In the 1780s, when living in Vienna, the Irish tenor Michael Kelly attended a party at which a group of musicians read through assorted numbers for two violins, viola, and cello while the guests looked on. “The players were tolerable,” Kelly quipped in his saucy autobiography, “not one of them excelled on the instrument he played, but there was a little skill among them.” He went on to brag that this quartet’s roster included Joseph Haydn (second violin) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (viola), both composers who provided an early foundation for the massive repertoire that came to be written for these forces.
The string quartet is both an instrument—a unique array of sounds and techniques that players take on stage and on tour—and something like a philosophy of composition. In those early days, the instrument was casually assembled. The formation Kelly heard had no name. Musicians wrote and played such works for assorted sets of friends and colleagues, and perhaps some eager onlookers at a soirée. In the 19th century, groups became more stable. At first, quartets would form around famous violinists, who would gather colleagues to form the likes of the Schuppanzigh Quartet or Paganini Quartet. Over time, ensembles became a bit less soloist-centric. By the end of the century, players on slightly more even footing, like those in the Quartetto Fiorentino, would perform under names taken from places, composers, artists, writers, philosophers, or mythic figures.
This is generally the case with groups today; in the “Quartet Panorama” of this year’s Winter Festival (February 27–March 10) at Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, we find Cremona, Calidore (after California), Schumann, and Escher, framed by Emerson and Orion.
The gradual professionalization of the string quartet became necessary to cope with an increasingly demanding repertoire. When I asked violinist Ryan Meehan, of the Calidore Quartet, about what distinguishes playing quartets from working in other chamber music ensembles, he immediately remarked: “It’s the most difficult! You really can’t have a pick-up group that will be as successful as a pre-formed ensemble that’s been practicing for a long time. There’s something about trying to align four-part harmony emotionally and musically, but also technically, in the direction that you are trying to achieve that’s uniquely exposed, compared to working in a trio or a quintet.”
Perhaps we might forgive Haydn and Mozart, then, for their pick-up performance under Kelly’s critical ear. But at that time, the genre had yet to take on the authority and compositional weight that would come to attach itself to the medium. Both of those composers used the genre as a venue for experimentation, an opportunity to play around with form, harmony, and instrumental identities in a safe and convivial setting. Meehan suggested that it was only after Ludwig van Beethoven wrote 16 wide ranging works for these instruments that quartets became a serious affair: “Every composer after that lived in Beethoven’s shadow. He was able to bring to life the most intimate emotional worlds that we have as humans and to express that through music. I think that’s the most unique quality of the string quartet. It’s able to create a very intimate atmosphere that other musical media don’t allow for as easily.”
Brook Speltz, cellist of the Escher String Quartet, proposed that this quality might be why composers today continue to view string quartet writing as a unique challenge and opportunity. “I know the effort and seriousness that composers who have written quartets for us dedicate to that particular composition. You can be incredibly bombastic and ferocious in your quartet writing, but it also allows composers to reach a very personal and introspective place in their music when they want to.”
The promise of aligning and rehearsing with close colleagues to become a single instrument, along with the uniquely rich repertoire, makes playing in a string quartet an aspirational goal for many young musicians. Meehan described sharing an early love of quartet playing with Jeffrey Myers, fellow violinist in the Calidore Quartet: “We both came to the art form in our early teenage years, playing a lot of string quartets as kids. In high school, we were in pretty serious string quartets. We actually used to compete against each other in competitions in the Midwest, and that’s how we met. I think we established early on that both of us thought that this could potentially be a career path. When the whole group came together at the Colburn School, we knew we had that mutual passion for string quartets, and we could all take an oath to say that this was going to be our number-one priority.”
Speltz inherited an early reverence for string quartets from his parents, who were professional musicians and greatly admired the Guarneri Quartet. The passion grew at a festival run by the Colorado Quartet, who were “a trailblazing group, the sort of educators whose enthusiasm and seriousness toward the music sticks with you, even as a young teenager.” It was at this festival that Speltz first encountered the string quartets of Béla Bartók, works that redefined what the ensemble could do in the 20th century. “The craft itself is of the highest order. Every single part, for each individual instrument, is so important, and each member is given a very strong voice in all six of the quartets.”
As part of CMS’s Winter Festival, the Escher Quartet will perform all of Bartók’s string quartets in a marathon concert. It’s an athletic feat, which demands dedication and commitment to the genre from both the performers and from the audience, and it’s a career milestone that Speltz is particularly looking forward to: “It’s such a monumental undertaking. We’re so proud to be doing it and so excited by the opportunity to present this cycle in New York City, in Alice Tully Hall. It’s a dream come true. If for whatever reason after this concert I was injured, or some massive life-altering change occurred, I think I could look back on that performance and that achievement and feel like I did something good with my life."
The Calidore String Quartet kicks off CMS’s Quartet Panorama with music by Bach, Mendelssohn, Purcell, and Britten February 27. The Schumann Quartet’s performance of works by Beethoven, Berg, and Smetana takes place March 3. The Quartetto di Cremona returns to CMS March 8, with works by Osvaldo Golijov, Shostakovich, and Schubert. The Escher String Quartet takes the stage of Alice Tully Hall on March 10, 2024, presenting the complete cycle of Béla Bartók’s quartets. Visit ChamberMusicSociety.org to learn more.