A string quartet
is a group of four string musical instruments
or a piece written to be performed by such a group.
Although any combination of string instruments may be called a "string quartet", in practice, the term almost always refers to a group consisting of two violins, one viola and one cello. This combination of instruments is widely seen as one of the most important forms in chamber music, with most major composers writing string quartets.
The form first came to be used around the middle of the 18th century, Joseph Haydn being one of the first composers to develop it. Indeed, he is often referred to as "the father of the string quartet" (as well as being called "the father of the symphony"). Haydn played his compositions in a string quartet of which Mozart was also a member.
Many other chamber groups can be seen as modifications of the string quartet, such as the piano quintet, which is a string quartet with an added piano; the string quintet, which is a string quartet with an extra viola or cello; the string trio, which is a string quartet with only one violin; and the piano quartet, a string quartet with one of the violins replaced by a piano.
A piece of music for string quartet may be in any form, but if it is simply String Quartet (with or without a subtitle) it is usually in four movements, with a large-scale structure similar to that of a symphony.
Pieces have been written for string quartet by many composers, among them:
- Milton Babbitt wrote five abstract, densely serialistic quartets in the mid-20th century
- Béla Bartók - wrote six string quartets widely regarded as being the finest quartets of the first half of the 20th century
- Ludwig van Beethoven - wrote sixteen quartets regarded as among the finest quartets by any composer.
- Alban Berg - wrote one String Quartet plus the Lyric Suite for string quartet, which influenced Bartók.
- Johannes Brahms - wrote three string quartets in the 1860s and 1870s
- Benjamin Britten - wrote three numbered string quartets (1941, 1945 and 1975) plus two early unnumbered ones (1928 and 1931) and a number of other works for string quartet (such as the three Divertimenti, 1933).
- Claude Debussy - wrote just one string quartet in 1893.
- Antonin Dvorak - wrote fourteen string quartets, with number twelve, the American, the best known
- Joseph Haydn - wrote sixty-eight string quartets (some of which he called Divertimenti), the last incomplete, plus Die Sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze (The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross), a sequence of eight slow movement plus a brief, rapid, finale (originally written for orchestra, but probably better known in its version for string quartet).
- Leoš Janáček - wrote two string quartets, known as The Kreutzer Sonata and Intimate Letters.
- Felix Mendelssohn - wrote six numbered string quartets, plus a number of other works, none of them amongst his better known pieces
- Darius Milhaud - wrote eighteen, the fourteenth and fifteenth of which may be played as an octet.
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - wrote twenty-three string quartets, including the six so-called Haydn quartets (1782-85), generally reckoned to be his best.
- Sergei Prokofiev - wrote two string quartets (1930 and 1941).
- Maurice Ravel - wrote one string quartet (1903).
- Arnold Schoenberg - wrote four numbered string quartets, the second of which includes a part for soprano. Also composed an early, unnumbered, string quartet.
- Franz Schubert - traditionally reckoned to have written fifteen string quartets. The Death and the Maiden and Rosamunde quartets are particularly well known.
- Robert Schumann - wrote three string quartets (opus number 41), not among his better known works.
- Dmitri Shostakovich - wrote fifteen string quartets, often seen as being as significant, but more "private", works than his fifteen symphonies.
- Bedrich Smetana - wrote two string quartets, with the first, From My Life, the better known.
- Michael Tippett - wrote five numbered string quartets plus two unnumbered youthful works.
- William Walton - wrote two string quartets (1922 and 1947)
- Anton Webern - his String Quartet is composed using the twelve tone technique
For the purposes of performance, groups of string players sometimes group together to make ad hoc string quartets. Other groups continue playing together for many years, sometimes changing their members but retaining their name. Well known string quartets include: