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String Quartet is so hard for me, how can I get over this?


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Since my first year as a composer, I've wanted to compose a string quartet. It's getting into the start of my fourth year and I still only have 1 partial scherzo, a complete canon, and sonata drafts lost to history as proof that I've tried and tried to compose for string quartet. The canon was a success, but then again, canons are super easy for me, especially Canon at the Octave, although Unison and Fourth(specifically when the starting voice is in the bass, a Soprano start to a Canon at the Fourth is harder) aren't hard for me either. The scherzo wasn't bad, but could be improved. And the sonata drafts, definitely not my best, though some piano sonata drafts were worse.

It's just so hard for me to compose for a string quartet, and the sheer hundreds to thousands of pre-existing string quartets doesn't help in the least bit, it puts more pressure on me to do my best than the same number of Piano Sonatas would. And granted, I sometimes do compose faster and better under pressure. But not the pressure of hundreds of works from composers I love, but rather, time crunch type of pressure. Trios are super easy for me, they have that perfect balance, each instrument gets it's own role, and I have composed several of my own trios and arranged even more pieces for trio. Sextets are also quite easy, especially if I turn the second cello of the standard sextet into a double bass and/or include a piano, which can get down into those double bass pitches. Like the trio, there's that perfect balance of register and role.

In fact, including a piano makes just about every string ensemble easier for me. That is, except the Duet(Piano Duet is the hardest duet for me, String duo is easier), Trio(The piano tends to unbalance the trio from my experience writing both piano and string trios), Octet(I can easily divide it into 2 quartets of Violin, Viola, Cello, and Double Bass if need be for certain passages), Nonet(Trio of Trios), and Orchestra(The easiest large ensemble for me). Septet, I have no clue on whether piano makes it easier, but I would suspect yes to that.

These are the reasons I find the String Quartet hard that don't have to do with the pressure of hundreds of works from composers I love:

  1.  The balance seems wrong from a composing perspective, 2 high pitched instruments against a middle and bass register instrument seems a bit skewed, unlike the trio which has that perfect balance
  2. Making sure that the viola and cello get their turn as lead melodist is harder for me with the quartet than the trio, again due to pitch balance, I can't have the violins go too low if the cello is taking its turn for instance, or for viola, I wouldn't know when to use treble clef, whereas with the cello, I know exactly the range for clef changes.
  3. 4 instruments in general is harder for me in comparison to 3 or 5, with the one exception being woodwinds, where I actually find the quartet easier than the trio(Trio leaves me so many woodwind options that it's hard to decide vs Quartet being more standardized) Piano and Brass both alleviate this quartet difficulty a bit for their own reasons(Piano has about the same range as strings in terms of # of notes, but it leans towards the low end instead of high, so it gives me more bass to help balance when the violin is going extra high for a solo, up into the strident third octave. And as for Brass, the balance of 2 high instruments(Trumpets) against 2 relatively low instruments(Tuba and Trombone) sounds more balanced than the string quartet)

And I know I keep hearing about the SATB approach to string quartet writing whenever I ask about how I can make it easier. But I'm not sure how much I trust that approach. I don't hear what I would consider SATB very often in quartets of any sort, but especially not string quartets(tends to be restricted to octave passages which don't occur that commonly in string quartets compared to other passage types). Usually what I hear is more like SSTB or STTB, where the second violin is more like a second soprano(Some Mozart and Haydn quartets for instance have quite a bit of this SSTB voicing) or a high tenor(Tends to be what Beethoven goes for in his quartets is an STTB voicing). Sometimes like in the start of Beethoven's "Serioso" quartet, I even hear more of an AATB voicing, first violin just a bit higher or in unison with the second violin and both in the low register. And that's not even counting the Viola, Cello, and high Violin solos I hear at least 1 of in pretty much every quartet. So I don't think the SATB approach is trustworthy.

But, besides the SATB approach that I don't trust, how else can I make string quartet writing easier? Just doing it hasn't worked for me. At my best, I reach the transition of the first movement and don't know how to go further(first quartet draft suffered from this). At my worst, I don't even get past the first theme of the first movement(second quartet draft suffered from this). Collaboration did work for me once for a string quintet piece(a short one), I was mostly doing the harmony and the person I was collaborating with did most of the melody(of course, I did have my shining moments in the B minor section where I did some of the melody as well as harmony and the coda was all my composing), but I don't know how well it would work for a quartet, much less a sonata for a quartet(which is usually what I think of when I think of composing for string quartet, even when I was doing the scherzo, I was thinking of it eventually being part of a whole sonata).

And score study of quartets hasn't made it any bit easier for me, neither has Thomas Goss' MOOOC T1 course. And composing for trio and then arranging it to have the second violin in there seems kind of cheaty to me, because I would be taking advantage of the fact that the trio is very easy for me and I'm a good arranger(so good that I can take an orchestra and reduce it to piano duet or solo and vice versa, expand solo piano into an orchestra). I wouldn't really be composing for a quartet then, but rather, arranging for one, which I do often enough with works by other composers.

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26 minutes ago, caters said:

And composing for trio and then arranging it to have the second violin in there seems kind of cheaty to me

Unless you're planning to write a 4-part Bach chorale (as you were saying with various different kinds of possible voicings of Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass and different combinations thereof) you don't have to have all four instruments playing at the same time.  You could just write for different combinations of three instruments and have a different voice take turns resting while the others play.  Or you could have one voice pizzicato while the others play arco like I did in my Divertimento and Variations.  Just an idea.

