Iowa Alumni Magazine | August 2013 | Reviews

Heart Strings

By Kathryn Howe

What do you need for complete job satisfaction? Four chairs, four music stands, some decent lighting—and incredible music.

At least, that's the opinion of Elizabeth Oakes, a former member of the renowned Maia Quartet and now coordinator for the UI's new String Quartet Residency Program. Recently, at a UIAA Lifelong Learning event, Oakes inspired a discussion about the world's enduring affection for the string quartet. Here, she expands on what makes string quartets so special—and their music still popular with audiences after 200 years.

What is the history of the string quartet?

Although other composers wrote music for four parts as early as the 16th century, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) popularized and molded the quartet into what it is today—two violins, a viola, and cello. Haydn is credited with some 80 original quartet pieces—a repertoire that Ludwig van Beethoven built upon and took to the next level. Beethoven's later quartets, written when he was deaf, set the gold standard for the power of this long-adored ensemble.

Why do people like it so much?

In a word: simplicity. Just like the four octaves in a choir—soprano, alto, tenor, and bass—the string quartet covers four-part harmony in a pure and lovely way. Each instrument, while descended from the same family, represents a distinct sound—yet, they blend to deliver an incredible world of creativity and color. Listening to a quartet offers an intimate experience that bewitches music lovers.

Why do quartet players report the highest job satisfaction among musicians?

Personally, I love the interaction of the instruments, how they collaborate to create a conversation among four intellectuals. The string quartet is a democracy, as the members have a real voice in the artistic and musical direction of a performance. The equal number of players demands nuance and compromise in the decisions of the ensemble. The relationships are also rewarding; quartet members spend hours each day playing side-by-side, trying to meet the challenge of keeping in tune without the stabilizing pitch of a piano.

Is chamber music an elitist art?

No! It appeals to people from all walks of life. During the Lifelong Learning event, our program's in-house Ardore Quartet performed in a beautifully restored opera house in Corning, Iowa, as well as at a cultural center in Greenfield that drew quite an eclectic rural crowd. For me, one memory stands out distinctly. In Corning, a gentleman in overalls, who I suppose was a farmer, asked if we could play something from the French composer Claude Debussy, one of my all-time favorites. We both delighted in that unexpected moment.