The string quartet is the most popular form of chamber music, perhaps because the use of four voices is natural to Western music (although Mozart, Boccherini and Brahms felt more at home in the more amply sounding five-voiced string quintet). By treating all voices as equal one gets the "ideal conversation between four persons."
Another important aspect of the string quartet (and other chamber music for strings or for strings and piano) is that this is abstract music. It is music that only exists for itself, not to accompany a song or set words to music, or to accompany a dance. The structure therefore can't be based on anything external (i.e. a story) but has to be found in another abstract way of giving shape and form to music: the sonata form. I regard abstract music (to which of course also belongs the symphony) as the highest form of music.
The string quartet already saw triumphs in the 18th century in the hands of the Viennese Classics. In the 19th century it sometimes had difficult periods, due to the attention for virtuoso music, the predilection for greater forces to better reflect the romantic imagination, or the interest in extra-musical inspiration, such as in the New German School. But there were always important advocates (although Beethoven's masterful quartets proved a psychological hurdle for some composers). And in the 20th century the genre again was at the forefront of music making, with important quartet series by Bartok, Shostakovitch and many others. It remains an important genre even today.
In this post I discuss string quartets from the 18th and first half of the 19th century, both immortal masterworks and quartets by lesser masters or forgotten composers whose music is interesting for connoisseurs. In a second post I will look at the second half of the 19th and early 20th century and in a third post I hope to reach the end of the 20th century.
1. Christian Ernst Graf, String Quartet (without opus) No. 4 in D Major (1760s-1770s)
Kapellmeister and composer Christian Ernst Graf (1723-1804) was of German origin (he was born in Rudolstadt in Thuringia) but he worked most of his life as court musician at the court of William V, Prince of Orange, in The Hague, the Netherlands (see my post about Classical Music in the Netherlands, Part 1). Little is know about the life of Graf - he has left us some symphonies, chamber music and a cantata, and also wrote a textbook on harmony. Mozart used his song "Laat ons juichen Batavieren" for his variations KV 24. CPO has brought out a charming disc with five string quartets by Graf, which can't be dated exactly, but are thought to stem from the 1760s and 1770s. They are all transitional works, as some still use a harpsichord in addition to the string quartet. That is not the case in the one I have selected here, although the cello still misses its own voice. While Haydn in 1759 wrote five movement works in divertimento style, Graf opts for three movements, but without a fixed order - some quartets (like the present one) start with an Adagio; the second movement then is usually a fast one, and the last movement something in Allegretto style (here called Gratioso). Graf spins delicious melodies and skillfully varies his material, and his music has a tasteful warmth.
Recording listened to: Via Nova Quartett on CPO (five quartets by Graf; period instruments).
2. Pietro Nardini, String Quartet No 6 in E Flat Major (1770s or earlier, pub. 1782)
I discovered Pietro Nardini (1722-1793) thanks to the present disc brought out by Brilliant Classics. Nardini was born in Livorno (Tuscany) and was a pupil on the violin of Giuseppe Tartini. He developed into one of the greatest violinists of his time and travelled across Europe as a performing virtuoso, before becoming music director of the chapel of the court of Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany. In April 1770 Nardini was visited by Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart, and the virtuoso and the young prodigy played together. The six string quartets on the present disc were printed in Florence in 1782, but seem to have been written earlier, probably the 1770s, but possible even the second half of the 1760s. These quartets are in two movements, something which may point at quartets written for amateurs, in a lighter style (as in the two movement works among Boccherini's quartets). No 6 starts with an Allegro and then concludes with a Comodo. The cello has a solo episode in the Allegro. It is fresh and expressive music, skillfully written.
Recording listened to: Quartetto Eleusi on Brilliant Classics (complete string quartets by Nardini; period instruments).
