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Why do string quartets never go south?

In my Album of the Week on sinfinimusic, I wonder why string quartets belong to the north and all the best arias go south. Is there some equatorial line that blocks composers from writing quartets the closer they get to the Med?


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  1. Michael Schaffer says:

    Yes, there is! Or rather, was. It was in the heads of many Italians in the 19th century. They watched the battles going on further north between the “modernists” (“avveniristi”) – e.g. Wagner, Berlioz – and the “formalists” – which they actually called “quartettisti”, e.g. Brahms, Saint-Saens – and decided they wanted to have to do with neither. They wanted to cultivate and develop their own traditionally dominant art form opera in their own ways. They were concerned that the works of composers from the north had begun to dominate the concert programs and that their operas became increasingly popular in Italy, too. To define what was Italian, specifically Italian opera, became more than just a musical, esthetic question.
    That was their form of musical nationalism and it was very important to them especially in times of Austrian domination in the north and the Italian unification movement. Verdi’s name even became a secret code and acronym for the unionist movement: Viva V.E.R.D.I. – Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia.

    Verdi himself had a somewhat complex, ambiguous attitude towards this. He himself wrote that it was important for Italians not to write like the northern “quartettisti” but at the same time, he welcomed the new impulses coming from what some called “storm clouds from the north”. But even then he maintained that Italian composers should not be imitative, rather develop those new influences in their own ways – verismo is one of the answers they found.

    I think it’s a pity though that purely instrumental music based on formal concepts was deemed “un-Italian” until Martucci started challenging that notion in the later 19th century because as a consequence of this, there is so little great Italian instrumental music after the baroque period.

    • We should not focus only in Italy and Verdi comments, if we’re talking about South. There are other classical names from the “austral” hemisphere, if we need to avoid more recent and completely unknown ones to North audiences. For example, another composer from South America. Villa-Lobos wrote 17 quartets during a period of 4 decades. (n°1 in 1915 and the last on 1957). Most of them are top-notch music. It is not just my opinion, since you can find many reviews saying it. Even northern people such David Hurwitz gave top score to the last integral record (He is just unaware that Bessler-Reis quartet had already record the integral during the 80’s, plus many other did great part of the oeuvre such Danubius Quartet for Naxos. . Other example is Thomas Godell on , also we could mention Victor Carr etc.

      Besides Villa-Lobos, there are Nepomuceno (3 quartets in the XIX Century), Silvestre Revueltas (4 quartets in the first half of the XX Century), Julian Orbon, Camargo Guarnieri
      (3 string quartet in the middle of the XX Century) and Mario Lavista just to name few ones. I don’t think it is accurate to say “rare exceptions” from south. Besides Piazzolla, there is Alberto Ginastera from Argentina (2 string quartets on the second half of XX century), Are there something more in the south than Argentina?

      I think the problem is not related to limitations of composers from South, but concerning some edges of audiences from North.

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