A string quartet is a musical ensemble of four string players — usually two violin players, a violist and a cellist — or a piece written to be performed by such a group. The string quartet is one of the most prominent chamber ensembles in classical music. The string quartet is widely seen as one of the most important forms in chamber music, with most major composers, from the late 18th century onwards, writing string quartets.
David Wyn Jones traces the origin of the string quartet to the Baroque trio sonata, in which two solo instruments performed with a continuo section consisting of a bass instrument (such as the cello) and keyboard. By the early 18th century, composers were often adding a third soloist; and moreover it was common to omit the keyboard part, letting the cello support the bass line alone. Thus when Alessandro Scarlatti wrote a set of six works entitled "Sonata à Quattro per due Violini, Violetta [viola], e Violoncello senza Cembalo" (Sonata for four instruments: two violins, viola, and cello without harpsichord), this was a natural evolution from existing tradition.
Wyn Jones also suggests another possible source for the string quartet, namely the widespread practice of playing works written for string orchestra with just four players, covering the bass part with cello alone.
A composition for four players of stringed instruments may be in any form, Quartets written in the classical period usually have four movements with a large-scale structure similar to that of a symphony: the outer movements are typically fast, the inner movements quartet consisting of a slow movement and a dance movement of some sort (e.g., minuet or scherzo), in either order. Substantial modifications to the typical structure were already achieved in Beethoven's later quartets, and despite some notable examples to the contrary, composers writing in the twentieth century increasingly abandoned this structure.
The string quartet arose to prominence with the work of Joseph Haydn. Haydn's own discovery of the quartet form appears to have arisen essentially by accident. The young composer was working for Baron Carl von Joseph Edler von Fürnberg sometime around 1755-1757 at his country estate in Weinzierl, about fifty miles from Vienna. The Baron wanted to hear music, and the available players happened to be two violinists, a violist, and a cellist. Haydn's early biographer Georg August Griesinger tells the story thus:
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