3. Joseph Martin Kraus, String Quartet in B Major Op 1 No 2 (1784)
The German composer Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-92) was of exactly the same age as Mozart and almost as short-lived. From age 21 he worked for the King of Sweden, who also allowed him to travel. In this way he met Gluck, Albrechtsberger, Mozart and Haydn, all of whom were impressed by his music. Kraus’s oeuvre as a composer ran to some 208 works, including 17 sacred works, 4 operas, 21 symphonies, 5 concertos, and lots of chamber music. Kraus' music is highly individual - there is sense of drama, a fondness for suggestive pauses and for unpredictable changes of direction. Kraus was forgotten after his death, but has in recent years been "rediscovered," especially his symphonies. Kraus wrote about 10 string quartets, of which six in a set as "Opus 1" which was published by J. J. Hummel in Berlin and Amsterdam (Hummel had recently also published Haydn’s Six Quartets Opus 33 of 1782). The Second Quartet is in three movements. It starts with a warm-colored and tuneful Allegro moderato, which is followed by the highlight of this quartet (and in fact, also the other quartets on this disk): a beautiful Largo with a solo viola. This an impressive movement of aria-like beauty. The quartet concludes with a brief Scherzando Allegretto, which in the end just peters out - a deadpan closure that is typical of Kraus. Kraus' quartets are not as enthralling as his symphonies, but they are unusual within the context of their time and therefore deserve to be heard.
Recording listened to: Joseph Martin Kraus-Quartett on Cavalli Records (with other quartets by Kraus).
4. Karl Dittersdorf, String Quartet No 5 in E Flat major (1788)
Karl Dittersdorf (1739-1799) was born in Vienna and well acquainted with Haydn and Mozart. He bequeathed a rich collection of compositions to posterity, including more than 120 symphonies, 40 solo concertos, numerous oratorios, operas and chamber music. His music combines formal refinement with a versatile wit. Instrumental color and catchy melodies make for a strong impression. Besides string trios and string quintets, Dittersdorf wrote six string quartets, all first rate compositions, dating from the same period as Mozart's "Haydn quartets" and "Prussian quartets" and Haydn's Op 50, 54 and 55 quartets. The quartets consist of three movements with a minuet in central position. Quartet no 5 in E Flat has a variably structured first movement Allegro that contains some bold harmonic progressions. The dance-like virtuoso minuet forms a clear contrast and the work closes with a fast, quasi-Hungarian rondo finale. A well-crafted and pleasant piece, full of melodic ideas.
Recording listened to: Franz Schubert Quartet on CPO (six quartets and two quintets by Dittersdorf on 2 CDs).
5. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, String Quartet in F Major K590 (1790)
Mozart wrote 23 string quartets, of which the first 13 are more or less youthful works; the last 10 quartets are all mature masterworks. The first six of these last ten form a set written in response to Haydn's quartets Op. 33 and dedicated to him (K387, K421, K428, K458, K464 and K465). They are therefore called the "Haydn Quartets;" the whole set was published together in 1785. While quartet No 20 stands alone as the "Hoffmeister Quartet" (K499, 1786), the last three again form a set - they were to be dedicated to the Prussian King, Friedrich Willem II (a dedication which never happened; Mozart also didn't complete the planned set of six, but with the proposed dedicatee in mind, he gave special attention to the virtuosity of the cello parts), and have therefore been nicknamed "King of Prussia Quartets" (K475, K489 and K490, 1789-1790). Any of Mozart's ten mature quartets would have done as his "best"; I have here selected the very last one, in F, as I have done with Haydn and Beethoven who by coincidence also wrote their last quartets in F (according to Christian Schubart the key of "complaisance and calm"). Mozart wrote this quartet in 1790. The opening is simply an ascending arpeggio followed by a descending scale - but these simple elements are immediately subjected to various kinds of interesting transformations, all in a very operatic way. The second theme is started by the cello, which comes rumbling up from its lowest note over two octaves to the new lyrical melody. Note the coda of this movement, which ends in a delightfully witty manner. The next Andante (also called Allegretto) has been called a "mixture of bliss and sorrow" (by musicologist Alfred Einstein); it is based on a plain rhythmic figure played at the outset by the entire quartet. The Minuetto - and even more, the trio - is rich in the use of ornamental appoggiaturas (quick ornamental notes that are played just before main notes). The finale is a high-speed frolic in sonata rondo-form; it has been packed with interesting devices, such as unexpected silences, intricate contrapuntal sections and harmonic surprises. Note the brief imitation of a bagpipe-like drone in the last bars.
