I organized an article on the best string quartets by focusing on the time when the quartets were active. An alternative is to organize such a list by focusing on where the quartet members were trained. People who take this approach speak of National Traditions in string quartet playing. It isn’t an idea that is very popular in the US, but it still gets a lot of attention in Europe. Some emphasize technique – as if there were a French or Russian way of playing – but most emphasize that certain composers are more important in some countries than in others. Thus, if a string quartet is formed and develops in France, it will likely place a great deal of emphasis on mastering and performing the popular French string quartets of Ravel, Debussy, and Faure. French audiences know these works and judge new quartets by their ability to play these loved quartets. In a similar way, a young Russian quartet will probably spend a lot of time mastering quartets by Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. Teachers in Russia have strong ideas about how those composer’s works should sound and pass these ideas on to the quartets they train, thus creating a National Tradition.
Here are a few traditions with their associated national composers, and an overview of some of the well-known early and recent quartets in each tradition.
It all starts in Vienna, with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Then there’s Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms. And later still, there is the Second Vienna School, with Schonberg, Webern, and Berg. And, as Germany prepared for World War II, there was Zimlinsky and Korngold. Every major quartet plays the classic and romantic composers, and, when it comes time for a quartet to try to prove that it is really world class, the test is still the Beethoven cycle. That said, however, there have always been quartet groups that are very much in the Viennese tradition -- quartets that emphasize Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, or, if they are younger, the Second Vienna School or Zimlinsky and Schulhoff.
Once again, the Schuppanzigh Quartet gets pride of place, having been chosen by Beethoven to premiere most of this middle and late quartets. Early, well-known Austrian/German Quartets include the Mayseder Quartet, the Hellmesberger Quartet, and the Rose Quartet. Subsequent quartets in this tradition include the Joachim Quartet, which premiered string quartets by Brahms, Dvorak, Mendelssohn and Schumann. In the Twentieth Century, one thinks of the great Beethoven interpreters, like the Busch Quartet, the hugely popular Alban Berg Quartet, and of many other, younger quartets, including the Henschel and the Hagen quartets.
Czech and Hungarian (Bohemian) String Quartets
The Bohemian string quartet tradition is nearly as strong at the Austrian/German tradition. (Keep in mind that Vienna was the capital of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and that all of these lands looked to Vienna as their cultural center during the Eighteenth Century.) The Czech quartets tend to emphasize the work of Dvorak, Smetana, Janacek, and Haas, while the Hungarians tend to emphasize the quartets of Kodaly and Bartok.
Well-known early Czech groups include the Prague Quartet, the Prazak Quartet, and the Smetana, Janacek, Talich and Vlach quartets. Today, the best known Czech quartet is probably the Pavel Haas Quartet.
The best known early Hungarian quartet was probably the Hungarian String Quartet. Later the Vegh Quartet and the Budapest Quartet (Which Brahms said was the best quartet he’d every heard.) were internationally popular. Today, the best known Hungarian quartet is undoubtedly the Takacs Quartet (Although they current reside in the US, in Colorado.)
French/Belgium String Quartets
The quartets that grow up in the French/Belgium tradition tend to emphasize Ravel, Debussy, and Faure. For all that, it was the Baillot Quartet, beginning in 1814, that established Paris as a center for Beethoven interpretation, and the Baillot was followed by the Quartuor Alard-Chevillard which also emphasized Beethoven. Toward the end of the Nineteenth Century, however, the Belgium-derived Quatuor Yesye began to champion the quartets by Debussy, Faure and D’Indy. Another Belgium quartet, the Quartuor Pro Arte was internationally famous and spent World War II stranded in the US, contributing significantly to the development of string quartet appreciation in the US. Perhaps the best known young quartet in the French tradition, today, is Quatuor Ebene.
Russian String Quartets
National composers who have contributed to the string quartet literature in Russia include Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Schnittke. In the Eighteenth Century, however, members of the Russian nobility spent time in Vienna and were present at the creation of the string quartet. Russian noblemen were among the patrons of composers like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The Schuppanzigh quartet, so important to Beethoven, traveled to Russia between 1816-1823 and popularized the string quartet in Russia. The absence of the Schuppanzigh Quartet from Vienna during those years may, in part, explain the break between Beethoven’s middle and late quartets.
