String Quartet

About this work

It would be fair to suggest that Giuseppe Verdi, creator of many of the world's greatest operatic dramas, exhibited little interest in any other non-vocal musical forms, and thus it must have surprised his contemporaries greatly to discover that he had produced a very fine quartet for strings in 1873, which he subsequently published three years later. During the winter months of 1872-1873, the composer was living in Naples, where he undertook a detailed overhaul of the opera Don Carlos, and conducted several new revivals of other works, (including one of Aida) at the city's opera house. It was during this period that Verdi began to sketch his string quartet, which he seems to have commenced purely as a study at first, and only began to take the project seriously when he realized that a substantial work was beginning to emerge.

The Verdi biographer and scholar Julian Budden details events surrounding its first performance as follows: "on the evening of 1 April friends of the composer were bidden to the Hotel delle Crocelle. There, in the foyer, they found four chairs and four music-stands of an eighteenth century design with candle attached. Four players entered and without a word of explanation began to play Verdi's String Quartet in E minor. To begin with Verdi seems to have regarded it as a private diversion...later he agreed to its publication."

The work comprises four substantial and technically demanding movements, and has been widely admired for the forcefulness of its musical ideas and its structural cohesion. It opens with a powerful Allegro, with an urgently sculpted first group giving way to a somewhat more relaxed second subject. The slow movement, marked Andantino, brings the most vocally expansive and lyrical material, though even here one would hardly credit the work to a master of the opera stage with little prior experience of writing chamber music. Next comes a Prestissimo movement, unsettled and vehement in mood, while the finale contains a massive fugue illustrating Verdi's mastery of contrapuntal techniques. Although infrequently performed, Verdi's sole chamber work occupies a unique position in the history of the quartet genre.