Writing for String Quartet

September 9, 2017 | Author: Bernard Gagnon | Category: Viola, Quartet, String Instruments, Cello, Violin
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Writing for String Quartet...


Writing For String Quartet An Introduction to Composing for the Brodowski Quartet

Welcome to this year’s Young Composer of Dyfed scheme. Once again our Resident Composer is Peter Reynolds who has joined forces with our Resident Ensemble to produce this workbook which we hope will help you along your journey of composition. And now let me introduce our Resident Ensemble for 2011 - 12. The Brodowski Quartet comprises David Brodowski , Catrin Win Morgan (violins), Felix Tanner (viola) and Vanessa Lucas-Smith (cello). Originally from Germany, Wales, Scotland and England (indeed Catrin was brought up in Llangadog) they now live in London and indeed have been described by one critic as the “new kids on the London scene”. Find out more about the quartet at their website www.brodowskiquartet.com where they will be keeping a blog about their residency with us here in West Wales http://brodowskiquartet.posterous.com/.

You can download an Introduction and Guidelines to submitting a piece for the Brodowski Quartet; a registration form for a tutorial and the application form that needs to accompany any composition you submit from our website www.ymmd.org.uk

Dates for the Diary Friday 9 December 2011.

Deadline for registering a one-to-one tutorial with Peter Reynolds

Friday 10 February 2012

Deadline for submissions

Week of 19 March 2012

A selection of the compositions submitted will be performed by the Brodowski Quartet at a series of Schools Showcases

Saturday 24 March 2012

Young Composer of Dyfed Celebration Concert at Neuadd y Dderwen, Rhosygilwen

If you have any questions please feel free to contact me. Email: Phone:

[email protected] 029 2019 0176

Cathy Morris Administrator 2

Introduction Composing for the String Quartet Most of our resident ensembles over the last few years have been groups that didn’t even exist beyond about fifty years ago, but the string quartet has been around for over 250 years. You might think that during that time composers might have exhausted all the possibilities of writing for this combination of instruments, but it has such an immense wealth and range of sounds and possibilities that, each year, composers come up with something new for it. This is now your chance. What is a string quartet?  A string quartet consists of two violins, a viola and a cello  The group normally sit in a semi-circle, so that they can keep eye contact with one another when they play  String instruments are not like a keyboard or piano where it is possible to play a melody and accompaniment – instead they are essentially melodic instruments, designed to play single lines.  The string quartet came into existence because of this: it is group of many possibilities, from playing a simple melody that the other instruments accompany, through to perhaps writing four individual melodic lines that simultaneously fit together.  When you depress a note on the piano, or play a note on a woodwind instrument there is no way of changing the sound of that note. String instruments though can make all sorts of different and fascinating sounds that make it one of the most colourful ensembles of all time.  In this book you will find a list of the sounds and techniques that a string quartet is capable of and which you can include in your compositions if you wish. Do I have to write for the whole string quartet? How do you write something for each of the four instruments? Oddly enough, writing for four string instruments is easier than writing for one, two or three! This book includes lots of examples of ideas and techniques that other composers have used in writing for the group. In previous years, there have been other opportunities to add your own instrument to the line-up, but this year we are asking everyone to write for the string quartet alone because the group is so rich in the number of sounds available.

If in doubt - just ask. In the pages that follow, you will find: -

Technical tips on writing for violin, viola and cello Some ideas for getting your piece going Dos and don’ts on the presentation of your scores and performing parts


A Player’s Perspective A Brief History of the String Quartet 1750s - The String Quartet is born Pieces for two violins, a viola and cello composed called divertimentos, serenades and quartettos. Composers employed by aristocrats to write chamber music for pleasure and performance by aristocratic amateurs, see picture below

