Like Sibelius, Grieg tried the string quartet several times, but left only one mature, completed essay in the form. He began writing the Quartet in G minor in the summer of 1877, and worked on it through the winter in a composing retreat in Lofthus, in the Hardanger district of Norway. "I have recently finished a string quartet which I still haven't heard," the composer wrote to a friend in the summer of 1878. "It is in G minor and not planned to be meat for small minds! It aims at breadth, vigor, flight of imagination, and, above all, fullness of tone for the instruments for which it is written."
An astonishingly rich sonority is indeed an obvious characteristic of this piece. All four parts have an extraordinary amount of double-stopping, creating a full-bodied sound that is orchestral but also often folkloric, like the Hardanger fiddle music that Grieg knew and loved so well.
The main theme of the work, however, comes from Grieg's own song "Spillemaend" (Minstrels, or Fiddlers). The poem that Grieg set in 1876 as the first of six Ibsen songs (Op. 25) is about the Hulder, a water spirit who offers minstrels great musical gifts in exchange for their happiness, and the choice of this song here suggests an allusive and elusive personal program. The theme from the song is boldly stated at the outset and recurs often throughout the first movement. Motives from it appear in the middle movements, and the motto theme returns again in the leaping finale.
In many ways, Grieg's bold rethinking of the venerable medium clearly inspired Claude Debussy in his own String Quartet, composed 10 years later and also in G minor. Harmony, rhythm, and sheer sound are all more important than the intimate polyphonic interplay that characterized the classical string quartet. The Romanze movement, with its increasingly abrupt mood swings between sunny lyricism and darkly agitated passion, takes its point of departure from late Beethoven, while the scherzo-like Intermezzo is the most folkloric in its rough dancing energy and spirited play with meter.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.