Seeking quartet music suggestions

Edited: November 8, 2021, 9:20 AM · I am absolutely thrilled to have fallen into an amateur just for fun quartet. At my age(62) and stage(adult returner 4 years ago) and level(I guess 'early intermediate') it is more than I expected in luck and wonderfulness! We met for the first time last week and played Hayden Opus 20 number 4 (I practiced alot in advance and played second) We all were excited that it worked so well! We are going to keep working on that, and are looking for other pieces at similar or a bit harder levels. The cellist and violist have played alot of chamber music and want something less frequently played. But not contemporary, something around that era. We are looking at maybe Borodin's String Quartet No. 2 in D major which i didn't know and is beautiful. Any other suggestions most welcome! (The first violin part can't be much more difficult than in the Hayden.) Thanks in advance.

Replies (19)

Edited: November 8, 2021, 10:11 AM · I'll second the Borodin String Quartet No. 2 as some repertoire to at least read through. When I was an undergraduate, we performed the first two movements in a semester chamber music recital. The quartet was written with love as the composer dedicated it to his wife and intended it to be a wedding anniversary gift for her. There is a great video of the Seattle Chamber Music Society, James Ehnes (1st violin) and Augustin Hadelich (2nd violin) along with Jonathan Vinocour (viola) and Ani Aznavoorian ('Cello), performing the piece.
Edited: November 8, 2021, 10:22 AM · The 6 Beethoven Op. 18 quartets are wonderful. And Mozart's quartets present more of a challenge than the notes would indicate. And of course all the Haydn's are great.

Your world is definitely opening up! Enjoy!

Edited: November 8, 2021, 10:31 AM · I think Borodin is uneven in its demands on musicians. If memory serves, the cello part is quite high...but it's certainly fun to play. It's hard to know what to recommend without knowing the level of other players in your group, but here are a couple of references to help you home in on what you like.

I think Elise receommended a great resource a while back: the Haynes "Chamber Music for Amateur Players" book (discussion here). I ended up buying it on her recommendation and think it's great.

Another resource for learning more about the repertoire is the website Earsense, an astonishing labor of love by musicologist Kai Christiansen. You can read program notes, listen to/watch multiple interpretations of various pieces, etc.

November 8, 2021, 10:34 AM · I think if you can play Beethoven Op. 18 then you should be able to play Schubert's "Rosamunde" Quartet.
Edited: November 8, 2021, 12:05 PM · The Basque composer, J.C Arriaga, has some nice quartets that are similar in difficulty to Haydn. The 2nd quartet with its theme and variations might be fun to play.
Gershwin’s Lullaby might be another option. Good harmonic practice.
November 8, 2021, 12:26 PM · These are such helpful suggestions including the guide.Thank you! Re the level of the other players, I think the other violinist is maybe intermediate and the cellist and violist are a bit more advanced from what i can gather. They have all played alot in orchestras and chamber groups and so are all very good at for instance keeping time and staying together. The biggest rate limiting factor i think for the music we would play is especially a matter of how fast 5th position+ places are for us violins.
November 8, 2021, 1:43 PM · If higher position work is tricky for both violins, I'd suggest sticking to the earlier repertoire (e.g. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven Opus 18). The aforementioned Rosamunde quartet and Mendelssohn Op. 44 #2 might also be good options.

I love Haydn's Opus 20 quartets. If you enjoyed #4, check out #2 and #5 next. In Beethoven Opus 18, #s 1 and 4 are nice to try. The slow movement of #1 is particularly lovely. Op 18 #6 has a really tricky Scherzo movement that can be a fun challenge with the right mindset.

If you can find another violist, the Mozart viola quintets are marvelous.

November 8, 2021, 1:50 PM · Dvorák "American" is popular with advanced-intermediate kids groups, and nicely different from Haydn and Beethoven.

One of my kids' quartets wanted to play the Borodin a few years ago--they were probably technically capable of trying--but their coach refused, saying it had special meaning to her quartet coach at IU Rostislav Dubinsky. Pretty cool.

November 8, 2021, 3:58 PM · Schubert's Rosamunde (A minor) looks simple enough to play after dinner, but it's devilishly hard to play well. If you're all more advanced musically than technically, it could be a lot of fun figuring it all out, though.
November 8, 2021, 9:35 PM · Lots of things are hard to play well. But the Schubert is so lovely that you will be inspired to apply yourselves to it.

Haydn Op. 20 was mentioned. The special challenge of the No. 5 is the key in which it is written (F minor). The ensemble will need to spend a little more time tuning intervals and chords.

Maybe your group can cobble together some funds to hire a coach now and again.

November 8, 2021, 10:09 PM · Congratulations for having found partners!

The first point I'd make here: Haydn alone is enough for a long series of weekly meetings. My violin teacher recommended to me several times (long before I had more than extremely limited experience with chamber music): Play the entire series of Haydn's quartets for fun (oneor two at every meeting). He was right. If one proceeds chronologically one can experience how Haydn constantly innovated and pushed the envelope, tried new ideas, new textures and so on, moving forward from one opus to the next. Also there is variation within a set, especially in op. 20 as has already been pointed out. Compare the one in C-Major with the one in f-minor for example and both of them with the one in D-Major!