1780s – Composition style of the quartet established Haydn composed his Op. 33 Quartets Mozart composed six quartets dedicated to Haydn Private performances by aristocratic amateurs with an invited audience organised in courts and palaces At one Viennese gathering Haydn and Mozart performed together in a quartet 1800s – Aristocrats could no longer afford to pay the composers Composers began to arrange profit making concerts to make money Professional musicians paid to perform String Quartets in concert halls 1820s – Composers wrote more demanding music for the professional musicians Instrument makers developed string instruments and bows to meet the demands of the music and aid projection in the concert halls 1900s – Purpose built concert halls for Chamber Music For example, the Wigmore Hall in London, built in 1901 A greater demand for listening to the String Quartet repertoire Thus the professional String Quartet is established


The Basics THE VIOLIN Range

The Strings: G, D, A, E Clef - written in the treble clef as in diagram above Bowing: Arco – indicates to play with the bow Players assume it is arco unless it is marked pizz, to pluck Once you have written pizz remember to write arco where the pizz should end Have you considered? Each string has different characteristics. Therefore you could insist that a player plays on a specific string by writing the Roman numeral of the string above the passage. A melody that can be played low on the D string could be played high on the G string creating a dark, rich tone. Roman Numerals for Violin Strings: E = I A = II D = III G = IV Role of the 1st Violin Among the four players, the first violin may get the most attention and acclaim; many quartets, for example, are named after their first violinists. -

The Virtuoso of the quartet Mostly plays the melody Occasional accompaniment role Generally plays in the higher register of the Violin Usually has the most notes!


A comic First Violin Tale Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830) was the leader of the first ever professional string quartet, the ‘Razumovsky Quartet’. It was said that Schuppanzigh was a handsome young man, but in adult life became seriously obese. Towards the end of his life, his fingers grew so fat that he was unable to play in tune. Beethoven composed a short comic choral piece dedicated to him called ‘Praise to the Fat One.’

Role of the 2nd Violin It is a versatile role – the 2nd violin could be described as the Chameleon of the String Quartet and is demanded to play many different roles - Countermelody – supportive role to the melody, mostly the 1st violin - Dialogue – alternating interjections with the other parts - Melody – sometimes taking over the melody - Accompaniment – blends in with harmony and accompanies the melody - Harmonically – bridges the gap between the higher register of the 1st violin and the viola by adding warmth and depth to the texture. Is it so bad to play 2nd Violin?!

Violin Joke Q. What's the difference between a violin and a viola? A. There is no difference. The violin just looks smaller because the violinist's head is so much bigger.



The Strings: C, G, D, A Clef - written in the alto clef, as diagram above. For high notes use the treble clef

Role of the Viola The short story is that the viola is the tenor voice of the string quartet. It dates from a similar time to the violin in the middle of the 16th Century. The viola is an acoustically imperfect instrument – to get the best sound from the lowest notes the string would have to be so long that it would be impossible to play! -

The viola has a very characteristic dark and mellow tone Baroque Era - filling in harmony with the occasional bass line Classical Era – Viola liberated - given melodies Romantic Era – used as a solo voice 20th and 21st Century – Viola used as an equal voice in the quartet

Have you considered? Giving the viola the melody solo line or forcing the viola to take control of the bass line by writing the cello higher in register than the viola?

Viola Joke Q. What's the difference between a viola and an onion? A. No one cries when you cut up a viola.



The Strings: C, G, D, A Clef - Usually written in the bass clef. For higher music use the tenor clef and for even higher the treble clef. Down and Up bows Down bows are heavier (moving from the frog to the point) and are generally used on the strong beats of the bar, with up bows for upbeats. You don’t need to indicate bowings unless for a specific effect. Think Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ which has a repeated down bow motif. Role of the cello - provides the bass line - an accompanying instrument responsible for the stability and structure of the music often in control of the flow - Through the centuries the cello has been liberated by composers taking advantage of its vast expressive qualities and allowing the cello to take many a beautiful melody with the other instruments providing accompaniment.

Cello Joke Q. How do you get a Violin to sound like a Cello? A. Play in the low register with a lot of wrong notes!



