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.


Stefan Kac said...

Just as queer theorists have invented gender-neutral pronouns, composers could certainly benefit from finding neutral labels for 1st and 2nd parts. Unfortunately, we'll probably never find such a thing (even A and B have severe hierarchical connotations). Of course, we could just decide never to use more than one of the same instrument in a piece...

Steve Hicken said...

Just use names for the instruments in different languages.

Daniel Wolf said...

The problem is not the naming convention in the score, which is invisible onstage, but social convention that the 1st violinist is something more than a first among equals.

That convention is a reality for composers who wish to have their pieces played; if your piece (like mine) doesn't reinforce the pecking order, there are a number of quartets who will simply not consider the piece.

Thomas D said...

In Hans Keller's book on the Haydn quartets you'll find the remark that the 2nd violin is the 'difficult' part : since it is a treble instrument but (most often) has to play the alto part in the harmony.

The classic string quartet texture uses two of the same instrument to fulfil quite different functions. Whether this is successful depends on whether the two violinists are able to produce suitably different timbres (dynamics, articulations, ...) - contrairiwise, if they try to match each other, the result is likely to be ugly.

Interesting quartet textures aren't 'egalitarian': two different parts never have the same function!

One of Haydn's late D major quartets (op 76?) includes a virtuoso-sounding second violin counterpoint in the finale: the secret is that it's D major and first position all the way.

There is also a Haydn movement where he gets the second to play a high-lying solo in (I think) Bb minor: perhaps thinking of the peculiarities of the 2nd as a player.

I believe Haydn played the 2nd in the famous quartet session with Dittersdorf, Mozart (viola) and Vanhal (cello).

Now for your quartet ... couldn't you rewrite it as a string trio?