The gang of four, discoursing melodically and harmonically within the gamut of some five octaves, was a relatively late response to the acoustic properties of the violin family. Once formed, however, a couple of centuries ago, it acquired within our culture a more-than-musical resonance, comparable with the development potential of the novel, the intimacy of the still-life, the proportionality of Georgian domestic architecture, the numinosity of Cranmer’s collects. People who have discovered or been brought up with the string quartet, as listeners but above all as players, generally regard themselves as blessed in this life, and possibly in the next too. Yet outside newspaper and magazine concert notices, usually starved for space or time or both, and outside concert-programme analyses of works to be played, sustained reflection on the composition and performance of quartets is for the most part confined to studies of individual composers, and there overshadowed by discussion of operas, symphonies and other large-scale works. As far as society at large is concerned, all serious music nowadays obeys its own rules, perpetuates its own traditions and keeps its own counsel, to an extent which other generations would have found surprising. Interesting comments on quartet performance are to be found in the music criticism of George Bernard Shaw and Ezra Pound, to name two writers whose main preoccupations lay elsewhere. But in our own day almost all composition, and much performance, is virtually invulnerable to non-specialist critique.
Paul Griffiths, who has already reached the C major of this life by becoming in his mid-thirties the chief music critic of the Times, himself specialises in 20th-century music. His useful short book on Ligeti appears almost simultaneously with this more substantial history of the string-quartet form, which concentrates on the structure of the works composed by familiar and less familiar names at different periods. Form and tonal relationships leave him little room for exploration of performance styles, instrumental coloration, and concert or domestic practice. The book also steers clear of almost all social, economic and cultural issues and changes that might be held to cast light on quartet ‘history’. Under faintly twee chapter headings (‘Theme: Stravinsky or Bartok; Variation 1: Schoenberg and the Serial Quartet’) we are brought to the near-present of the slap-wood school of composition; of Elliott Carter’s Third Quartet, which summons electronic aids not for the instruments but for the actual ears of the players; and of Shostakovich’s Fifteenth, which could fairly be nicknamed ‘the apotheosis of the adagio’ – all six movements have this marking. Generous music examples are arranged in keyboard score for easy reading at the piano by those for whom the viola clef remains an impenetrable mystery.
Mr Griffiths’s scholarly focus and erudition do not deter him from making some remarkably bold assertions. ‘If Haydn had never existed,’ he writes, ‘we probably would not be listening to string quartets of any kind.’ This is surely unhistorical. Not that the remark overrates Haydn as a composer or as an influence on subsequent composers from that day to this. Haydn’s creative originality, technical skill and sensitivity to social as well as musical change owe something to his span of years, which nearly doubled Beethoven’s and more than trebled Mozart’s careers as adult composers. Mozart admitted how hard he had to work to keep up with Haydn, his friend and contemporary, in the quartet form that Haydn had made his own. Beethoven was less explicit about acknowledging debts because his own daimon had to try harder to escape them, but the signs of Haydn’s paternity are perceptible in his quartets just the same. The satanic, scherzoid, totally undanceable ‘minuet’ of Haydn’s Op. 77, No 1 in G major anticipates not just early but late Beethoven.
Yet it is a large step to pass from this reading of the quartet-writers’ genealogical tree before and after 1800 to an assumption that, without Haydn, no similar seedling would have taken root in soil so fertile. William Weber in his Music and the Middle Class (1975) quotes two pertinent comments by different writers about Austrian society in the 1820s and 1830s:
To play is their pride, and in that consists chiefly the education of the middle class.
A gentleman wishing for a quartet or quintet in the evening walks out in the morning for the purpose of inviting any friends he may chance to meet; and as the slightest acquaintance is sufficient, no difficulty occurs.
