In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section String Quartet

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Reference Works
  • Origins and Early History

Music String Quartet
Robin Stowell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0183


The term “string quartet” normally denotes either an ensemble of four string players—usually two violinists, a violist, and a cellist—or a work composed for performance by such an ensemble. The quartet genre evolved from various sources during the early 18th century, developed rapidly in its second half, and became one of the most favored for informal domestic music making. It especially blossomed into a reputable art form when all four voices were given individuality and equality, as in many of Haydn’s sixty-eight quartets, which, wide-ranging in style, also demonstrate that the genre moved between the private chamber and public concert hall. Mozart’s six quartets dedicated to Haydn reflect the influence of Haydn’s Op. 33 set; Haydn, in turn, learned much from them. Numerous other contemporaries developed the genre in various styles, most being based in Vienna, Paris, or Madrid. Beethoven was almost thirty before he composed his six quartets Op. 18, but the genre was to feature prominently throughout the remainder of his life, take giant progressive strides in his Opp. 59, 74, and 95, and peak with his “late quartets,” which reflect his rich but often troubled inner life in a complex language of striking profundity. Quartet performance particularly began to thrive from around 1830 with the establishment of professional ensembles and chamber music societies, but the momentum of quartet composition slowed somewhat in the second half of the 19th century. Beethoven’s preeminence weighed heavily on the shoulders of his successors, among them Schubert, Spohr, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms, and stifled the development of some native traditions, notably in Italy. Yet it nurtured others, especially those of Russia, Scandinavia, and the Czech lands, where folk music played an important role. Renewed interest in the string quartet was eventually cultivated by composers such as Bartók and Shostakovich; the genre’s role as the conveyor of new ideas, styles, and techniques, notably in the works of the Second Viennese School; and its broadened scope to embrace the voice, percussion, and electronic instruments. Fertile quartet traditions began to emerge in several European countries, the Americas, Asia, and Australasia. Performance standards were enhanced by increased professionalization, developing concert opportunities, improved travel, and the demands of the broadcasting and recording industries. Later in the 20th century, specialist groups emerged alongside traditional ensembles, some focusing on the performance of contemporary and avant-garde quartets, and others on historically informed performance.

General Overviews

Recent overall histories of the string quartet include Krummacher 2005, which is arguably the most comprehensive, and Fournier and Kassap-Riefensthal 2000–2010, which proves especially detailed from a French perspective. Griffiths 1983 and Stowell 2003 have become standard literature on the subject. Duteurtre 1995 concentrates on works by French composers, and Mersmann 1930–1933, still of current value, has a notable German perspective. Baron 1998 and Tranchefort 1989 consider string quartets in the context of other chamber music genres.

  • Baron, John Herschel. Intimate Music: A History of the Idea of Chamber Music. Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon, 1998.

    A well-documented sociological history of the background and development of chamber music, incorporating invaluable information about the string quartet and its repertory. Focuses on c. 1780–1824 for its core repertory, notably by composers of the Viennese School, but considers other prominent 19th-century contributions and the rekindling of interest in the genre in the 20th century.

  • Duteurtre, Benoît, ed. Le quatuor à cordes en France de 1750 à nos jours. Paris: Association Française pour le Patrimoine Musical, 1995.

    An essay collection tracing chronologically the genre’s history in France c. 1750–c. 1993. Contributions focus on questions of terminology, scoring, form, style, and principal influences, and cover a wide spectrum of works/composers, providing information about primary sources, their locations, and modern editions. Includes a catalogue of quartets by French musicians, with brief biographies and a discography.

  • Fournier, Bernard, and Roseline Kassap-Riefensthal. L’histoire du quatuor à cordes. 3 vols. Paris: Fayard, 2000–2010.

    A three-volume history of the string quartet, with analyses of important works by the principal composers. Volume 1 (by Fournier) covers Haydn to Brahms; Volumes 2 and 3 (dual authorship) deal respectively with the genre’s history 1870–1945 and 1945–c. 2008, respectively, introducing some lesser-known French composers as well as the major personalities.

  • Griffiths, Paul. The String Quartet: A History. London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1983.

    Traces the genre’s evolution from its origins to c. 1982 in four parts, each bearing musical/structural subheadings which themselves make up a “four-movement” work. Discusses significant quartets in historical sequence, briefly analyzing some and focusing on harmonic, structural, and style elements. Includes a useful chronology of quartets written between 1759 and 1982.

  • Krummacher, Friedhelm. Geschichte des Streichquartetts. 2d ed. 3 vols. Laaber, Germany: Laaber-Verlag, 2005.

    Originally published in two volumes (2001–2003) as Das Streichquartett. Covers the history of the genre from its origins to Schubert (Vol. 1), from Mendelssohn to approximately 2000 (Vol. 2), and in new, avant-garde approaches (Vol. 3). Uses thematic subdivisions to group composers conveniently for repertory discussion and includes numerous musical examples.

  • Mersmann, Hans. Die Kammermusik. 4 vols. Leipzig: Breitkopf and Härtel, 1930–1933.

    A survey of chamber music to c. 1930 with a German orientation. Offers a systematic assessment of structural detail, thematic development, expression, and style through history. Volumes focus respectively on repertory up to Haydn and Mozart; Beethoven; German Romantic composers; and 19th- and early-20th-century European works. Contains some outdated information, but still a useful resource.

  • Stowell, Robin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the String Quartet. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    A concise, authoritative survey of the string quartet in fifteen essays by eleven specialists. Focuses on four main areas: the social/musical background to the genre’s development; celebrated ensembles; performance and rehearsal, including aspects of contemporary and historical performing practice; and the mainstream repertory, including important “mixed ensemble” compositions involving string quartet.

  • Tranchefort, François-René, ed. Guide de la musique de chambre. Paris: Fayard, 1989.

    A useful reference work about chamber music and its composers, who are listed alphabetically. Each entry includes a short biography, a review of the music, and analytical descriptions, often with musical examples. Good glossary and index. Uneven content, but an especially useful resource regarding French composers.

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