5 Minutes That Will Make You Love String Quartets


In the past, we’ve chosen the five minutes or so we would play to make our friends fall in love with classical music, the piano, opera, the cello, Mozart, 21st-century composers, the violin, Baroque music, sopranos, Beethoven and the flute.

Now we want to convince those curious friends to love string quartets — their intimacy, intensity and joy. We hope you find lots here to discover and enjoy; leave your choices in the comments.

You might know the second movement of Ravel’s Quartet from the film “The Royal Tenenbaums.” But no recording can capture seeing it performed. The movement begins with every player plucking, and you quickly realize the importance of communication between the musicians, and how much of that communication is based on movement — a conversation that’s both separate from and deeply connected to the music. In 2010, I was lucky enough to have four friends sight-read the piece in my living room, an experience I’ll never forget.

It was Haydn who made the string quartet a core musical genre, and each of his 68 quartets offers something special. Perhaps best of all, though, is the “Emperor” Quartet, written in 1797 and so named because its slow movement is a theme-and-variations hymn on a song Haydn had offered to the last Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II. (It’s better known today as the German national anthem.) As the melody is passed from instrument to instrument, there could be nothing more simple, and, by the close, nothing more touching.

To make you love classical music, I’d need your solemn word that you’ll spend five minutes in a state of deep but pleasant focus, not trying too hard to “get” it. It’s music; we hear it and feel it; we can get into formal analysis later, if we feel like it! But who can make such a promise in these times? Which is why I want you to play Reza Vali’s “Ashoob (Calligraphy No. 14)” and just let it do its thing, swaying from counterpoint to unison and back again in scales that may or may not be familiar to your ear but whose harmonies and rhythms are bracing, vivid splashes of deep color. Especially the concluding 90 seconds — full unison! — and the afterword, an audible comment from a scribe. You can’t help but want more, and the world of the quartet is a world where more is always possible.

One of the alchemies of music is that four is the most intimate number. Perhaps because it echoes the mysterious privacy of the family unit, a string quartet somehow radiates greater intensity than a solo or duet — intensity rarely as fervent as in the slow movement of Shostakovich’s 10th Quartet, from 1964. This enigmatic composer’s 15 quartets are endlessly mined for glimpses of the “real” Shostakovich, with an emphasis on bitter disillusionment and a mood of martyrdom: both present in this rending Adagio. But even here, the music is equivocal, its swollen solemnity migrating toward not-quite-resolution.

Terry Riley is most famous for “In C,” a watershed in 20th-century music. But he soon moved beyond the sparkling repetitions of his early works, delving into electronic music and non-Western forms. By the 1980s, Riley had shifted his focus to string quartets, composing with the Kronos Quartet in mind. His two-hour “Salome Dances for Peace,” a cycle of five quartets from 1989, was the heady peak of their collaboration. The bracing opener, “Anthem of the Great Spirit: The Summons,” sets the stage for a kaleidoscopic journey — an exuberant soundtrack for contemplating peace and harmony on earth.

By turns tender and impassioned, this gem of a musical fairy tale shows how versatile the string quartet can be in the hands of a skilled poet. As is often the case in quartets of the early 19th century, the first violin carries most of the story. Yet the ever-changing configurations of the other players conjure sudden mood shifts, and push things into more dramatic territory.

With so many choices, I let my violist’s heart guide me, and decided on this 1940 recording by the Primrose Quartet, a legendary group (and one named after its violist!). In the slow movement of Smetana’s autobiographical First Quartet, each player offers moments of individual expression, artfully woven together. It’s a special recording that captures this composer’s vision of intimate conversation.

I was in high school when I heard this quartet for the first time. The second movement is playful; it has all kinds of spirited hockets and stuff people like to listen to. And then the next movement is just beautiful; it’s like one long line. It’s very Haydn-esque: I think at the end of Beethoven’s life, he’s bringing in a much larger swath of the tradition, and he achieves a synthesis. You don’t have to explain anything about it. I think if you have to do a lot of explaining, you’re in trouble. Music should speak for itself, and Beethoven always does.

In the vast literature for string quartet, Beethoven shines above all others. He wrote 16 quartets, and they were his most personal statements; he finished his compositional life writing five of them. I chose the Lento assai movement of what is known as his last completed work, Op. 135, because it is one of the most beautiful, heart-rending expressions of human emotion. This glorious music resonates even more vividly for me in this frightening, tumultuous time.

