This summer’s Aston Magna Festival begins with “The Birth of the String Quartet,” an exploration of the roots of that iconic ensemble, so central to Western music of the last three and a half centuries. Born of ensemble music for winds and gambas that flourished in the early 17th century, the string quartet as we know it had a long gestation period. Multi-movement string quartets like those of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are a mid-18th-century phenomenon, but they were preceded by a rich literature of single-movement works going back more than a century. We feature two of those on our program, one each by Dario Castello and Henry Purcell. Two other works by early 18th-century composers — Caldara and Telemann — are two- and three-movement works respectively. (Telemann’s sole essay for string quartet is a fiddler’s joy!). Next on the program is a three-movement quartet by Franz Xavier Richter, a Czech who composed one of the first sets of six quartets (a standard practice, it seems, that Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all later indulged in). Richter’s quartets are fresh, vivacious and egalitarian: all four players have regular solo turns.
The second half of our program features early quartets of Haydn and Mozart as well as a late, mature work of Haydn (“The Rider”). Mozart’s K. 156 (he was 16) is alternately elegant and profound. The two quartets by Haydn (Op. 0 [!] and Op. 74) dramatize his remarkable growth over a long, fruitful career. Haydn is often credited with having “invented” the string quartet, and these two works certainly demonstrate how Haydn developed the form so audaciously that it is no wonder that Mozart and Beethoven emulated him and built on his models. But a rich and varied store of pre-Haydn quartets deserve hearing, many republished only recently.