Point 2: Beethoven op. 18 is more difficult than Haydn, especially for the first violin (high positions, fancy passage work) but also for the ensemble (try the scherzo from number 6 if you don't believe me!).

Point 3: Play Mozart! Technically most of the quartets are not harder than Haydn (some of the early ones are easier). But even the mature quartets are either easier than Mozart's G-Major concerto or at most on that level of difficulty (the one in B flat from the "Prussian" set). Musical difficulty is another thing but don't let that deter you! Mozart is very different from Haydn and together they present an almost inexhaustible treasure trove.

Miscellaneous: About Ariaga: Those are three lovely pieces but this is what they are: lovely and charming. This makes them harder to play IMO (like a lot of the second rate composers). Haydn, played less than perfectly is still great music, Ariaga is not; he needs good execution to be impressive. Ariaga died at 21, extremely young, even compared with Mozart or Mendelssohn. (the quartets were written before he was 20; certainly a promising beginning.). I agree with Stephen about Schubert's "Rosamunde": Harder than it looks, even technically, especially the last movement. Borodin is easy compared to most music from his era, so if you like the 19th century the Borodin is a good starting point; the quartet is still harder technically than Haydn or Mozart. Dvorak is harder than Borodin 2--whichever of his quartets you choose (the American quartet features the most enjoyable second violin part I know though!).

And a prediction: All amateurs I have ever met want to play Brahms. You'll want that too in a while. As good a reason as any to keep up your lessons!

November 9, 2021, 6:22 PM · I'm touched by how helpful these suggestions are. I couldn't agree more that even if we stuck with Hayden or maybe Mozart too, we'd have more than enough to play and I'd be totally happy! But I'll take these suggestions to the group as we continue to work on Hayden Opus 20 number 4. Meanwhile I'm having a wonderful time going through and listening to them on youtube. Thank you thank you!
November 9, 2021, 7:15 PM · Greetings,
the Beethoven opus 18 are for me, some of the greatest music ever written. I am never completely comfortable recommending them to beginner ensembles because they are, as Albrecht points out, substantially harder than Haydn and it is not just the higher positions. I don’t think just because certain music is on some kind of pedestal then it should not be attempted by groups that are not up to it. On the other hand, there would probably be so much more to be gained from these works by waiting for a while.
Sadly I have forgotten who it was, but I do recall a famous conductor taking over a top orchestra decades ago and feeding it a steady diet of Haydn week in week out. Apparently the improvement was notable. In the same way, I would gorge on the Haydn quartets which, starting with the opus 20s seem to me to be some of the most wonderful works ever created for us string players. The deeper one goes the more one finds unique and scary things which are more than comparable with Beethoven’s most satanic moments.
I always get shouted down for suggesting the Art of Fugue but I still like throwing it in the pot….
SEcond Borodin, Dvorak and the like.
November 10, 2021, 5:04 AM · Thank you Stephen - "feeding it a steady diet of Haydn" I could definitely live on that!
Edited: November 15, 2021, 5:55 PM · The viola part of Borodin 2 isn't as interesting as some, but it's a wonderful quartet.
I think the Schubert 1st violin part can be a little tricky in the last movement - I did have to give it some practice.
I'm quite keen on the Fauré. It does get a little more difficult, though, as you progress though it.
Brahms slow movements may be within your grasp technically, and that of the C-minor quartet is outstanding.
November 14, 2021, 12:21 PM · Steady on, John! The slow movement in Brahms's c-minor quartet is far from easy, not only technically (the other two slow movements are less hard). There is a section in there (about in the middle) I can never get right when playing first violin. I always flunk out and have to rejoin later.

It is rare that I have persistent rhythm problems but here I do. We actually hired a coach once just to get this section together. She ended up telling us a lot of useful stuff about the movement but did not even try to get that particular section right. I suspect she did not quite know how to help us. So I am still not capable of playing it.

Seriously: Don't attempt Brahms for now!

November 14, 2021, 1:19 PM · One thing I have learned about these kinds of threads. You can say you're in Suzuki Book 2 and there will be people suggesting Mozart concertos and Paganini caprices. After all, you CAN play the first few bars of Mozart 3 in first position.
November 20, 2021, 8:06 AM · I really appreciate all of these suggestions. I have copied and pasted them to return to over time. I can quickly check out the level of the violin parts between youtube and IMSLP but regardless you all have given great starter direction! I am so excited for our second session this week!
November 21, 2021, 4:01 AM · Hope the next session goes well!

I'll weigh in with another vote for "mainly Haydn and Mozart". Based on what you've said about your level, Borodin may be worth a go, and I wouldn't suggest to touch Dvorak or Beethoven for some time. I'd only attempt those if you find you can play the "Emperor" Quartet from Haydn Op.76 without too much difficult.

If you want to vary your chamber music diet, there are loads of arrangements of other pieces for quartet. I'd probably suggest looking up Handel's Water Music and Fireworks Music on IMSLP and finding quartet arrangements there. Relatively short pieces, lots of fun to get into.

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