That taste for instrumental music and ad hoc parties had been growing for half a century. Moreover, the greatest composers are usually conservatives before they are innovators. Schoenberg’s charming early D major quartet is as euphonious as Dvořák, and belongs audibly to the first Viennese school, not the second. The same conservative-turned-revolutionary once wrote an essay in celebration of the revolutionary tendencies he perceived in the supposedly conservative Brahms. Haydn did not invent the separate elements out of which late 18th and early 19th-century string quartets are formed: classical style, sonata form, the civilisation of the dance, and the particular sonority obtainable from the nuclear string family (violin, viola, cello), once the keyboard continuo, essential to Baroque style, had become an optional extra in chamber and symphonic music alike.
Given this nexus of mutually supporting circumstance during the half-century that elapsed between the withering of the continuo and the rise of the romantic piano, it is hardly conceivable that no composer capable of influencing musical history would have managed to find his way down Haydn’s path. Haydn’s contribution was rather to beat this path down so firm that it was difficult for successors – even at first Mozart and Beethoven – to remain altogether their own men when they put pen to the four staves of a quartet. It is possible – just – that Mozart would never have proceeded beyond the gawky quartets of his teens but for the revelation of embryo dialectic he found in Haydn’s Op. 20 and Op. 33 sets. After all, he put on record his sense of struggle in writing the mature set which he dedicated to Haydn, and also the later, cello-centred set which he was financially obliged to write for the cellist king of Prussia. But people who notice this usually forget that neither early nor late in his life did Mozart make any complaint about the labour it cost him to create masterpieces in the closely allied string-quintet form, with a second viola enriching string-quartet texture. Besides, his single, dazzling late string trio also took him into a much more difficult form than either quartets or quintets, as Beethoven’s rather heavy-footed early ventures into it prove: discourse and manoeuvre in the middle of the texture is hard to achieve, and the viola is cumbered with much harmonic infilling. It is a weakness in a book full of daring and pregnant remarks about quartets that it glances neither to the right nor to the left, at what happens in the work of different composers when a single instrument is added to or subtracted from the gang of four.
However, Griffiths’s suggestive throw-aways about quartets themselves go far to justify his subtitle: the book does constitute a ‘history’ as well as an exercise in musicological erudition, albeit a history of musical ideas on the page and in the ear rather than of the ways in which these ideas were shaped by flesh-and-blood composers to the needs of different musicians, professional and amateur, in various times and places. Even his final paragraphs constitute a fruitfully imperfect cadence, allowing room for more to be said:
Only music which has stayed sealed can properly speak of its age, and so a true history of the string quartet ought perhaps to begin with the works of Asplmayr and F.X. Dusek, for as long as these remain untainted by contemporary performance and experience, and work its way through finally to Mozart and Carter, Bartok and Haydn as our contemporaries.
Nor is there any conflict here with Boulez’s view of the composition of a quartet as ‘a thing of the past’. All great quartets belong in the present, because all are being played now, but they all too cast back to a time when the quartet was invented as a natural compositional activity ... The constitution of the ensemble, uniquely in the history of music, has not changed: it would be possible to imagine the Haydn-Dittersdorf-Mozart-Vanhal quartet sitting down to tackle Carter or Xenakis ... They might feel that the old ideals were more easily to be discovered in other genres now: perhaps in such works of live electronic music as the Kurzwellen of Karlheinz Stockhausen, wherein the composer even increases collective responsibility by providing not musical material but a process of change in which the musicians ‘call out to each other, issue invitations, so that together they can observe a single event passing amongst them for a stretch of time, letting it shrink and grow, bundling it up and spreading it out, darkening it and brightening it, condensing it and losing it in embellishments’.
But Haydn and his colleagues might well remark too on the continuity of the quartet, the permanence of its two most distinctive modes – the socially witty and the personally profound – and the way any new quartet looks not only to its performers and audience but also in a third direction, to the world of musical intelligence ...