Recording listened to: The Salomon String Quartet on Hyperion (with Quartet K475, period instruments)
6. Joseph Haydn, String Quartet in F Major Op 77 No 2 (1799)
Between 1762 and 1799 Haydn wrote 67 string quartets (plus an uncompleted one, No. 68, as well as The Seven Last Words of Christ, Op. 51, which was a transcription of a work for orchestra), often in sets of six, of which the last 44, from Op. 20 on, form a fundamental part of the repertoire - Haydn is the composer who more than anyone else has shaped the early history of the string quartet. Haydn's last set of quartets was to be dedicated to the young Austrian aristocrat Prince Lobkowitz, an enthusiastic amateur musician who later was to support Beethoven (and who employed Anton Wranitzky, see below), but as in Mozart's case, also Haydn didn't complete his last set of string quartets. We only have two quartets completed in 1799, plus the two middle movements of a third one published separately in 1803 when it had become clear Haydn wouldn't complete the set. It has been suggested that this had to do with the appearance of a new rival, Beethoven, whose Op 18 set of six string quartets (also dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz), was just being played among connoisseurs in Vienna when Haydn was working on his Op 77 quartets. Whether it is true that Haydn gracefully bowed out, leaving the field to Beethoven, or not, Op 77 No 2 became his last completed quartet. Characteristically, the quartet is in the mode that Haydn had virtually invented: a continuous use of a semi-contrapuntal, democratic interplay between the four instruments, like a conversation between four persons. The F Major Quartet starts with a first subject that has been said to have affinities with Leporello's catalogue aria in Mozart's Don Giovanni. The fast Minuet stands in second position - it has scherzo-like qualities, although in contrast the Trio is rather subdued in tone. This is followed by a weighty and pensive Andante, where the first violin accompanied by the cello starts with a slow march-like theme that then is taken over by the whole quartet. The ebullient finale starts with an energetic opening figure, but also has its share of counterpoint. The movement calls wild eastern-European dance music to mind.
Recording listened to: Kuijken String Quartet on Denon (with Quartets Op 77 No 1 and 103 fragment; period instruments).
7. Franz Krommer, String Quartet Op 18 No 1 in D Major (1800)
Franz Krommer (1759-1831) was born as František Vincenc Kramář in a part of the Habsburg Austrian Empire that today is Kamenice in the Czech Republic. But as Krommer was active in Vienna for all his life from 1785 on, he himself used the Germanized version of his name. Krommer was one of the most successful composers around the year 1800. He was also seen as a leading composer of string quartets, almost on a par with Haydn. He wrote close to 80 string quartets and was himself a violinist of considerable ability. He finally became Court Composer to the imperial court of Franz I (an enthusiastic quartet player). Most of his quartets were written in the concertante style then common - but not only the first violin, all instruments get a chance to shine in soloist passages. The present quartet is the first one of a set of three written in the 1790s and published in 1800 by Artaria in Vienna and Richault in Paris. The work starts with a lively Allegro vivace, which is followed by a Haydnesque Minuetto. The Adagio is a deeply felt, lyrical movement, and the quartet concludes with a bubbling Allegro.
Recording listened to: Quartetto di Milano on Tudor (with Op 18 Nos 2 and 3).