Expands the vocabulary of the instruments to add greater expression and variety Adds unusual sound worlds and tones to the music Expresses something other worldly Stretch the instrument to the max

Always ask yourself WHY you are using a particular effect / technique. As players, we see a fine line between an imaginative use of an effect and an effect for its own sake. Always have a reason, and make it clear in the score where you want the effect. Some pieces have a short explanation of any effects and how the composer would like them performed at the beginning of the score. WHAT Sul Tasto

HOW Bow over the fingerboard

Sul ponticello

Bow very close to the bridge Using the wood of the bow to tap the string Sliding the finger up or down the string Attach mute to the bridge

Col legno Glissando Mute con sordino – with mute senza sordino – without mute Practice Mute

Attach a larger mute to the bridge

EFFECT Wispy, warm, gentle sounds Glassy, metallic sounds Percussive effect, with a high pitch A smooth rising or falling of pitch Dampens the vibrations to create a softer, more muffled sound An extreme version of the standard mute. Very quiet


Extreme vibrato Non vibrato Bartok pizz (noted by a circle with a vertical line at 12 o’clock above the note in question) Left hand pizz (noted by a + sign above the note)

Bowing on the tailpiece Tapping

Bow behind the bridge

Microtones Harmonics

A wider, less controlled version of vibrato Playing deliberately without vibrato Plucking hard allowing the string to hit the wood of the fingerboard

Bending of pitch hysterical sounding Sparse, pure tone colour

Plucked with the left hand

Facilitates a quick change between arco and pizz (where the pizz is an open string) Sometimes bowing and plucking is possible at the same time. A ghostly whisper

Bowing lightly on the tailpiece Using your hand to tap the shoulder or body of the instrument Bowing behind the bridge where the string is very short Playing less than a semitone Pure - Touching the string lightly with the left hand at various points of the string Stopped – lightly touching the string (usually) a fourth higher than the stopped note being held down

A sharp, loud snap

A tap or knocking sound to add rhythm or effect An unpleasant screech!

An out of tune effect, quite painful sounding Pure, flute-like quality. Especially effective in soft dynamics

For a full comprehensive diagram of how to write Harmonics for string instruments visit http://www.composershop.com/public/Strings%20harmonics%20table.pdf


Practical Considerations are important! For players it is essential that you have: A CLEAR SCORE – The clearer, the simpler, the better. ‘arghhhh!’……….


PAGE TURNS Try and arrange your pages so page turns can be facilitated easily and at the least disturbing points. A semiquaver rest won’t suffice! PROGRAMME NOTE It doesn’t need to be long but a little education can go a long way and really help the audience enter into your world. For example we recently performed a quartet by Simon Holt who uses the poem shown below as the inspiration for his work ‘Two movements for quartet.’

Composer’s Note I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – The Stillness in the Room Was like the Stillness in the Air – Between the Heaves of Storm – The Eyes around – had wrung them dry – And Breaths were gathering firm For that last Onset – when the King Be witnessed – in the Room – I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away What portion of me be Assignable – and then it was There interposed a Fly – With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz – Between the light – and me – And then the Windows failed – and then I could not see to see – Emily Dickinson Two movements for string quartet is the second part of my proposed five-part cycle ‘a ribbon of time’, the first part being Sunrise, yellow noise for soprano and orchestra. It is a cycle of pieces using the poetry of Emily Dickinson as its starting point. The two movements take their titles from the above poem: ‘Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz – and ‘The Stillness in the Room’ respectively. More or less all the material for the piece is derived from the opening viola solo of the second movement. It is approximately 15’ in duration. Simon Holt, April 2001 12

Now you’ve read our guide to the String Quartet – visit our Blog Page http://www.brodowskiquartet.com/2011/07/14/young-composer-of-dyfed-blog/ Why visit our blog page?  Ask us a question directly  See musical examples of different styles of composing for String Quartet  Watch a visual guide to sound effects And lots more to come.... We look forward to meeting you in Wales David, Catrin, Felix and Vanessa (The Brodowski Quartet)


Composition hints and tips Techniques for making a start on your composition There’s nothing worse than sitting in front a blank piece of manuscript paper or a computer screen, trying to find that first idea that will get your piece started. Many of the composers who have written the string quartet in the past have lots of “tricks of the trade” for structuring their pieces so that inspiration doesn’t flag. In the sections that follow, we’re sharing some of these with you. You should be able to adapt them to your own pieces or perhaps use several elements from them to come up with some individual of your own. How do I write for four string instruments? In the previous section we’ve given you a taste of some of the range of sounds and techniques that you can draw on, but how do you combine these in a piece for four instruments? Here a few thoughts: 

