I have been listening to string quartets constantly for the last couple of months. Consisting of two violins, a viola, and a cello, it has always been one of my very favorite ensembles. A quartet is capable of a wide expressive range but with an intimacy that has brought out the best in many of the Western classical tradition's greatest composers.
It has also been a very standard chamber ensemble for centuries, so there is a wealth of literature for this grouping. Quartets are still very popular today, and since it is wedding season, I am performing in that context a lot these days! Which is great!
The quartet was not invented by Franz Joseph Haydn, but he is surely the composer who, through his prolific writing for the ensemble in the second half of the 18th century, turned it into the staple it became for subsequent Classical, Romantic and modern composers.
The string quartet form typically mirrors that of the symphony. It is in four movements with the opening movement in sonata allegro form. The second movement is slow, often a theme and variations. The third movement is a minuet and trio, and the last movement is lively, perhaps a rondo.
I am definitely a first movement kind of guy. Give me the meat of the piece's aesthetic in sonata-allegro form. Give me themes and development. Yeah!
But second movements can often be the heart and soul of a quartet as well. And fourth movements are often an excuse to write exciting, virtuosic parts.
It is the third movement that I am usually the least excited to hear. A minuet is a dance in three with lots of repeats. It is often a bit of....relaxation in an otherwise intense piece. It can be a break, albeit a pretty break, in the action. Frankly, it can be a bit boring compared to the other movements - particularly in the works of the Classical composers.
But not always!
I encourage you to check out Haydn's String Quartet in D Minor, the second in a collection of six quartets that make up his Opus No. 76. These are some of the last quartets he wrote, and the entire quartet is fantastic. It is nicknamed "The Fifths" because the opening theme begins with a descending fifth (an interval covering five notes in the scale) which is then sequenced (repeated at a different pitch level) a fourth down. This opening movement is one of my favorites, but it is actually the third movement that I have listened to the most!
It is in the typical minuet and trio form, but the minuet portion is written in strict canon. The two violins begin the movement with a D minor melody played in octaves. Then the viola and cello entire one measure later (three counts) with the exact same melody. Both groups play the same notes (at different octaves), but one measure apart! As you might guess, this is difficult to achieve. The melody must be carefully constructed so that each measure harmonizes with the previous measure, and it must do so while maintaining its melodic integrity.
I encourage you to check out a recording of this piece. Hooray for a truly exciting minuet! Haydn was definitely the man.