image of 1516 woodcut depicting  Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen playing as a string quartet

Despite the 1516 woodcut shown above which depicts Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen1 playing as a string quartet, it is Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) who is generally credited with having established the string quartet. Previous composers had written works for two violins, a viola and a cello, but it was Haydn who was to impose upon the quartet the classical form which gave it so much potential.

Before Haydn, Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652) and Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) had composed works for two violins, a viola and a cello, but they were different in style, with the cello supplying the traditional accompaniment role of the "basso continuo" and they failed to inspire further works. Giovanni Battista Sammartini (c.1700-1775) also had previously composed several such works but while they were freer from the constraints of the "basso continuo" they lacked Haydn's classical structure. But even in his early works before his ideas about form had become established Haydn denied that these composers influenced him, rather he credited Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-88) as a source of inspiration. Although C.P.E. Bach never composed a string quartet, but Haydn's compositions do indeed show the same innovative irregularities that can be heard in Bach's piano works.

As Haydn progressed, although he retained his capability to surprise with an unexpected use of silence and tonality, his compositions began to show an internal order and symmetry which is now referred to as the classical style. Within this regularity Haydn's dramatic fluctuations, which he had inherited from the mannerist style, appeared not as whimsical inventions but as logical developments justified by the complete structure of the work. The perfection of the form and its inevitable consequences were the essence of the classical musical style2. Contemplated as frozen architecture a classical composition was like a Greek temple.

Starting in about 1757, the exact date remains disputed, and continuing until 1806, three years before his death, Haydn is credited with having composed 68 string quartets 3. As with his symphonies Haydn used the quartets to develop the classical style, and like the symphonies many of the quartets have been given individual names. In accordance with the then custom for chamber music 54 of the quartets were published in sets of six, and most of these sets have also acquired names, for example, the 'Sun', the 'Prussian' and the 'Apponyi'.

Joseph Haydn was not alone in composing numerous string quartets at this time. His contemporary, Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), a native of Lucca4 in Tuscany, was living and composing quartets in Madrid. In his works he too frees the cello from its traditional accompaniment role of the "basso continuo" and allows it to play in the higher ranges. Boccherini's was to compose over 90 quartets; like Hadyn's they reflect the composers' nature; they are harmonious and good humoured. But Boccherini's works contained little organic development of the musical material. This was the essence of Haydn's style and so, despite Boccherini's works being elegant and popular, it was Haydn's quartets that would provide the model for other composers. Like Mozart, Boccherini would experiment with the form of the string quartet by adding another voice, another instrument, converting it into a quintet. Mozart added a second viola to emphasis the higher range. The remarkable quintet in G minor, KV 516, one of the six quintets he composed, demonstrates the emotional depth achievable with this extended string combination. On the other hand, Boccherini, a virtuoso of the cello, chose that instrument thereby enhancing the lower range 5.

Despite Haydn's efforts to develop a rigorous style for the string quartet the compositions were received with disapproval by some of his contemporaries, who perceived in them a lack of serious content. This reflected a sentiment against instrumental music in general. It was a complaint that began in the middle of the seventeenth century when music without words began to grow in popularity. Until then vocal music had prevailed6. The assumption that music must be accompanied by words dated back to the beginning of western civilization. Plato had defined music as consisting of harmonia, rhythmos and logos and the latter, human reason, was expressed by language7. It was not necessary that the language be of words; a tone poem, a musical painting, a representation or program, could serve almost as well; but without extra-musical language instrumental music was thought to be just pleasant sounds; to lack depth. For Kant in 1790 it was 'more pleasure without culture'; an agreeable, transitional pleasure; appealing to the senses but not the reason; like wallpaper8. If music were to be a 'fine art' then, like a painting or a sculpture, it had to represent something.

But attitudes were changing rapidly at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1810, one year after Haydn's death, E. T. A. Hoffmann published what many musicologists consider the most important review in the history of music. Its subject was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, its tone philosophical, and its wide acclaim documented the acceptance of 'absolute music'. Such 'formalist' music music where its theme was it own form rather than something external (like a tree is external to a painting of a tree) - such absolute music, began now to be considered superior to music that represented or accompanied words, rather than inferior as it had been regarded by previous generations9. Embracing the philosophy of German Idealism the nineteenth century talked of absolute music's ability to transcend language and achieve revelation. And if it was the symphony, 'the opera of the instruments' in Hoffmann's phrase, that was initially the prime medium for absolute music, public concerts were soon felt to be less appropriate for contemplation than private performances. Gradually therefore the string quartet became the epitome of absolute music. As Carl Dahlhaus writes:

"Around 1870, Beethoven's quartets became the paradigm of the idea of absolute music that had been created around 1800 as a theory of the symphony: the idea that music is a revelation of the absolute, specifically because it 'dissolves' itself from the sensual, and finally even from the affective sphere."10

Schopenhauer even elevated the source of music's power to a higher plain. He argued that its power lay not in arousing emotions within the listener but was innate in the music itself: music was a representation of cosmic Will11. For Schopenhauer and his followers it was art par excellence and although absolute music was to have its opponents - amongst them Hegel and Wagner - there were many, and there still are, who were convinced of its spiritual power.