As we have seen, string-quartet style coalesced with singular speed in a society which yielded not only conspicuous musical intelligence but also a penumbra of performers and participators – the gentlemen who walked out in the morning in search of companions for a quartet in the evening. The trough of this wave, as Griffiths duly records, brought a reaction. The repertory ossified as the hectic climate for its development cooled. The quartet, quite unlike the concerto and the symphony in the 19th century, became ‘the natural territory of the status quo’, and only really began to recover with Bartok in the 20th – when it was another once-popular chamber medium that became a dead letter: the piano trio, slain by a thousand palm court ensembles. (Ezra Pound perceived Schubert’s great B flat trio as ‘a weeping camembert’.)
Even so, in a century which has seen fine quartets written all over Europe and professional ensembles multiplying on concert platforms, most groups of amateur players today, as in Schumann’s time, are quite content for Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven to fill four-fifths of the time they can spare for quartet-playing, in lives harder pressed for leisure than those of the bourgeoisie in post-Congress Vienna. This predilection is mirrored in the choices which local chamber music societies make for concerts after scanning the repertoire submitted to them by professional performers – even internationally famous groups who could cope with almost any music they cared to attempt. It is still easy to reconstruct in our ears the Kneisel Quartet evening that provoked Charles Ives to his own second, turbulent string quartet: ‘A whole evening of mellifluous sounds, perfect cadences, perfect ladies, perfect programmes, and not a dissonant cuss word to stop the anaemia and the beauty during the whole evening.’
It is too readily assumed that the reasons for this conservatism – beside which the South Bank programmes of the main London orchestras look positively adventurous – are rooted in the technical problems set by Romantic and contemporary quartets, which seem to assume professional performers sat down in front of a large audience, just as many pictures assume galleries rather than domestic interiors. The opposite is arguably true. Classical quartet-writing assumed from the beginning a florid virtuosity in the uppermost part. Haydn could depend upon this in his violinists Tommasini and Tost at Esterhazy, and long before Beethoven started to write works that the professional Schuppanzigh Quartet could barely play, Haydn was writing sets of quartets with an eye to Salomon’s performances at public concerts in London. Any quartet ensemble whose musicality is superior to its deficient or rusty technique is likely to sound better in Shostakovich Five or Six, say. Moreover, the unexpectedly large cohort of British young people which over the past decade has been trained to play stringed instruments to professional standards is likely to pass out of the taxing and insecure music profession and in its middle years choose more leisurely walks of life. The conditions of Vienna one hundred and fifty years ago will then be approached more nearly, and it will be surprising if music is not written – and more efficiently distributed – to meet the demand.
The medium of the string quartet has proved able to accommodate modes of expression ranging from the anaerobic effects (on the players) of Heinz Holliger’s quartet and the wrecking techniques of Maurice Kagel’s, to rarefied heights of erotic passion and ambivalence (Berg’s Lyric Suite, Janáček’s Intimate Letters, Britten’s Third Quartet perhaps). Quartets are unlikely to expire as easily as Boulez suggested, as long as they remain the sensitised plates of music, uniquely transparent to the cultures which create and perform them. They faded from view during the high noon of Romantic individualism and of its chief instrumental tool, Ezra Pound’s detested ‘pye-ano’. Once a feeling for teamwork returned to the arts – a feeling still deficient in French musical culture, and correspondingly prominent in America – string quartets became again a natural mode for those musicians who are disciplined to perceive finer nuances of sound than large halls and big bands permit, and who discover a knack for asserting and submerging their personalities almost in the same breath. Perhaps this dual mode of participation is the player’s proper reply to the extraordinary quality Charles du Bos, in Extraits d’un Journal, discerned in the greatest of all quartet-writers:
Ce qui me frappait tant en ce moment dans la musique de chambre de Beethoven, c’est qu’à l’épanchement le plus profond, le plus intérieur de l’émotion, s’allie une souveraine noblesse, par où, sans jamais ‘dominer’ ses émotions (au sens un peu factice du terme), Beethoven se trouve toujours maintenu légèrement au-dessus de chacune d’elles ... Beethoven est comme à la fois au centre et à la cime.