MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Images of the String Quartet

It’s such a commonplace cliché of a cliche: the string quartet as the embodiment of “classical music” — and hence the emblem of ultra-“serious” art, by which is really meant stuffy attitudes, not substance, as the commercial images all around us present it.

But when Haydn began working with the medium he eventually standardized into the format still used today — drawing from diverse sources — much of the original impulse was simply to have musical pleasure, an occasion for the fun of it.

At least that’s the way Haydn’s first biographer spun it, portraying his focus on the string quartet as happening essentially by chance:

A baron Furnberg had a place some way outside Vienna, and he from time to time invited his pastor, his manager, Haydn, and the cellist Albrechtsberger in order to have a little music. The Baron requested Haydn to compose something that could be performed by these four amateurs. Haydn took up this proposal and so originated his first quartet, which, when it immediately appeared, received such general approval that Haydn took courage to work further in this form.

The notion of chamber music in general as a kind of musical conversation had been an ongoing metaphor in the eighteenth century. The Paris publisher who first brought Haydn’s earliest quartets into print, for example, titled them “quattuors dialogues.”

Goethe later famously codified that image of a conversation specifically to the string quartet when he remarked near the end of his life:

The string quartet is the most comprehensible genre of instrumental music. One hears four reasonable people conversing with one another and believes one might learn something from their discourse and recognize the special characters of their instruments.

Filed under: chamber music

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. John Marcher says:

    Hi Tom,

    This topic has been on my mind lately. Chamber ensembles, especially string quartets, really do need to consider this subject, or reconsider it. When I try to use their photos for the calendar on my site it pains me that most of what I see are the same stiff poses that imply “Of course we are SERIOUS musicians playing SERIOUS music!” What’s even worse are the attempts to portray them in a lighter vein, typically used by younger performers, where they attempt to look like “fun” people and just look somehwat ridiculous instead.

    I think the photographer who succeeds at capturing these musicians in “a kind of musical conversation ” will have a lot of business on his or her hands- and I look forward to that trend taking root.


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