The rapid changes that were taking place to the structure of society in the nineteenth century also had consequences for music. Virtually all of Haydn's string quartets had been written in the service of Prince Paul Anton von Esterházy. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (who was to compose 29 string quartets - six of which he dedicated to Haydn) was also supported by a patron and many of his works (including the string quartets K.575, 589 and 590) were written for court occasions. Now the rise of a wealthy and literate bourgeois class produced a demand for public concerts and could finance composers and musicians. The nineteenth century saw the establishment of the first professional quartets.

Composers in that century and its sequel such as Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Smetana, Brahms, Dvorak, Borodin, Ravel, Sibelius, Debussy, Bartók would expand the string quartet repertoire considerably. Their works would lead the string quartet away from the strict classical form as they gradually explored further possibilities. But their compositions still recall Haydn's thoughts and remain manifestations of absolute music rather than musical representations. Finally between 1938 and 1974 Shostakovich would produce 15 quartets which, when viewed through the distorting lens of socialist realism, would recall the formalist debate two centuries earlier.


  1. Today Galen is less well-known than Plato, Aristotle or Hippocrates. But until the beginning of the sixteenth century his writings had been influential. Galen, the personal physician to three Roman emperors: Marcus Aurelius, Commodus and Septimius Severus, had published an account of human anatomy which became the orthodox theory for over one thousand years. His theories were based on his dissections of Barbary apes which he assumed had anatomies similarity to humans. Galen's observations that the nerves issuing from the brain and spinal chord were necessary for muscle contraction made him argue against Aristotle's contention that the soul was situated in the brain rather than in the heart.

    However Galen's influence diminished abruptly after Andreas Vesalius published De humani corporis fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body) in 1543. Unlike Galen, for whom the laws of ancient Rome forbade the dissection of humans, Vesalius could dissect the bodies of executed criminals and in doing so had noticed critical differences in the anatomies of humans and apes.

    The final blow to Galen's theories occurred in 1628 when William Harvey established that the heart acts as a pump to cause the blood circulation. back

  2. Charles Rosen's book "The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven" provides a comprehensive study, with numerous examples, of the how this style was developed by the first Vienna school. back

  3. These include the first 10, although they are strictly more divertimenti , the unfinished quartet opus 103, but not the popular quartet transcription of the orchestral work 'The Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross" opus 51. back

  4. A charming walled town lying between Florence and Pisa whose numerous summer tourists are more aware of the other composer who is its native son: Giacomo [Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria] Puccini. back

  5. If Mrs. Wilberforce in the 1955 Ealing Studios black comedy 'The Ladykillers' had been married to a musicologist rather than a seaman she might have noticed that although 'Professor' Marcus's quintet was giving a perfect rendering of Boccherini's Minuet (from his String Quintet in E, Op. 11 No. 5) it was doing so with only one cellist! back

  6. As of course it still obviously does when popular music is taken into account. back

  7. It is believed that almost all the music in Ancient Greece was vocal accompanied by stringed instruments playing the same notes of the melody. The music was therefore monodic rather than polyphonic. One of seven modes or scales would have been used, each of which had an affinity to the mood being expressed by the words. back

  8. Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft (Felix Meiner Verlag, 5th Edition, Leipzig 1922), p.49. Kant's Critique on Aesthetics, like his other two critiques on pure reason and on ethics, makes notoriously difficult reading and is probably best approached through the secondary literature. All three works contain penetrating insights and although we might disagree with some of his conclusions Kant's efforts to achieve a rational basis for experience made him, in the eyes of many, the Enlightenment's greatest philosopher. back

  9. For a discussion of the change in attitudes between the publications of Kant in 1790 and Hoffmann in 1810, see: Mark Evan Bonds, Music as Thought (Princeton University Press, 2006), Chapter 1. back

  10. Carl Dahlhaus, The Idea of Absolute Music (The University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 17. back

  11. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, - Vols. 1 & 2; 1819, 1844  (Dover, 1969). Music is discussed in book III of volume one and chapters XXIX - XXXIX of volume two. back