8. Antonin Vranicky (Wranitzky), String Quartet No 5 in F Major (1800)
Like Krommer, Anton Wranitzky (1761-1820) and his elder brother Paul were musicians and composers from the Czech lands within the Habsburg Empire, and like their compatriot, they were very successful in Vienna. Anton Wranitzky arrived in the early 1780s and studied with Mozart, Haydn and Albrechtsberger. In 1790 he entered the service of the great patron of the arts, Prince Lobkowicz, and was gradually put in charge of all musical events at the Lobkowicz residences as well as the house orchestra. In later life, he also served as manager of the Vienna Court Theater and the Theater an der Wien. Wranitzky was a fruitful composer and most of his music rests in manuscript in the Lobkowicz archives. That is also true for the present quartet, part of a set of six called "Concertante Quartets." Again as with Krommer, the "concertante" element holds true for all instruments, not only for the violin as was later the case with composers as Viotti or Paganini. The F major quartet is one of two which has four movements. The first movement is a classical sonata form with a relatively short development section; the slow movement has a tripartite scheme; the minuetto stands in third position and is followed by a finale in rondo form. The quartet (as are the others) is characterized by fresh invention and quick and witty themes. The flawless instrumentation also shows that a lot of care has been lavished on this quartet.
Recording listened to: Martinu Quartet on Matous (World Premiere Recording)
9. Luigi Boccherini, String Quartet in F major Op. 64/1 G.248 (1804)
With about 90 original string quartets (and about ten adaptations), Luigi Boccherini had an even higher string quartet production than Haydn, over the years 1761 to 1804 - although Boccherini really left his mark on another genre, that of the string quintet. Like Haydn, he didn't complete his last set, Op. 64, as he died when writing his 91st quartet (Op. 64 No 2) of which only the first movement was finished. Op. 64 No 1 is the last quartet Boccherini completed, and - like the last completed quartets by Haydn and Mozart, it happens to be in F Major. It is dedicated to Boccherini's patron Lucien Bonaparte (the younger brother of Napoleon), who at that time was French ambassador in Madrid. The quartet is in three movements, perhaps because of its French destination. In the first movement, just before the recapitulation, Boccherini briefly quotes the well-known fandango from his cello quintet from 1788 (which was also arranged for a quintet of guitar and strings in 1798). The rocking Adagio non tanto has a romantic character, and the finale is in a vivid, dance-like mode.
Recording listened to: Quartetto d'Archi di Venezia on Dynamic (with other quartets by Boccherini).
10. Luigi Cherubini, String Quartet No 1 in E flat Major (1814, pub. 1836)
Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) was born in Florence and studied at the conservatories in Bologna and Milan. In 1788 he moved to Paris and from that time he spent his life in France. He served as director of the Paris Conservatory from 1822 until his death and was regarded as one of France's leading musicians. His most significant compositions are operas and sacred music, although he also wrote a symphony and six string quartets. Those quartets were mostly written near the end of his life, between 1829 and 1837, but the First Quartet dates already from 1814. It is a work of complete mastery. In the heroic key of E Flat major, it begins with a serious adagio introduction, after which it exhibits three thematic groups, a thorough grasp of sonata form and a real dramatic quality. The second theme seems to anticipate the idée fixe from Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique. The second movement draws on the variation form. With its striking dotting the theme of this movement refers back to the introduction to the first movement. It is followed by four variations. The impassioned third movement is characterized by "Spanish flair" (the trio is a stylized fandango). It is very different from the scherzo movements written by, for example, Beethoven. The fourth movement Finale again harks back to themes from the first movement, but now in a more carefree manner. Like some quartets by Mozart, this work by Cherubini has decided operatic overtones, but at the same time, it remains "classical" in the sense that it is not a "quatuor brilliant" (a virtuoso quartet with the emphasis on the first violin, almost like a small violin concerto), as written by contemporaries as Spohr, Viotti and Paganini.
Recording listened to: Hausmusik London on CPO (with Sixth Quartet; period instruments).
11. Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet No. 16 in F Major Op 135 (1826)
Beethoven wrote 16 string quartets (17, if we include the Grosse Fuge as a separate quartet) between 1799 and 1826, and his quartets are regarded as the "ultimate" in string quartet writing, as the highest benchmark. As all Beethoven's quartets (including the early ones) are masterworks, it is difficult to choose - as I have selected "last quartets" by Mozart and Haydn, I will do the same with Beethoven - and coincidentally, also Beethoven's last Quartet No 16 Op 135 is in F Major. It is one of the so-called "late quartets" (quartets 12 to 16, written in 1825 and 1826) which are so advanced that contemporaries called them "undecipherable horrors" (Spohr), but Beethoven wrote for posterity - and after his death these quartets would be considered as the greatest ever written. Among the five, the last quartet stands out for its conciseness and humor. The first movement is an Allegretto, and its playful nature is emphasized by abrupt melodic and harmonic shifts and frequent interruptions in mid-phrase. The second movement is a Scherzo, in which this unpredictability is continued: the movement abounds in rhythmical asymmetry, sudden modulations and comical "gagging" of the melodies. The slow movement, Lento assai cantante e tranquillo, is a theme with four variations, serene music that only briefly slips into a dark mood in the second variation (in C sharp minor). The finale was called by Beethoven "The difficult decision" but this apparently doesn't concern a big life question: according to the composer himself, it is tongue-in-cheek about the return of a loan (or is it?). In this same vein, in the introduction the cello and viola seem to ask the ominous question "Muss es sein?" (Must it be?), which is next answered when the Allegro proper starts in F Major with "Es muss sein!" (It must be!). It is a high-spirited, but also whimsical movement.
Recording listened to: Alban Berg Quartet on EMI Digital (with Quartet Op 127).
12. Franz Schubert, String Quartet No 15 in G Major D887 (1826)
Franz Schubert wrote 15 quartets, but only the last three (in A Minor, 1824, in D Minor, also 1824, nicknamed "Death and the Maiden," and the present one) are mature masterpieces. Interestingly, Schubert wrote his last quartet, in G, in the same year that Beethoven wrote his last quartets, both working in the same city of Vienna. Schubert amplified the quartet in a different way from Beethoven: like in his great C Major symphony, he opts for a vastness of scope and lyricism that is almost Brucknerian. The present quartet has an orchestral breath and wide sweep, making it one of the most difficult to perform. It begins interestingly with a soft chord of G Major that then while it swells in volume turns into G Minor. The ensuing thematic material shows a dramatic interplay of light and shade, all the time permeated by this major / minor shift. In the elegiac Andante the main theme is given to the cello; it has been said to foreshadow the sadness of the wanderer in Winterreise. The music is punctuated by violent outbursts and march-like unison sections, before ending in resignation. With its repeated notes, the light-textured Scherzo brings some emotional relief, before the dramatic mood of the first movement returns in the ambiguous finale - the bustling surface can't hide the shadows and uncertainties which remain to the end. This is truly astonishing music.
Recording listened to: Alban Berg Quartet on EMI.
13. Johann Wenzel Kalliwoda, String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 61 (pub. 1835)
Johann Wenzel Kalliwoda (1801-1866) was born in Prague where he studied the violin at the Conservatory. In 1822, he became Kapellmeister in Donaueschingen, in the Black Forest, where he was in charge of all the court's music, including the local choir. Kalliwoda was a prolific composer, of operas, symphonies, concert overtures, piano concertos, church music, etc. In recent years, his music, which is full of melodic appeal and rhythmic energy, has been rehabilitated and his symphonies and other works have been recorded. He has been called the "missing link" between Beethoven and Schumann. Kalliwoda wrote three string quartets, at the request of the music publisher Peters in Leipzig. In a period that the quartet brilliant was dominant (he wrote these works contemporaneous with quartets from Cherubini, Donizetti, Spohr and Mendelssohn), the publisher gave the express instruction that these quartets should be "non-concertant for the first violin, with the music neatly divided up among the instruments." The result is a set of light quartets that were suitable as house music. The first quartet starts with a classical sonata form Allegro moderato that begins with all instruments in unisono, playing a characteristic rising leap during a descending passage. The development section is opened by a Mazurka theme. The lyrical Adagio has been called reminiscent of the Andante cantabile in Mozart's Dissonance Quartet (K465). The stunning Scherzo is played almost entirely pizzicato, making this the first quartet to use this technique so extensively. The spirit of Czech folk music hovers over the trio, with its drone bass effects. The final Vivace is built around a lively dance-like melody, which appears in various guises.
