The string quartet as we know it today was originally conceived in the Baroque era, however it was mostly due to the work of Joseph Haydn one hundred years later that it became an entire genre of its own. Much like the symphony, for which he is generally credited, his sixty-eight quartets molded the form that would be imitated and expanded upon by generations of composers to follow. Symphonic music required considerable forces, and tended to represent large musical ideas and concepts conveyed to a listener, while string quartets were written primarily for the enjoyment of the players themselves, and were marked for the intimacy and dialogue between the four instrumentalists.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s String Quartet No. 23 in F Major, K. 590 was the last of the twenty-three quartets he wrote during his brief lifetime. His works reflect the influence of “Papa” Haydn, who greatly admired the young Mozart’s talent and compositions. Although stories of Mozart studying under Haydn tend to be exaggerated, it is clear that Mozart held considerable respect for his elder, such that Mozart dedicated a set of six early string quartets to Haydn.
In 1789, Mozart was already a well-established composer in his own right, working under the patronage of the highest level of nobility. The Quartet in F Major marks the third of the so-called “Prussian” quartets, so named because they were commissioned by the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II. The King was clearly an accomplished cellist, as is evidenced in extensive solo passages for that instrument in this work.
The quartet is a culmination of Classical form. The structure of the work follows particular guidelines laid down by Haydn and later expanded by Mozart: four movements with contrasting tempi and styles. The first movement is written in sonata form, which is a three-part structure that expands upon two contrasting themes. The second movement is a binary structure that presents several variations on the simple rhythm that opens the movement. The third movement minuet and trio follows the Classical tradition of including a movement based upon a dance common to the period. The final fast movement is in rondo form, which is marked by the repeated return to a refrain-like musical theme. Note the dialogue between the instruments and witty use of sudden pauses in the music.
Despite the sunny nature of the work, this period marked a period of financial distress and instability for Mozart. The commission failed to bring in the hoped-for sum of money, and he was forced to sell the works for such a low fee that he wrote to a friend: “Now I am forced to give away my quartets (that laborious work) for a trifling sum just in order to get my hands on some money.” They were ultimately published shortly after the composer’s death in 1791.
Over the next hundred years of compositional history, the string quartet came to be regarded as the highest expression of the composer’s art. The sound of four string players blend together in such a way as to express an intimacy that can not be reproduced by any other ensemble. This immediacy in sound lends itself to an expression of the deepest interior emotions and struggles. It is with no surprise, then, that Leoš Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters” deals with the most profound of human experiences: Love itself.
Janáček was a Czech composer, teacher and organist. His long career was marked by skepticism and repeated rejection, until he was finally recognized in the final decades of his life as the truly remarkable composer he was. His music is often viewed as very individual and highly personal. His output for chamber music was quite small, with only two string quartets to his name. Like the Mozart quartet, “Intimate Letters” was written in the final years of the composer’s life and marks the final work he completed.
This quartet is autobiographical in nature, and was termed Janáček’s “manifesto on love” by the composer himself. It reflects on the decade-long relationship he had with Kamila Stösslová, a woman thirty-eight years his junior, who had a profound impact on the compositional output of Janáček, leading him to write what are universally acclaimed as his masterworks. Although Janáček and Stösslová were both married to other people, Janáček corresponded with her almost obsessively, sending almost 700 love letters by his death. This relationship seems to have been somewhat one-sided, as there are only a handful of letters surviving from Kamila, and they convey a woman who seemed to care neither for the man or his music, but did nothing to discourage the infatuation of her admirer. This distance did not seem to dissuade the elder Janáček, who fashioned and dedicated his greatest works to her.
Like the letters for which it is named, the composition is characterized by sudden outbursts of passion, marking the struggles of his affection for his muse. Long soaring lines are punctuated by sharp interjections with rapid shifts in mood. The role of Kamila herself is assumed quite prominently throughout the work by the viola. The four movements convey the difficulty of his formal marriage after the death of his only two children, and the joys and torment of his unrequited love. The second movement is a “vision” of Kamila giving birth to his son as he considers their imaginary future life together. As the composer wrote about this work: “This is my first composition which sprang forth immediately from an emotional experience I had just lived through. Formerly I used to compose my memories. This work, my ‘Intimate Letters’, acquired shape in fire, the former ones in hot ashes only.”
Much like the Mozart and Janáček, Robert Schumann’s String Quartet in A Major, Op. 41. No. 3 marks the final expression of the composer’s output for the medium. However, this work dates from the middle of Schumann’s career, during what has been termed “The Chamber Music Year”. 1842 marked a departure for Schumann, who had until that time focused almost exclusively on literature for the piano or voice. The three string quartets that make up his Opus 41 were written at a feverish pace, with this work being composed in less than two weeks that summer.
Schumann had intended to write string quartets for several years, and devoted significant time to studying the output for the genre by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven before commencing the undertaking. All three works show a profound influence of those who came before, with the goal of exploring and expanding upon the forms and structures laid down by his predecessors.
The first movement brings us once again to the sonata form, but with a very different character than Mozart’s late quartet. It opens with a somewhat dreamy introduction followed by the statement of the lyrical theme that will make up the focus of development throughout the movement. Schumann breaks with the tradition of the interplay between two contrasting themes that is characteristic of the music merely a generation before. The second movement is a set of theme and variations, with the twist that the theme occurs after the variations. The third movement does not present a dance movement, but instead a long and lyrical Adagio that highlights Schumann’s gift for melody and extensive experience writing for the voice. The passion and lyricism in this slow movement is characteristic of what came to define the Romantic era of music. The final movement is similar to the Mozart quartet in that we return once more to the rondo form. The jaunty dotted theme is treated with a nod to the Classical form, presenting thirteen clearly delineated episodes ever returning to the refrain, but in a break with tradition, it is presented in a new key virtually every time. The movement finishes with a coda that returns to the theme one more time, building to an energetic finale which serves as Schumann’s last word on the genre.