Leroy Jenkins’s skill as a violinist (and sometime violist) is well documented. Yet recordings of his music played by others are rarer, which makes the Soldier Quartet’s take on “Themes and Improvisations on the Blues” such a welcome artifact. Some of the writing has a puckish air reminiscent of Neo-Classical Stravinsky, refracted through an American prism. When members of the quartet respond to Jenkins’s invitation to improvise — he calculated that approximately 30 percent of this performance was spontaneously conceived — their bent notes and dramatic glissandos echo the songful cries of Jenkins’s own playing.

When I became friends with the composer Paul Wiancko a few years ago, he sent me a few of his pieces after a lunch of Japanese curry. When “Lift” played, it was as if a new color had been revealed that my eyes had been too lazy to see. Wiancko speaks through the string quartet in a voice that is fiercely honest, kind and full of life. It’s everything I want music in the 21st century to be. The first three minutes here squeeze life into slow, gliding harmonies that are interrupted by a straight-out party.

Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet is one of the most famous ever written, and for good reason. It’s focused to the point of obsession yet emotionally expansive, beautiful even at its most desperate and forlorn. The spirit of Schubert’s earlier song “Death and the Maiden” courses through all four movements but is most explicit in the second, a set of variations based on the song’s funereal march, whispered by the strings with chorale-like simplicity. The Maiden (first violin) exchanges passages with Death (the cello), in a conversation that, for all its pleading and defiance, arrives back at the opening theme. But now in a major key: serene, at rest.

When I was a teenager, I had a volunteer job on a songbird research project that involved getting up at 4 a.m. every Sunday. To wake up that early, I would set my alarm to blast the blazing final movement of Bartok’s Fourth Quartet. The first raucous chords would make me leap out of bed in the dark. Then I would get ready while rocking out to the driving, almost sing-along-able tunes and stabbing chords; it was a wonderful prelude to the dawn chorus.

It is a concert recording. Breathe into it. A makeup artist can cast an eye over a bank of 200 lipsticks, all of which most people would describe as “red,” and pick the one that’s perfect for you. This piece is the same kind of act of patience and devotion, featuring that most emo of musical objects: the minor chord. There’s a whole lot of pitches between the equal-tempered notes of the piano, and Tony Conrad wants to float you in that space. This is no abstract mathematical exercise; it’s a love of strange shadings and subtle glosses. What can be found.

Many years ago, I attended the wedding of two musician friends during which the slow movement of Debussy’s Quartet was performed to provide a moment of reflection. A perfect choice: With its wistful theme that unfolds over rich, often elusive harmonies, and episodes that shift from tenderness to restless anxiety, the music is a portrait of a couple beginning a life together, calm in their devotion, exuding love, yet aware that the future may hold crisis and uncertainty. Many ensembles play this Andantino too slowly, but the Alban Berg Quartet’s approach is radiant and melting, yet also flowing.

“I turn my inside outward”: This sentence from Robert Burton’s “The Anatomy of Melancholy” might offer an approach to this moment of sublime inspiration. Beethoven wrote his “Holy Song of Thanks of a Convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode” after overcoming a grave illness. It is music of infinite tenderness, removed from all earthly concerns — a music of faith, trust, joy and consolation. “You cannot understand anything until you have heard it,” declares Mark Rampion, painter and protagonist of Aldous Huxley’s novel “Point Counter Point,” after listening to a recording of this meditation on the unspeakable.

The string quartet is one of the greatest combinations of instruments. Its range, dynamic and timbre provide endless possibilities. That said, it is also very challenging for a composer. To name a favorite is equally hard, but the winner has to be the Ravel Quartet, in which the composer utilizes the instruments and the relation between them like there is no tomorrow, with a pleasing and sensible tonal language, making do with the special “effects” available at the time. This work always amazes me when I hear it, especially the joyful and dancing second part, with its pizzicato.

Sabrina Schroeder’s “UNDERROOM,” for amplified string quartet and live electronics, is an otherworldly and enveloping experience. It transports me to a place of primal intensity and beauty. In her program note, Sabrina references Temple Grandin’s “hug machine,” which feels apt: The music goes beyond just the sound, taking on a tangible, visceral quality that embraces me to the core. The electronics, controlled live by the composer, process the sounds we create on our de-tuned instruments, expanding both the sonic range and the emotional palette of the traditional string quartet.


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