Recording listened to: Talich Quartet on Harmonia Mundi (with Quartets No 2 and 3)
14. Gaetano Donizetti, String Quartet No 18 in E Minor (1836)
Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) was a leading Italian composer of the bel canto opera style during the first half of the nineteenth century. He wrote 75 operas, but he also wrote music in a number of other forms, including 16 symphonies, 18 string quartets, 193 songs, 3 oratorios, 28 cantatas, sonatas, some string quintets, piano trios, and an octet for winds and strings. And these non-opera compositions were no youthful sins: the present quartet, Donizetti's last one, was composed in 1836, when the composer was 39, and his style had completely matured. Like Donizetti's other quartets, the work in question is written in an operatic and dramatic style, but one which is not unsuited for the medium. The first movement is an exciting Allegro that Donizetti re-used as overture to his later opera Linda di Chamounix. A military beat repeated throughout is a sort of "force of destiny" sign. The religiously-sounding Adagio may have been influenced by the fact that the composer's parents had died only recently. This is followed by a lively Minuetto with a trio section including a violin solo that resembles a bravura aria. The captivating Finale is an energetic polacca. The quartet may have been written with Donizetti's wife Virginia in mind, who was a fine violinist.
Recording listened to: The Revolutionary Drawing Room on CPO (with Quartets No 16 and 17; period instruments).
15. Robert Schumann, String Quartet Op. 41 No 2 in F Major (1842)
1842 was Schumann's "chamber music year," in which among other works he wrote his great Piano Quintet Op. 44. This year the composer also executed his long-held plan to write a series of string quartets, after making a deep study of scores by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. This resulted in the three quartets Op. 41, in A Minor, F Major and A Major. The last one is by far the most popular (and indeed has a beautifully melancholy first movement); but as the second one suffers from being the Cinderella among the three, we will discuss that one here. The opening Allegro vivace is in watertight sonata form, but also fuses optimism with tenderness. The feathery music just floats along. Then comes an F Minor slow movement intriguingly worked as variations on an impalpable, shifting theme, with an appropriate hint of sadness. The dance-like C Minor Scherzo is quite effective and features a fresh-sounding Trio. The finale shows Schumann in an exuberant mood, with light and sunny music.
Recording listened to: Eroica Quartet on Harmonia Mundi (period instruments)
16. Felix Mendelssohn, String Quartet in F minor Op 80 (1847)
Mendelssohn published six string quartets, of which the last four are the best. I opt for the last one, his elegy for his composer-sister, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, a statement of deep grief, rare for such a fundamentally happy man as Mendelssohn seems to have been. But Mendelssohn had been very close to his sister and her sudden death gave him a blow from which he never fully recovered - he himself would be dead only a year later, at age 38. The first movement is a weird combination of Sturm-und-Drang and Schubertian lyricism. Passages of almost frightening dramatic intensity follow on sections of idyllic calm, demonstrating a disturbed state of mind. The following Allegro assai also is not a Midsummer Night's Dream-like scherzo, but rather an angry outburst unlike anything Mendelssohn wrote. Vicious and dark, it is inspired by a true sense of terror. The deeply felt Adagio, finally, brings some repose, in the form of melancholic acceptance, but is again far removed from the composer's Lieder ohne Worte (which usually inform his slow movements). The Finale continues with more stormy passions where the opening movement left off. The agony of raw and painful despair ends in a distraught coda, without any light, like angry fist-shaking. Mendelssohn had always been a master of agitated music, but in this final quartet he reaches an abstract quality, almost removed from melodic inspiration. No wonder that one seldom hears this shocking work.
