The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Which are the most famous and most popular string quartets? And which ones are your favorites? | May 26, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

Does The Ear ever love chamber music!

And it has been a good few days for him and for other Madison fans of string quartets.

On Saturday night, The Ear heard the Ancora String Quartet (below) in outstanding performances of the “Dissonance” Quartet by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the late String Quartet No. 13 in A Minor, “Rosamunde,” by Franz Schubert.

Ancora CR Barry Lewis

Then on Monday night, the Ear heard the terrific Rhapsodie Quartet (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), made up of players in the Madison Symphony Orchestra, perform the “American” String Quartet by Antonin Dvorak followed by the sublime and profound Cello Quintet by Franz Schubert. UW-Madison and Pro Arte Quartet cellist Parry Karp (below bottom) sat in as the extra cellist.

Rhapsodie Quartet MSO Greg Anderson

Parry Karp

At the Ancora concert, cellist Benjamin Whitcomb, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, made the case that Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet is well known for its apt nickname and is probably the best known or most popular of Mozart’s string quartets.

That got The Ear to thinking:

What are the most well-known and most popular string quartets?

And which string quartets are your favorites that you would recommend to other chamber music fans?

The Ear drew up a list of candidates of the first honor of being well-known.

He suspects that the “Emperor” Quartet — with its famous and infamous slow movement theme that was turned from an homage to the Austrian emperor into an anthem for Nazi Germany — by Franz Joseph Haydn, the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet of Schubert and the “American” Quartet of Dvorak all rival or surpass the public reputation of the Mozart’s “Dissonance,” although that one is certainly and deservedly famous to the general public.

As to The Ear’s favorite quartets: The Ear is especially partial to the six early Op. 18 string quartets by Ludwig van Beethoven (below), which often take a back seat to the same composer’s middle quartets and late quartets. But of the famous last ones, The Ear loves the very last one, Op. 135, with its return to classical structure and clarity.

Beethoven big

He also loves all of the Op. 76 string quartets by Haydn (below top) and is especially partial to the “Sunrise” and the “Quinten” or “Fifths” quartets. He also loves Haydn’s earlier Op. 20 “Sun” quartets; and all six string quartets that Mozart (below bottom) composed for and dedicated to Haydn, generally considered the father or the modern string quartet who also played string quartets  with himself on violin and Mozart on viola.


Mozart old 1782

The Ear likes Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” well enough, but he is always blown away by Schubert’s last quartet in G major, which was used as a soundtrack in Woody Allen’s great movie “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

He also loves the lyrical quartets on Dvorak (below), especially the Op. 51 “Slavonic” as well as the “American.” (You can hear the opening of the “Slavonic” String Quartet in a YouTube video at the bottom.)


As for Johannes Brahms, The Ear prefers the string quintets and string sextets to the string quartets.

Francophile that he is, The Ear also loves the single string quartets by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.

Among other modern string quartets, he loves the third and fifth of Bela Bartok, the second one by Sergei Prokofiev and the eight and 11th by Dmitri Shostakovich. He also adds the String Quartet No. 3 “Mishima” by Philip Glass.

Well, that’s enough for today and for this post.

What string quartet do you think is the most famous or most popular?

And which string quartets are your favorites?

Leave word, with a YouTube link if possible, in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. I like this article and one of my favorite string quartets is Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2

    Comment by Beth — January 16, 2018 @ 12:58 pm

  2. All good selections but so, so traditional. Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert–yikes. No wonder classical music is dying.

    I like the above but lots of good modern music has been written. I personally enjoy Alan Hovhaness, String Quartet #2 which includes some fascinating gamelan music and Asian influences. His String Quartets 3 and 4 are also marvelous. Listen to a very good recording of them by the Shanghai Quartet on Naxos.

    Shostakovich also wrote lots of good string quartets.

    Here is a YouTube featuring the Shanghai Quartet playing Hovhaness’s brilliant String Quartet #3:

    Comment by fflambeau — May 26, 2016 @ 10:00 am


      Comment by Susan Cable — May 26, 2016 @ 12:08 pm

      • Not dead yet. But it is certainly dying. Lots of that has to do with the mindless programming and thinking of so many people who equate classical music with only the likes of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms.

        There is lots of excellent modern and contemporary classical music out there: Hovhaness; P. Glass; A. Part; but in the main, it is overwhelmed by the standards because they are “safe”. Even Rachmaninoff was pretty much ignored until the last 2 or 3 decades; and ditto for Sibelius.

        The people who enjoy classical music are too smug and love their smugness and that turns everyone else off.

        Then there was the idiot “critic” here recently who was complaining that choral music isn’t really music because it had no orchestra. And this man is taken seriously?

        Comment by fflambeau — May 26, 2016 @ 11:05 pm

  3. Beethoven #14 Opus 131 in C # minor

    Comment by Marius — May 26, 2016 @ 8:38 am

    • It is a great quartet and was Schubert’s favorite — a big recommendation.
      I think he asked for it to be played as he lay dying at 31.

      Comment by welltemperedear — May 26, 2016 @ 8:55 am

  4. Glad you included the Bartok and Shostakovich quartets, among my favorites. Although it took a long learning curve, the late Beethoven quartets have become beloved old friends.

    Comment by slfiore — May 26, 2016 @ 8:30 am

  5. Nice post!

    For me, add all Schubert late quartets from 12 to 15. Agree on Brahms, String Quartets weren’t his best output. Beyond that, count me in for Haydn (especially op. 33), Beethoven (most of it, although I’m still on a learning curve for the late ones), and Dvorak (only occasionally though). I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned Mendelssohn!

    Comment by Musicophile — May 26, 2016 @ 5:52 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,268 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,369,092 hits
%d bloggers like this: