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Defining the String Quartet: Haydn

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Welcome to Defining the String Quartet: Haydn!


The string quartet can be defined in several ways. At the most basic level the musical term refers to the medium of four string instruments: two violins, viola, and violoncello. It can also be used to describe the collective identity of the instrumentalists themselves, in particular established professional ensembles. One such ensemble is the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Stanford University’s celebrated ensemble-in-residence, whose members are featured in this course, performing in Stanford’s 842-seat Bing Concert Hall as well as in that splendid facility’s smaller studio space.

Thanks to Joseph Haydn, the acknowledged father of the string quartet, the medium evolved into a genre. It is Haydn’s compositions for the medium above all — he composed 68 of them — that established the formal conventions and aesthetic values that secured the string quartet a special status and significance in Western musical culture. As developed by Haydn, the quartet became the preferred vehicle through which composers ever since, from Mozart to John Adams, have honed and displayed their compositional craft.

Technique and expression go hand in hand. The German poet Goethe described the quartet in terms of a musical conversation. For the audience, Goethe wrote, a quartet performance is like “listening to four rational people conversing among themselves.” Reflecting aesthetic sensibilities commonly associated with the genre in the Enlightenment age of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, the conversation metaphor nicely captures two defining features of the genre: its intimate, personal nature as well as its capacity to convey profound musical thought through the essential ingredients of four-part harmony and counterpoint. And, as Haydn’s compositions amply demonstrate, the medium of the string quartet can also lend itself to the expression of wit and humor.

This course, in defining the string quartet in these various ways, pays particular attention to Haydn’s towering, history-shaping achievement. In the first part of the course, after providing some general background on the origins of the medium in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, we look at some examples of early string quartet writing by Allegri, Scarlatti and early-period Haydn. In the second half, because the very essence of the genre resides in musical detail and nuance, we develop the tools for informed listening and appreciation by presenting an in-depth analysis of a single work, Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor, opus 20, no. 5 from 1772. With frequent musical illustrations by the St. Lawrence Quartet, we explore the F-minor Quartet in terms of three complementary concepts: form, language, and gesture.

In a concluding section we analyze the final movement, comparing Haydn’s use of the compositional technique known as “fugue” to other fugues by Bach, Handel and Mozart. By means of this “learned style,” we argue, the composer connects his musical language to ecclesiastical traditions, just as the movement’s rhetorical character reflects his penchant for musical effects drawn from the world of opera. The aesthetic spheres of the chamber, church and theater converge. Haydn thus defines his watershed opus — in microcosm — as something at once intimate, recondite and playful.


Defining the String Quartet is designed to appeal to participants with different musical backgrounds and levels of musical literacy. The ability to read music is not required, although we do supply musical notation for those of you who wish to follow along, and have developed some technology to help you do that: instead of being displayed in the usual black, the notes being played are highlighted on screen in red. Intended as tests of comprehension and knowledge, the quizzes are offered in two degrees of difficulty, indicated thus: ♪ (entry-level) and ♪♪ (advanced). We hope you enjoy the course!


Stephen Hinton

Stephen Hinton is the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Music and, by courtesy, of German Studies at Stanford University. Since coming to Stanford in 1994, he has held the positions of chair of the Department of Music, Senior Associate Dean for Humanities and Arts, and, most recently, Denning Family Director of the Stanford Arts Institute. A leading authority on the composer Kurt Weill, he has published widely on many aspects of modern German music history, with contributions to publications such as Cambridge Opera Handbooks, Handwörterbuch der musikalischen Terminologie,New Grove Dictionary of Opera, New Grove Dictionary of Music,Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, and Funkkolleg Musikgeschichte. He has also served as editor of the journal Beethoven Forum. His most recent book, Weill’s Musical Theater: Stages of Reform (University of California Press: Berkeley, 2012), the first musicological study of Weill’s complete stage works, received the 2013 Kurt Weill Book Prize for outstanding scholarship in music theater since 1900. He is an avid amateur chamber musician who regrets having too little time to practice his two instruments (viola and piano).

St. Lawrence String Quartet

The St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ) enters its second quarter century of growth and worldwide concert-giving with acclaim from audiences, critics and the music community alike. “It's a modern string quartet that brings flexibility, dramatic fire and a hint of rock 'n' roll energy,” writes the Los Angeles Times. “Player for player, this is a superb group,” writes the New York Times...“[conveying] the excitement of playing whatever is on their stands at the moment.”

In recent seasons, the SLSQ has made a specialty of the 68 string quartets of Joseph Haydn. In the Quartet's opinion, the true genius of Haydn often suffers from a formulaic and glossed-over familiarity on concert programs. In response, the SLSQ's interpretations of Haydn lay down a new standard for gripping, tender, hilarious, wicked, and charming performances of these masterpieces. The SLSQ often performs “Haydn Discovery” programs, which provide audiences with an engaging guided tour through the moment-to-moment architecture of his quartets to encourage active listening. A recording of Haydn's Symphony no. 102 (in its crisp arrangement for chamber ensemble by Salomon) has recently been released by the SLSQ, and a recording of the six groundbreaking quartets of Op. 20 is expected to be completed in 2016.

Violinist Geoff Nuttall and violist Lesley Robertson founded the quartet in Canada in 1989. Cellist Christopher Costanza joined the group in 2003, and violinist Owen Dalby is the most recent member. With its appointment as faculty members in the Department of Music and as ensemble-in-residence at Stanford University for almost two decades, the SLSQ is deeply involved in teaching musicians from all academic backgrounds and disciplines. Its seminars, masterclasses and interdisciplinary collaborations attract students from around the world. Cultivating a wide repertoire that embraces the great works of the classical literature, off-the-beaten-path composers, and new works (often written specially for the group), the SLSQ continues to engage with audiences in over one hundred concerts a year. In the words of Alex Ross of The New Yorker: "The St. Lawrence are remarkable not simply for the quality of their music making, exalted as it is, but for the joy they take in the act of connection."

For further information about the SLSQ and its members, see the Quartet's homepage at

Victoria Chang

Victoria Chang is a graduate student in musicology at Stanford University with interests ranging from 20th-century genres such as electronic dance music, experimental jazz and new media to the sacred vocal music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Her dissertation explores representations of loneliness and lyric expression in operas and melodramas of the early 20th century. She conducts several small vocal ensembles and is a freelance musician specializing in site-specific works.


Do I need to buy a textbook?

No. All of the required course materials (lectures, musical examples, digital scores, and performances by the St. Lawrence String Quartet) are included here online.

Is it possible to earn a Statement of Accomplishment?

Yes. Each of the given exercises is marked with its point value; the maximum score for the whole course is 132 points. Participants who earn at least 50 points will be eligible for a Statement of Accomplishment marked ♪, for "Entry Level." Participants who earn at least 80 points will be eligible for a Statement of Accomplishment marked ♪♪, for "Advanced."

How much time can I expect to spend on the course each week?

This is a self-paced course. Although it is recommended that you work through the materials in the prescribed sequence from start to finish, you may study and review the lessons, listen to the performances, and do the exercises at your own chosen speed.