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1 hour ago, aMusicComposer said:

May I ask: if you find the ensemble imbalanced or unwieldy, if you feel pressure from other works, if the number of instruments is difficult - why do you want to write a string quartet?

 

Because:

  1. I've felt that it's required to at some point write at least 1 string quartet for a classical music composer like myself(rarely any classical music composer forgoes the string quartet alltogether, most compose at least 1, some compose hundreds). Even if it's after I get the orchestra down, I still feel the requirement.
  2. It was one of my early wants, back when I was trying everything, and a lot of those early wants have stuck around to this day, with String Quartet being just one of those(Fugues, Chaconnes, Baroque Suites, Symphonies, and Concertos are also some early wants that have stuck around, but except for the Fugue, they aren't as hard for me. And I have been having partial successes with my fugues(good exposition, not knowing how to get past it into the episodes))
  3. It's a sonata for more instruments basically and I've always loved composing sonatas, no matter how tough it gets at the second theme, that was one of my early successes was the Sonata.

So what, are you suggesting that I write a Trio Sonata or a Quintet Sonata, since I find the Quintet a bit easier(especially with Double Bass instead of Second Violin) and the Trio a lot easier, instead of trying to tough my way through the unbalanced String Quartet?

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Write using resources with which you're most comfortable. The String Quartet isn't of itself sacred. One of Schoenberg's most beautiful pieces is written for String Sextet (2 Vns, 2 Vas, 2 Vcls).

He added Double Basses in his arrangement for String Orchestra - which does lend credence to your idea of the Quartet being a bit upper-register heavy. Evidently Schoenberg felt that adding Double Basses would allow greater weight to the bottom end.

The problem with adding a double bass to a string quartet seems more about the lowest notes being blurry unless doubled an octave above in an ensemble but they're there, to be exploited. And the volume (loudness) of a double bass would easily overpower a violin in terms of balance, without caution. Presumably that accounts for the proportions in an orchestra. No reason not to write a string quintet - or even a quartet with 1 each of vns, Vas, Vcs and Basso if you're of a mind. 

 I also find a small orchestra with limited string players (like my town orchestra sounded fuller with a double bass.

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22 hours ago, caters said:

instead of trying to tough my way through the unbalanced String Quartet?

Yes, that is what I was tentatively suggesting.

But if you want to go for a quartet, try starting small rather than jumping in with a sonata form movement. Even writing a piece a few bars long every day will help. Then you can gradually increase the length in accordance with your ambition.

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On 8/31/2021 at 4:46 PM, Quinn said:

The problem with adding a double bass to a string quartet seems more about the lowest notes being blurry unless doubled an octave above in an ensemble but they're there, to be exploited. And the volume (loudness) of a double bass would easily overpower a violin in terms of balance, without caution. Presumably that accounts for the proportions in an orchestra. No reason not to write a string quintet - or even a quartet with 1 each of vns, Vas, Vcs and Basso if you're of a mind. 

I've written plenty of chamber works with double bass and the other strings in there(no sonatas, but I'm sure what I say would apply to sonatas as well), they were fine. I usually double at the octave with the cello to give that fuller sound as well, my other doubling option, the unison just sounds like a bigger cello to me, not good, and like it would be hard on the bassist, also not good. But I do give it independent passages sometimes, especially at cadences, where the cello will often rise up towards the viola and the double bass stands its ground in the bass register.

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I think that you may be overthinking it.

What I've always found with this kind of (or similar) ensemble is that you have to consider the parts of the piece by what they're playing. Like, don't even think about it as "Violin 1, 2, Viola, Cello", think of it as what they're playing: Melody, accompaniment figurations, bass line, counter line, this part is a call and response...

Basically, you just write a piece of music and the glorious thing about arranging it or composing it for a string orchestra or quartet is that provided you have no more than four parts, you can very easily figure out which instrument is best-suited to a particular line since the ensembles covers the entire range and except for maybe the violins and violas' lowest range, you don't really have to worry about it possibly sounding like $h1t like you do with winds.

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8 minutes ago, AngelCityOutlaw said:

I think that you may be overthinking it.

What I've always found with this kind of (or similar) ensemble is that you have to consider the parts of the piece by what they're playing. Like, don't even think about it as "Violin 1, 2, Viola, Cello", think of it as what they're playing: Melody, accompaniment figurations, bass line, counter line, this part is a call and response...

Basically, you just write a piece of music and the glorious thing about arranging it or composing it for a string orchestra or quartet is that provided you have no more than four parts, you can very easily figure out which instrument is best-suited to a particular line since the ensembles covers the entire range and except for maybe the violins and violas' lowest range, you don't really have to worry about it possibly sounding like $h1t like you do with winds.

 

Problem with just doing that is that I hear an imbalance towards the higher pitched instruments. Other quartets like Piano Quartet, Brass Quartet, and Woodwind Quartet don't have this pitch imbalance problem.

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AngelCityOutlaw has a point that surfaces well in Beethoven's last quartet. Consider the trio to the Scherzo (second movement), Vivace.

Were it not Beethoven it would be considered bizarre, a fortissimo tripling of Violin 2 and the lower instruments (covering 3 octaves) while Violin 1 does a wild dance a couple of octaves above that.

Not the time here for analysis except that it's clear Beethoven explored new instrumentation in his late quartets, new timbres and so on, this Scherzo being a prime example.

However, one still has to consider balance, tessitura and things when writing for string quartet or any smaller ensemble for that matter.

Even so, be like Beethoven: throw your all into it!

Edited by Quinn
Art!
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