The Borodin Quartet.

The Column and the Pedestal: Quartets by Brahms and Tchaikovsky, performed by the Borodin Quartet

The string quartet medium and the classical style are almost synonymous. They fit each other so perfectly that they appear to be two sides of the same coin, complementary aspects of the same musical impulse. At least that is the impression one gets from the core literature of works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, the composers discussed in Charles Rosen’s “The Classical Style” (one of the best books about music of any kind — a classic in itself). The two sides of the coin, however, started to pull apart in interesting ways after Schubert. By the later nineteenth century when Brahms and Tchaikovsky were writing their quartets, there were a number of ways that music could be matched to the quartet medium. The idea that a quartet is no longer simply a conversation among four players takes hold. Mahler thought that Beethoven’s late quartets are too large in their gestures for just four players; he transcribed several for string orchestra and programmed them on concerts which he conducted.1 Mahler’s view of the quartet as a miniature orchestral work may have been influenced by romantic quartets that appear to be bursting at the seams, straining against the limitations of a mere four instruments. For the romantics, emotional intensity could equate with thick, full textures and grandiose emotions. Chamber music for more than four instruments was popular throughout the century; both Brahms and Tchaikovsky made distinguished contributions to the literature of the string sextet.

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