The four voices of the string quartet more or less correspond to the four voices of a choir: soprano (violin 1), alto (violin 2), tenor (viola) and bass (cello). This means that if you were to transcribe more choral music, each of those parts would fit the quartet with virtually no need for adjustment (example: Hen Wlad fy Nhadau) and most piano music (often written in four parts) will do likewise (example – opening eight bars of Beethoven Sonata in C, Op.2/3).

Remember – you do not have to give all four instruments something to do all the time. In real quartet writing the group often break into trios, duos and even solos.

Who has the melody? Any of the instruments that you choose. Remember, having the tune is not just confined to the first violin.

Are you a keyboard player or percussionist? If you are, then you’ll know that as soon as you play a note, it begins to decay. But strings are sustaining instruments – they can prolong a note indefinitely (but don’t use this as an excuse for lazy part-writing!)

Keys. Whether or not you are thinking in terms of writing your piece in a key, string instruments respond more happily to simple sharp keys (G, D etc) on account of their open strings.


The most straightforward major keys are: E flat, B flat, F, C, G, D, A & E The most straightforward minor keys are: C, G, D, A, E, B More awkward are A flat and B major and F and F# minor The most difficult major keys are: D flat, G flat, C flat, F# and C# The most difficult minor keys are: B flat, E flat, A flat, C#. G# and D#


In C - Terry Riley Californian composer Terry Riley, more or less, invented minimalism with this piece in 1963. Look at his piece In C on page 16 and you will see it fills only one side of a piece of paper and doesn’t look like it would last more than a minute, but it can last as long as an hour and is packed with rhythmic energy. The way it works is very simple: -

It is written on one side of a piece of paper and consists of 53 separate musical fragments.


Each player can play one of these for as long as s/he wishes before moving on to the next.


All fragments are in C major (or at least on white notes) except for some about two thirds of the way through which use F#s or B flats.


There is no way to predict when a player will move on to the next fragment or how quickly, so the performers have to listen and respond to one another in a improvisatory manner which recalls jazz.



Composing using a sequence of chords: Fratres – Arvo Pärt Estonian-born Arvo Pärt is one of today’s most popular classical composers, renowned for the hypnotic tranquillity of his music. Fratres (meaning Fraternity) has a mysterious ritualistic feeling about it. -

It is based on a sequence of chords, repeated seven times.


A sense of continuity is achieved through a very simple way of varying the chords.


The first time the chords are heard, they are played in a very high ethereal register of the string quartet and then, with each repeat, they sink into a lower register until their final dark mysterious repeat.


The sequence is, more or less, made up of four-part chords and the interest is maintained by revoicing them each time they are heard (for instance, transferring the cello, viola or 2 nd violin voice to the top line and so forth).


Composing using an ostinato: Shostakovich String Quartet No 8 (second movement) Russian-born Dmitri Shostakovich wrote this chilling and dramatic piece in just three days, dedicating it to, “the victims of fascism and war”. An ostinato is a rhythmical pattern or phrase that is obsessively repeated.

- Shostakovich using four or five very simple repeated rhythmical patterns (or ostinatos) to build up an exciting, driving texture, full of drama and excitement. - Ostinato 1: a simple forward propelling idea in violin 1 - Ostinato 2: heavy repeated chords in the other strings - Ostinato 3: the DSCH (D-E flat-C-B) idea (these were Shostakovich’s own initials.

- Until we get to the big tune (about a minute into this) all the music comes from these three ostinatos.


Texture: Bartók String Quartet No.5 (second movement) Eighty years ago, the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók reinvented the sound of the string quartet as we know it. In some of the slow music from these quartets he evokes through unusual textures and sounds the strange sounds of night. -

This music that is about creating an atmosphere – about making time stand still – so it is not important to move it forward in the conventional kind of way.