The indigenous Russian tradition began with the quartet of the Moscow branch of the Russian Music Society, let by Karl Klammroth and Ferdinand Laub. It premiered Tchaikovsky’s first two quartets. The first professional Russian ensemble, the St Petersburg Court Quartet, was active from 1900 to 1922. By World War II, a Russian quartet, the Beethoven Quartet, had established a relationship with Shostakovich and premiered most of his quartets. Later, the Borodin Quartet, popularized Shostakovich’s works abroad, and, though now quite old, as string quartets go, is probably the major quartet in the Russian tradition today.
British String Quartets
The United Kingdom was late to string quartet composition. Elgar composed one, Williams and Britten each composed two, but otherwise there is little around which to build a tradition. The emphasis of British string quartet groups seems to be, as in the US, on simply playing the works of other European composers.
When one thinks of British string quartet groups one thinks of groups like the Amadeus (Jewish refugees from the continent), the Lindsays (famed for very polished Beethoven quartets), and, more recently, the Arditti, Dante, and the Belcea (although the Belcea's first violinist, for whom the quartet is named, is Romanian).
US/Canadian String Quartets
Like the British, the US has a few well-known modern string quartet composers, like Ives, Copeland, Glass, Carter, and Adams, but there is no basic repertoire that US quartets think of as their national heritage – which is probably one of the reasons that the whole idea of a national tradition isn’t taken so seriously in the US. Before World War II, the leading US string quartets were mostly occasional visitors from Europe. After World War II, stimulated in large part by European emigrants who had fled to the US because of the war, the US began to develop is own string quartet tradition, initially centered in New York. As mentioned elsewhere, the first well-known US quartet, the Kneisel Quartet, became the resident quartet at the Juilliard Music Conservatory in New York City, and was succeeded by the Juilliard Quartet, which has, in turn, helped mentor at least two generations of American string quartets, including the LaSalle, Guarneri, Tokyo, Emerson, and, more recently, the Escher String Quartet.
In spite of New York's initial dominance, there were soon quartets in various US cities. For example, both the Cincinatti String Quartet and the Hollywood Quartet were popular in the 60s. Today, string quartets are common in many major cities throughout the US, and one thinks of string quartets like the Alexander and Kronos (San Francisco), the Pacifica (Founded in California, but now residing in Indiana.), the Concord Quartet (in Boston), and the Miro Quartet (in Texas). The St. Lawrence, a Canadian group, is resident at Stanford University in California. North America is the size of Europe, so given time, regional traditions might arise. (In a separate article, for example, I discuss the significant relationship between quartets in the San Francisco area and Minimal Music composers like Glass, Riley, and Adams.)
I have ignored what could well be other traditions, including Scandinavian, Danish, and Polish traditions, a Japanese tradition, and a South American or, perhaps, an international Spanish tradition.
Although you can associate some quartets with countries, there are still enough exceptions to make you wonder if this approach makes much sense. For example, there really isn’t an Italian Tradition. There are some great Italian composers who have written string quartets, including Rossetti, Donizetti, Verdi, and Puccini, but no one thinks those quartets were the composers best works. There have also been one or two fine Italian string quartets, like the Quartetto Italiana, which was very fine indeed, but it’s hard to think that one or two quartets makes a national tradition. The Quartetto Italiana, like most US and British quartets, played a wide range of quartets and was, in essence, more international than Italian.
Given the increasingly international nature of the classical music scene, not to mention the freer flow of people within the European Union, it’s easy to imagine that national traditions will become increasingly less important. Still, a new quartet must learn its trade somewhere, and will always need to master some basic repertoire to launch its career. In the past few years we watched two Danish quartets, the Young Danish Quartet, and the Nightingale Quartet, each generate prize-winning first albums that focused on Danish composers. In an increasingly competitive world, perhaps National Traditions will survive as a marketing device to help provide new quartets with a way to generate some initial excitement. Beyond that, however, if the quartet hopes to rise to international status, it will increasingly need to master a wide-ranging international repertoire. And, later still, if it hopes to reach the very first rank, there will always be the Beethoven quartets.