Backwards and Forwards: Omega Explores the History of String Quartets  & Clarinet Quintets

Backwards and Forwards: Omega Explores the History of String Quartets & Clarinet Quintets

Let’s face it, we all love string quartets. They are the instrumental combination par excellence of chamber music and most of the great composers of history have mastered the string quartet. They are the ultimate in music making and to hear a string quartet composed by one of the greats and performed live is to experience the very essence of music making itself. 
String quartets are the ultimate musical conversation with friends. Four musicians working together to create a unified voice, their musical lines weaving between each other and moments of call and response and following the leader are all in a day’s work for musicians in a string quartet. 
Omega Ensemble’s first concert of the year provides the audience with an overview of the string quartet. Ranging from Haydn (who established the genre) through to Debussy (who changed the direction of tonality and harmony with his string quartet), this concert gives a beautiful overview of the most revered genre in chamber music. Beyond this, the concert also explores further developments in the chamber music repertoire by presenting the first Clarinet Quintet composed (by Mozart) and also the latest Clarinet to be composed (by Ben Hoadley). Come and experience the rich history of the String Quartet and the Clarinet Quintet as Omega starts in the past and looks the future of chamber music, and all in the iconic setting of Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room 

String quartets are considered a ‘prestigious form’ and composing one represents a true test to the composer. Interestingly string quartets, in their current form, didn’t really exist until Haydn established the genre around 1750. Whilst Haydn didn’t invent the form, he certainly developed it (along with Sonata form) to the point that it is today. Nowadays we consider the string quartet as one of the most prestigious ensembles in chamber music, yet they didn’t have this same prestige in their formative years. 

Haydn and the String Quartet

'Papa' Haydn

'Papa' Haydn

“Haydn’s String Quartet, Op. 64 No. 5 in D major is probably the most popular of Haydn’s eighty-three string quartets, its familiarity receiving two different nicknames. The first violin’s singing melody in the first movement inspired the most common title, The Lark. The perpetually lively tempo and upbeat mood of the finale suggested its alternate name, The Hornpipe, an association with its debut performances in England. Although each of Haydn’s quartets is unique in character and construction, The Lark is a perfect representative of the entire genre. It may have been called the Lark due to the Violin I solo that emerges at the beginning of the piece, floating high above the accompaniment with its singing melody in the upper register of the violin.

Like the majority of string quartets throughout the history of the form, its four movements provide a superior entertainment in four acts aptly described by Paul Epstein as “a story, a song, a dance and a party”.

Haydn Sting Quartet in D Major

Richard Wigmore in the Pocket Guide to Haydn writes: “The first movement’s unforgettable, winged melody [ergo the “Lark” sobriquet] high on the first violin’s E-string, is played as a soaring descant to the pawky, staccato march for the three lower instruments that had opened the proceedings.” 

Debussy’s String Quartet

While Haydn had developed the genre and style of the string quartet, it was Debussy who then put his own stamp on it and took the genre further once more. In his only work for string quartet, Debussy changed the direction of classical music. Debussy had planned to write two string quartets but only one was ever completed. Fed up with the rigors of conservatory training, he longed to compose in a style that was distinctly French, as opposed to the more Germanic intellectual and aesthetic ideals of his teachers. The quartet, set in four movements, received its premiere on December 29, 1893, by the Ysaÿe Quartet at the Société Nationale in Paris to mixed reactions. 

During this time composers were looking towards the future and breaking the ties with the rules and tonality of classical music that had come before them. Debussy’s string quartet was the final divorce from these rules and the tonal language he used in this piece excitedly looks to the future of music. Debussy wrote: "Any sounds in any combination and in any succession are henceforth free to be used in a musical continuity.” Pierre Boulez said that Debussy freed chamber music from "rigid structure, frozen rhetoric and rigid aesthetics,” and it is perhaps this string quartet that achieved this. 
This approach to music had freed him of the confines of tonality and other composers would follow in his footsteps. With his harmonic ideas and freedom in approach to writing music (as Debussy once said “I write whatever I feel”), he had successfully taken the form that had been set by history and tradition and projected it well into the future.


And then there were five: The First Clarinet Quintet

While Haydn had established the string quartet as we know it today, it was Mozart who took the four instruments and added a clarinet. He was also the first composer to explore the lyrical side of the clarinet and give it more prominence in a chamber music setting.
Mozart’s only clarinet quintet was composed for his dear friend Anton Stadler in 1789. It was originally thought to have been composed for the basset clarinet, however, modern performances tend to utilise the Clarinet in A or Bb. In Omega’s recording of Mozart’s clarinet Quintet and their subsequent performances Artistic Director David Rowden uses the basset clarinet.  

In 2016 Omega Ensemble recorded Mozart’s iconic Clarinet Quintet on their debut release.

You can purchase the CD here

Experience Omega performing Mozart’s Quintet here via Omega On Demand.

It wasn’t until Brahms decided to write a clarinet quintet in (1891) that this combination of instruments really took off and ever since composers have been writing for this combination of instruments; exploring the range of colours and nuances that can be created with it. Ever since then composers have been writing for this combination of instruments and exploring the broad potentials it has to offer.

True to Omega’s philosophy of presenting iconic gems of the chamber music repertoire as well as commissioning new works, this concert features the first clarinet quintet ever composed and also the latest clarinet to be composed, Broken Songs, by Ben Hoadley.

Read about Ben Hoadley’s composing and his new work.

Highlighting the gems of classical chamber music and delighting their audiences, Omega’s first concert for the year is not to be missed. Come and experience the history and development of the string quartet and hear works that were the first of their kind alongside a brand new work that explores the now and the future of the clarinet quintet. 

Book your tickets to Omega Ensemble’s first concert and enjoy the joys of classical music and witness an intimate musical conversation amongst friends. Immerse yourself in the rich history of the string quartet and the clarinet quintet, celebrating the gems of chamber music. 




Samuel Cottell

Samuel Cottell is a multi-verstalie musician (pianist, arranger and composer), writer, music journalist (Leader Writer -Cut Common Mag, Fine Music Magazine, Music and Literature, Jazz Australia and Australian, and biographer. Samuel is also an music educator and currently tutors music theory and analysis in the Arts Music Unit, Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Samuel is currently undertaking his PhD (Musicology) at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music where he is researching the life and music of Tommy Tycho. Samuel has also been published in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and has interviewed world-acclaimed musicians Renee Flemming, Steven Isserlis, Maxim Vengerov, Stuart Skelton and local musicians Daniel Rojas,  Simon Tedeschi and Katie Noonan. As well as these activities Samuel is in demand as a program note writer (Nexas Saxophone Quartet) and gives pre-concert talks for The Grevillea Ensemble and appeared on Radio National's "RareCollections" talking about Tommy Tycho's recording career and contribution to music.