' symphonies and operas are celebrated while the quartets lie dormant.
String quartets have always been a medium where a composer reflects on his own language. It is not really a major statement of intent. Beethoven was being 'heroic' with the the Eroica symphony and the 5th, 7th and 9th. Or he was being contemplative with the pastoral and the 8th. Whereas with the string quartet, he was making no bold statements. He was just self-examing and commenting on his own art. As I will explore in this blog post, string quartets can track the musical development of an entire composer's career. The examples I will use will be Beethoven, Bela Bartok and Elliott Carter. Because the composer examines his own form, string quartets are often characterised as being emotionally dry. The examples I have chosen are all expressive and can be heard for emotional enjoyment. As someone who isn't very musically literate, I can testify that this is music which can be heard without a formal grounding in music theory.
I mentioned that the string quartet was a eighteenth century 'prototype.' Mozart and Hadyn churned out many. As with most of their pieces, for me they are uninteresting. Beethoven followed in the same lineage. As with his first two 'classicist' symphonies, you can tell that he is much more playful with the staid forms of the day.
The cream of Beethoven's music, for me, are his last five quartets. (During the same period, he wrote Missa Solemnis and Symphony No. 9.) These quartets see him abandon classicism altogether and see him adopt a romantic language. It's a real quantum leap from Mozart in that it's so much more expressive. He's not afraid to make unexpected chord changes or to modulate the dynamics.
My favourite Beethoven quartet is the 15th. The main leitmotif is announced as a tremolo in muted, brooding tones. It gradually gains some intensity, like a freight train about to start (sorry about the trite language, but as I'm not a musician I have to recourse to metaphors). The tempo modulates to allegro and the motif is repeated more vigour. The motif is revisted, with several permutations, until until it is resolved. The second movement is somewhat whimsical. It is more formally rigid, until it modulates to violins/viola playing levitating trills. These are contravened by an ominous figure played by the cello and is repeated by the violin/violas. The rest of the movement alternates between these three strands. The third movement is by the most beautiful. The main theme is announced. There are a few variations until it ends expansively expressively. The fourth and fifth movements alternate between more a more classical themes and a whimsical melody I adore.
All of Beethoven's musical development can be traced through his string quartets. The same is true of Bela Bartok. His first quartet straddles the line between late romanticism and early modernism. It is actually redolent of Beethoven's 13th. His second quartet is more oblique and has fragments of a melody scattered about (which is modeled on a Hungarian one). His third quartet is modeled on Alban Berg's lyric suite.
My favourite is the fourth. Bartok's music is aggressive and punchey. It is neo-romantic in the sense that it is highly expressive. The movements are all interconnected. The first and fifth movements mirror each other, as do the second and fourth. The lone third movement is quiet and hushed and seems to be a kind of intermission. Bartok was an admirer of Debussy and his music is not atonal but hovers around several keys. The main theme - presumably Hungarian - is of an eerie strangeness. Bartok is a real jewel within the classical canon in that he is very eccentric. He has not spawned any imitators in that he was highly individualistic. At the same time, he managed to write a modernist nationalist music for Hungary.
As Bartok is seen as a development on Beethoven, Elliott Carter quartets could be seen as a development on Bartok. His first quartet does have a smidgen of romanticism. As you progress to the second, third, fourth and so on, his musical language becomes increasingly fragmented, almost pitchless. He was influenced by Ives; they were friends when Carter was a teenager. As such, Carter was interested in the notion of different strands of music going on at once in different metres, keys, etc. Whilst Bartok's music can be contrapuntal, Carter takes this to extremes. In his third quartet, he divides the two strings in two. The instrument are visceral and harsh. In multiple hearings, you can hear the voices interacting. It is highly expressive and, dare I say, as moments of lyricism.