The Father of the string quartet is Joseph Haydn. He was an Austrian composer and
was one of the most prolific and highly regarded composers of the classical period.
It was during this period that Haydn created the string quartet which is regarded
by many as the purest form of instrumental music. A string quartet generally consists
of two violins, a viola and a cello. The music itself follows the movement and
structure of a symphony. Also well known during the classical period were composers
such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig Van Beethoven.
There are several distinct features of the string quartet. First, it is an instrumental ensemble playing music involving four parts, with each playing a different part. (It is also common to have trios and duets which are similar in composition). Secondly, quartet music differs slightly from typical orchestral music in that the emphasis is on individual expression and communication amongst all the players. It was during the late Baroque period that the pieces became more and more elaborate. Thirdly, string quartet music features single melodic lines. This served a single purpose. As the classical period gained momentum, the emphasis was on simplifying the music and making it popular again. The single melodic line accomplished this by emphasizing ease of playing. What this means to you the listener is that the violin generally will carry the melody with the rest of the instruments providing the backup chords.
The string quartet falls into a type of music known as chamber music because in its early days, musicians would often play in "chambers" or living areas without an audience present. The lack of an audience gave the players a chance to socialize and also the confidence to improvise along the harmonic lines of the piece. This led to a gradual shift away from the violin carrying the melody into experimentation with other combinations of instruments.
The string quartet is by far the most popular form of chamber music. It has and still does produce some of the best pieces using what is known as four-part harmonic language. And perhaps the most intriguing reason is that the stringed instruments were thought of as the closest in tone to the human voice. Composers found they could write pieced that carried a great deal of emotion without using words. There is nothing more beautiful or soul stirring than a beautifully executed string quartet.