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How Hadyn gave the string quartet a sporting chance

Music-making is just like sport, if you allow for the fact that demonstrations of Olympic greatness don't tend to be accompanied by a tuneful soundtrack. It's more a case of the dedication required to reach the highest level, and the fact that there are more ways than one to skin this particular cat.

The Heineken Cup or the All-Ireland? Well, that's the team in action, the orchestra playing. The loneliness of the long-distance runner? How about Martha Argerich performing one of those great pianistic endurance tests, Liszt's 'Hungarian Rhapsody No 2' or Chopin's 'Fantaisie-Impromptu'.

Then there's the musical equivalent of Olympic rowing's coxless four -- the string quartet. Even though nobody appears to be in charge, there's a subtle hierarchy at play. Out of the potential for chaos, beauty blooms.

Over two-and-a-half centuries, the string quartet has been the basis for some of the most beguiling sounds. Though it's probably not true, there's a lovely story of how the first one came to be played.

Joseph Haydn, whose innovation and subsequent catalogue of more than 100 symphonies had him nicknamed the father of that form, was only at the start of his illustrious career. He'd a name for writing good music, though, and the local baron would ask him to rustle up a number or two for his house parties.

There was no band, it would just be Haydn, who played the violin, joined by whoever else could play an instrument. The guest list for one particular soirée offered him another fiddle player, a viola, and a cellist. Haydn delivered a score, and, so the story goes, the string quartet was born.

It is a particularly intimate form, with the players free to respond to each other in a way not always possible in larger scale performances. Quartets are individual, unique. Without a conductor on the rostrum, it is the essence of team play. Richly rewarding music is the result.

And yet. A string quartet could be dismissed as a "useless trifle", which is how Johannes Brahms described the last of the three he wrote. But he was under pressure, struggling, trying to finish his first symphony, which had been over 20 years in the making.

Some trifle! From its very first bars, it captivates. The Brahms No 3 is light and airy, it's everything a string quartet should be.

With the knowledge that there was something altogether more serious occupying the composer's mind, it's easy to see how he could see this as a trifle, light relief. Or, to give it another label, sport.

RTÉ lyric fm features The Hamilton Scores from 9.30 each Saturday morning, and George Hamilton's Full Score on Sundays at 3.00pm.


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