The second violin plays a tremolo on its lowest note throughout


The first violin has quick, nervous upward and downward scales (each of these moves through the notes between the interval of a tritone (or augmented 4th)


The viola has several disjoined pairs of pizzicato notes (a little like one of those night insects that we can all hear, but not see)


The cello has fragments of melody, pulling the music together and giving it direction.


Rhythm: Stravinsky: Three Pieces for String Quartet (First section) This is music that is driven forward almost by rhythm alone in a very systematic, almost mathematical kind of way – but the result is raw and earthy in the mood it creates. -

There is no changing harmony at all: the cello keeps on repeating the same three notes (E flat, D flat, C), the viola has just one note (D), the second violin always has a descending C# scale (starting on F#) and the first violin has a melody in G – its like having three different keys going simultaneously.


Each of the four instruments has an idea of its own which is just repeated but, because they are all different lengths, they never come together at the same time.


The violin melody is 23 beats long


The viola and cello accompaniment is 7 beats long


The second violin has a very odd and complicated sequence.


You’d have to repeat the sequence many dozens of times before we arrive back at the original starting point.



The Presentation of Scores and Performing Parts In General Much valuable rehearsal time can be lost discussing practical notational problems in the score, rather than the music itself. So much time is wasted working out whether this passage should be played staccato or legato, or deciding whether it should be mf or pp when the musicians should be concentrating on interpreting the work in front of them. This is not only a waste of time (and money!), but both musicians and composer often find this process frustrating and annoying! Score A score is just a way of communicating your creative ideas as clearly as possible to the musicians. There are lots of different ways to do this. Some scores are just a list of instructions to the musicians. Handwritten scores or computer-generated scores are both fine. If you want to experiment with unconventional notation or graphic scores, that's fine too. If you decide to use Sibelius software, please don't be restricted by your knowledge of the software - if there's a sound or an idea that you want that you can't get the computer to notate, print it out and write in any extra symbols by hand. This can also be useful if you want to include a free or improvised section in the piece. 1.

The most important thing here is that the score is clear and legible. If you are not using Sibelius or a computer program the score should be presented in black ink (not pencil) and should include both bar numbers and rehearsal letters. Remember, a neatly written hand copy is often as good as something printed off the computer.


The ideal format is A4 portrait, not landscape or any strange configuration of paper


Scores and parts should be presented in loose leaf format (not bound please, as we often have to make copies).


Tempo markings are essential. ‘Adagio’ or ‘Allegro’ are ok, but also use metronome markings as well if you feel confident of doing this. Remember a score that sounds fine on Sibelius playback will often go slower in live performance.

Parts, instrumental or vocal 1.

Exactly the same principles apply. If you are not using Sibelius or a computer program parts should be clearly written in black ink. Bar numbers and Rehearsal figures are absolutely essential.


Remember that performers have to turn pages. Page turns should be carefully arranged with at least one bar's rest on either side of the page turn otherwise players will have to stop playing (and perhaps lose their place) whilst they turn the page. Composers who are using computer programs such as Sibelius or Finale will still have 22

to arrange this carefully when they extract parts from a file. The computer does not do this automatically! You will have to arrange these turns by using format applications in the program.

Phrasing. slurs and dynamics 1.

Please be clear about how you intend the music to be performed. Phrasing, slurring and dynamics are an integral part of any score and as important as the notes themselves.


Be clear about how the music should be slurred. In fact, this is more important than giving vague phrase marks to performers. Composers do not need to give specific instructions about up-bows or down-bows, but they must be clear about how individual notes or phrases should be slurred.


It is pointless protesting to musicians that particular passages are too loud or soft if dynamic markings are absent. Be very clear about dynamic markings in the score and parts.


It is vital to check each instrumental part with the score, even if the parts have been extracted from Sibelius. This is especially true with transposing instruments.

The deadline for submissions is Friday 10 February 2012 Students interested in submitting a composition may register for a one to one tutorial with our Resident Composer in the New Year. Registration forms will be available from all Heads of Music across the three counties or via Cathy Morris, Administrator. The deadline for registrations for a one-to-one tutorial is Friday 9 December 2011


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