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The Greatest String Quartets in Classical Music

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A string quartet is a musical ensemble of four string players – usually two violin players, a violist and a cellist – or a piece written to be performed by such a group. The string quartet is one of the most prominent chamber ensembles in classical music. The string quartet is widely seen as one of the most important forms in chamber music, with most major composers, from the late 18th century onwards, writing string quartets.

1. String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, " Death and the Maiden" by Franz Schubert

The String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, known as Death and the Maiden, by Franz Schubert, is one of the pillars of the chamber music repertoire. Composed in 1824, after the composer suffered through a serious illness and realized that he was dying, it is Schubert's testament to death. The quartet is named for the theme of the second movement, which Schubert took from a song he wrote in 1817 of the same title; but the theme of death is palpable in all four movements of the quartet.

The quartet was first played in 1826 in a private home, and was not published until 1831, three years after Schubert's death. Yet, passed over in his lifetime, the quartet has become a staple of the quartet repertoire. It is D. 810 in Otto Erich Deutsch's thematic catalog of Schubert's works.

"Only the excellence of such a work as Schubert's D minor Quartet... can in any way console us for the early and grievous death of this first-born of Beethoven; in a few years he achieved and perfected things as no one before him," wrote Robert Schumann of the quartet.

The quartet has been honored by numerous transcriptions: In 1878, Robert Franz transcribed the quartet for piano duet; Mahler arranged it for string orchestra; in the 20th century, British composer John Foulds and American composer Andy Stein made versions for full symphony orchestra.

The quartet has also inspired other works. Ariel Dorfman's 1991 play Death and the Maiden, adapted for film in 1994 by Roman Polanski, is about a woman tortured and raped in a South American dictatorship, to the strains of the quartet. It has also appeared as incidental music in numerous films: The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion, 1996), What? (Roman Polanski, 1972), Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking (BBC production), and in Samuel Beckett's radio play All That Fall (1962).


2.String Quartet No. 14 by Ludwig van Beethoven

The String Quartet No. 14 in C♯ minor, Op. 131, by Ludwig van Beethoven was completed in 1826. (The number traditionally assigned to it is based on the order of its publication; it is actually his fifteenth quartet by order of composition.) About 40 minutes in length, it consists of seven movements to be played without a break, as follows:

Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo
Allegro molto vivace
Allegro moderato
Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile — Più mosso — Andante moderato e lusinghiero — Adagio — Allegretto — Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice — Allegretto
Adagio quasi un poco andante

This work, which is dedicated to Baron Joseph von Stutterheim, was Beethoven's favourite from the late quartets. He is quoted as remarking to a friend: "thank God there is less lack of imagination than ever before"[citation needed]. The work was dedicated to von Stutterheim as a gesture of gratitude for taking his nephew, Karl, into the army after a failed suicide attempt in 1826. Together with the quartets op. 130 and 132, it goes beyond anything Beethoven had previously written. (Op. 131 is the conclusion of that trio of great works, written in the order 132, 130 with the Grosse Fuge ending, 131; they may be profitably listened to and studied in that sequence.) It is said that upon listening to a performance of this quartet, Schubert remarked, "After this, what is left for us to write?"[citation needed]. The op. 131 quartet is a monumental feat of integration. Beethoven composes the quartet in six distinct key areas, closing the quartet again in C♯ major, with a Picardy third on the final chord. The Finale directly quotes the opening fugue theme in the first movement, prompting Joseph Kerman to note it as a "blatant functional reference to the theme of another movement: this never happens."

Classical Music


  1. itywltmt's Avatar
    Didn't I tell you all this was the Summer of the String Quartet!!

    Welcome aboard!