This week’s playlist highlights the string quartet – the ensemble arguably the crown jewel of the chamber music genre – two violins, viola and cello.
Joseph Haydn is often credited with developing and promoting the string quartet, in the mid-1700s. Haydn’s compositional techniques and format were expanded by the two other masters of the Classical Period: Mozart and Beethoven. Together, these three composers wrote over 100 works for string quartet! This massive output set the pace for those who came after, as virtually all of the major composers of the 18th through 21st century have composed works for these four instruments.
All instrumentalists and singers incorporate vibrato in their music-making. Vibrato is a technique that increases the amplitude of sound waves. Vibrato helps the notes to travel farther, to resonate more broadly, and to add warmth and depth to the sound. Singers, and those who play wind and brass instruments, create this effect with their air. String players make this happen with their fingers on the string.
Many musicians rarely think about vibrato, but string players need to learn how to both create this effect and how to control it. Another critical skill that string players develop is the ability to match their vibrato with others. This is important because mismatched vibrato sounds bad! The contrast between sound waves of different speed or size creates tension in the harmonic overtones, which is unpleasant to listen to. Matching vibrato is an element of ensemble that sets apart the best quartets. As the musicians listen to each other, they modify their playing to integrate more carefully with the others in the quartet.
Vibrato matching gives the music an intensity and beauty that is difficult to describe. This is one of the reasons why composers have written such a large library of works for the quartet: only four musicians can produce a soundscape that cannot be created with any other combination of instruments. The best music, in the hands of the best quartets, is a transcendent experience.
(There is so much amazing quartet music that this playlist hardly scratches the surface.)