String Quartets: Background information when reading The Ensemble

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The Ensemble

by Aja Gabel

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel X
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel
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  • First Published:
    May 2018, 352 pages

    Jun 2019, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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About this Book

String Quartets

This article relates to The Ensemble

Print Review

Avoca QuartetIn the second half of the eighteenth century, chamber music, which was played by ensembles (small groups of musicians and thus suitable for smaller rooms), became very fashionable. The term "ensemble" comes from the Old French word for "together" and can refer to a grouping of any size, from a duet up to a full orchestra. The Dublin-based Avoca String Quartet's website describes chamber music thus: "No particular performer features prominently, and in chamber music all the musicians play intently together. It is rather like a musical conversation in which everyone has something to say."

The string quartet, the most frequent arrangement used in chamber music, is almost always composed of two violins, a viola, and a cello, as is the case in Aja Gabel's debut novel, The Ensemble. In rare cases there might be two violas or two cellos instead. These instruments complement each other well because the violins play the high notes, the viola the middle notes, and the cello the low ones. The typical classical string quartet piece is in four movements—a fast movement (allegro) starts and ends the piece, with a slower movement and a dance movement in the middle.

Typical Quartet LayoutJoseph Haydn (1732–1809) wrote 68 pieces for string quartets and helped to popularize them. As the Classical period moved into the Romantic period, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel, Dvorák, and Tchaikovsky all wrote for string quartets. By the twentieth century, composers such as Bartok and Shostakovich had started altering the traditional four-movement structure of quartet pieces. For example, Bartok was extremely interested in peasant music passed down through generations and incorporated their melodies and even the rhythms of peasants' spoken words in his compositions.

The New World Encyclopedia lists some of the notable contemporary string quartets that have produced multiple recordings: the Juilliard String Quartet, The Melos String Quartet (Stuttgart), and the Vienna String Quartet are among the most well known.

Typical Quartet InstrumentsA string quartet is a common choice for a garden party, wedding reception, or other modest gathering as the stately music can fill a moderately sized room but not overwhelm it. It has a long and venerable history and remains a popular way for people to experience and appreciate classical music.

Avoca String Quartet
Typical Quartet Layout
Typical Instruments

Filed under Music and the Arts

Article by Rebecca Foster

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Ensemble. It originally ran in May 2018 and has been updated for the June 2019 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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