Monday, January 29, 2007
I've been tidying up a score for string quartet. In the process, it became clear that the 1st violin part, while generally playing in a higher register than the 2nd, has a part that was, by any measure, considerably less difficult than the 2nd. Indeed, it is also much less difficult than the viola and cello parts. It is also a part that was understated, not standing out much from the ensemble, giving little opportunity for the player to distinguish his/herself.
When composing, I tend to keep ease or difficulty of playing on a back burner, not giving it much thought. The notes in my pieces are generally not too difficult to produce, with the problems for the players laying in other, less mechanical dimensions. But, in the case of this part, I saw quickly that, when trying to get the score played, the simplicity of the 1st part could carry a collateral liability. (If I composed music for choir, or wind band, or pedagogy, I suppose that difficulty level would be a more pressing concern).
In its beginnings, the quartet, as a genre, was a showpiece for the Primarius, the first fiddle player. When not actually technically difficult, giving the first something showy was expected, and early quartets are often feel a bit like mini-concertos, stripped of their cadenzas, and with the three others assigned largely to accompaniment. But as the quartet emerged as a music-intellectual center of the repertoire, with composers realizing its great potential as a vehicle for four-way virtuosity and a wide variety of scoring patterns (let's count 'em: four solos, six duos, alone or combined with complementary duos, or with one or two soloists, four trios +/- a soloist, and the full quartet), it gained prestige and became something more of an egalitarian institution.
Well, almost. While a few quartets have taken a consequent egalitarian program, rotating the 1st and 2nd parts between the two violinists (the fine Bozzini quartet is a contemporary example), standard practice remains that one player holds the first chair, always plays the first part, often has a veto over his or her colleagues in matters musical or practical, sometimes gets paid a bit more, and often, the quartet even carries the family name of the Primarius. First among unequals.
What this can mean in practice, for a composer, is that a quartet, in looking for new repertoire may well like a piece that is easy enough to learn in a modest number of rehearsals, provided that it is also showy enough to highlight the virtuosity of the ensemble, and that of the 1st violinist in particular.
For musical reasons, I am going to leave the piece largely as is, although I have found some spots where the 1st can acquire a few more notes to better balance some things. But in doing so, I have to accept that this quartet, while otherwise written very much with an ear to the string quartet as a historical genre, simply does not speak to the issue of the prominent Primarius. That would be another piece. And perhaps, another composer.