Recording listened to: The Coull String Quartet on Hyperion (with quartets in E Flat Major and E Minor).
17. Carl Czerny, String Quartet in A Minor (early 1850s)
Carl Czerny (1791-1857) was born in Vienna of Bohemian parents and at age ten became a pupil of Beethoven. At age fifteen, Czerny became a piano teacher and educator himself, and that is how he is still known today, thanks to the many solo exercises and textbooks he wrote for piano students. His most famous pupil was Franz Liszt. His pedagogic work was not unprofitable, either, and it is possible that Czerny didn't want to harm his "profile" by publishing other works of which he didn't know how his contemporaries would react to them. For as in recent time has been discovered, in his later years Czerny wrote various symphonies, string quartets and sacred works apparently "for the drawer" - another explanation is, of course, that he may have been preparing to publish them, but was prevented doing so by his death. However it may have been, we have between 20 and 40 string quartets by Czerny (the number is not yet certain, as research into Czerny's manuscripts is still continuing). Two quartets were performed in 2002 at the first Czerny Music Festival; the Sheridan Quartet has recorded those two plus two more. All four quartets are of solid high quality, showing a natural command of the genre. I have here selected the A Minor Quartet, which starts with a strangely foreboding first movement reminiscent of Mendelssohn. The second movement is a warmly romantic Adagio espressivo. The Scherzo features a charming Trio that is evocative of Schubert's Viennese idiom. As also the Finale shows, this masterful quartet can effortlessly coexist with the famous quartet literature of the era.
Recording listened to: Sheridan Ensemble on Capriccio (with String Quartets in A Minor, D Minor and E Minor).
18. Joseph Joachim Raff, String Quartet No 1 Op 77 in D Minor (1855)
Swiss-born Raff (1822-1882) was basically self-taught. He wanted to study with Mendelssohn, but after the sudden death of that composer, ended up working as amanuensis for Liszt - Raff orchestrated several of Liszt's symphonic poems. Just around the time the present quartet was written Raff went his own way. He took a neutral position in the German musical world which in his time was divided into the New German School of Liszt and Wagner, and the classicists around Brahms (going back to Mendelssohn and Schumann), which meant - as it goes in this world - that he was vilified by both. Unfortunately, he was not a virtuoso and neither did he have a secure teaching position, so he had to live from his pen as a composer, which meant he had to write lots of salon pieces - and for that, he was vilified by later generations, who unjustly branded all his music as trivial. Raff wrote eight string quartets. The First Quartet is usually considered as his best, written when he was only 33. It is a passionate and dramatic piece, as if forecasting the quartets of Brahms. The first movement is dark and brooding, with a strongly flowing melody. The Scherzo floats along joyfully and breathlessly. The slow movement again has a strongly brooding character, it is sometimes even compared to Wolf or the Schoenberg of Verklärte Nacht. It also has orchestral dimensions. The overall impression is one of desperate sadness and loneliness. The finale scurries along amid kaleidoscopic contrapuntal passages, although after the great third movement there is something forced about its exuberance and frenetic pace. But this quartet is a tour de force all the same.
Recording listened to: Quartetto di Milano on Tudor (with quartet No 7).
[Incorporates some information from the CD sleeve notes, Wikipedia, etc. Special mention should be made of the interesting study The String Quartet, A History by Paul Griffiths (Thames and Hudson: Bath, 1985). All images linked from Wikipedia. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed)]
Posts about classical music include:
- Best Cello Concertos
- Best Cello Sonatas
- Best Works for Oboe
- Best Works for Viola
- Best Flute Concertos
- Unique Symphonies from the 19th Century
- Eccentric Symphonies by 20th Century Cult Composers (1) - Scriabin, Ives & Langaard
- Eccentric Symphonies from 20th Century Cult Composers (2) - Havergal Brian & Matthijs Vermeulen