There’s something frightening about the string quartet. It’s the tradition, I suppose – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert all poured some of their best and most profound music into the medium, and that makes the standard for the young, aspiring composer pretty high(!!). So, when the thirty-or-so year old Debussy came to tackle a quartet, he styled it, nervously but rather grandly, his ‘1st Quartet in g, Op. 10’. Fine, except for the fact that there was never to be a second; he rarely, if ever, gave key signatures to works; and the ‘Op. 10’ seems to have been just plucked out of thin air for that extra smidgen of gravitas (no opus numbers before the quartet, no opus numbers after). He needn’t have worried: the piece, after an initially shaky reception – and despite its severe technical demands – has now not only become part of the standard quartet repertoire but has also ascended to the musical heights and been assimilated into that scary ‘great tradition’.
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