These two gentleman have the dubious distinction of being the only composers in my collection who were both born, and buried in the 18th Century, thereby making them the composers of the earliest string quartets that I possess. It is debatable whether some of them are in fact string quartets at all, because they can sound like a solo violin backed by a string trio. But, if they elected to name their works as such, who am I to judge them? It matters little.
They do however, share other characteristics. Firstly, there is very little counterpoint in the writing. Secondly, they write very structured pieces, with strict emphasis on form. Thirdly, they are not very emotionally expressive, which to me is the case with most early Classical quartets.
Anton Zimmerman [1732-1781] was an Austrian Silesian composer who wrote three quartets under the title Opus 3. The first two are unusual in that they are both five movement works and have exactly the same formal structure in terms of tempo. The two quartets are both marked at the sam, mostly slow tempos, no wonder that they have a similar feeling. These are very formal, conservative works. I can picture them as early chamber music as they could quite easily be played by amateurs in their homes. They often lack rhythmic impetus and there is little counterpoint to be found here. These are definitely of the solo violin with string trio variety.
Spanish composer Manuel Canales [1747-1786], who wrote six string quartets under the title of Opus 3 is a bit more adventurous. These quartets are of a high standard with an infectious joyful feeling about them. Though lacking some features we have come to expect, they are well-crafted. SQ No. 2 starts with a positive feeling which extends into a second movement. Then follows a slow movement, which is a little cheesy, but was probably suitable for the times. There is some evidence of counterpoint by the composer which adds to their attraction.
These pieces are very listenable if you are amenable to this style. They don’t reach great emotional heights but they are works of their time, as early chamber music. Canales would certainly bear repeated listening.
All of these works are available on CD at present. Zimmerman’s three quartets are on Naxos by the Musica Aeterna Soloists. The Canales’ are available as two CDs by the Cambini Quartet. Both composers’ quartets can be found on Spotify.
Listenability: Very early Classical works.