Brian Lewis: Canons and Music for Four Violins

June 14, 2017, 11:11 AM · Violinist and University of Texas Violin Professor Brian Lewis has some vivid memories from playing community service concerts back when he was a student at Juilliard, participating in the Gluck Community Service Fellowship: playing for amputees; for AIDS patients during the '80s; and playing a concert in a locked mental ward, where he witnessed "a woman who had not spoken in three years, who sang 'Silent Night' with us."

Bringing a group to an outreach concert also means having repertoire on hand that works, even when you don't have the ideal quartet of a cello, viola and two violins. For example, sometimes you just have four violins. What repertoire can you use, that's both fun to play and fun to hear?

To that end, Lewis commissioned several works written for four violins from composer Michael McLean, who is known for his excellent violin arrangements of tangos and other music. "Sometimes it's difficult to find cellos and violas," Lewis said. "This is a way we can play without having those lower instruments."

Brian Lewis
Brian Lewis. Photo by

The works by McLean, which are ideal performance material for intermediate to advanced students, are still in the publishing process, but Lewis gave us a sneak peek during one of his pedagogy lectures at the 2017 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies. (See videos of both works, below.)

The two works we studied are McLean's "Canon" and his "Preludio for Four Violins."

A "canon" uses a single melody, played successively by several voices, and it harmonizes itself. A simple canon that many American children learn early in life is the song "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," typically belted out on buses, by campfires, etc.

Of course, canons occur in advanced violin literature and classical music as well. "I like to work on canons before teaching the (canonic) fourth movement of the Franck Sonata," Lewis said. A number of composers wrote "Canonic Sonatas," including the well-known Six Canonic Sonatas by Telemann and somewhat lesser known Hindemith's Kanonische Sonatine, Op. 31 No. 3 (originally for flute).

What are some of the challenges in playing a canon? Rhythm, for one. All parties must play with rhythmic accuracy for the musical puzzle to fit together properly. Another challenge is voicing. What parts of the melody should be brought out, so that the listener hears music and not just sonic confusion?

One way to help students think about voicing is to go back to that old favorite: "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Lewis used our group of teachers to show how to lead a group of students through some exercises with that tune. First, we played "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" by ear, to make sure all of us had the tune in our minds and fingers. Then we divided into two groups and played the piece in a two-part canon; then into four groups for a four-part canon. Once we'd done that, Lewis asked us to simply bring out the first part of the melody, playing "ROW ROW ROW" forte, and then dropping to piano. That way, that "ROW ROW ROW" entrance would punch out of the texture each time it occurred. To make things even more interesting (and humorous!) he next asked each of the four groups to pick a separate key. Each group then played the melody in that different key, as a canon, trying to punch out "ROW ROW ROW," so just that would emerge from the texture. Mixed results, there, with so much to concentrate on! But changing the key, however odd it sounded, did put the emphasis on bringing out the voices, as it was not going to be harmonious, no matter what! Here is a video of that process:

On to the "Canon" by Michael McLean. Though the sheet music is not available yet, the video below follows the sheet music, so you can see it in real time. Here is the piece, as sight-read by the teachers at the Symposium, led by Lewis:

This piece has a few techniques that students may need to work on, including artificial harmonics (mm. 35-36) and tricky string crossings (mm. 50-62).

"Artificial harmonics -- if your student can't do them, make them learn how," Lewis advised. Here are some ways they can practice artificial harmonics:

  1. Scales in artificial harmonics
  2. Any Suzuki Book 1 piece or beginner piece in artificial harmonics
  3. Slow movement of a concerto, in artificial harmonics

When it comes to string crossings, it can help to identify elbow positions of the bow arm. How many elbow positions are there? The logical answer might be "four": one elbow position for each string: E, A, D and G.

"There are actually 12," Lewis said. Lewis considers three positions for every string: E1 to the right of the E string; E2 on top of the E; E3 to the left of E;...and the list goes on that way, with three elbow positions for each string.

Adding those positions, "you'll find you have more ways to think about weight and weight balance in your arm," Lewis said.

Beyond the notes and techniques, students also should be thinking about the overall shape of the music. "Where is the top of the piece?" Lewis asked. The late Juilliard teacher Dorothy DeLay often asked students to identify different climaxes in a piece:

"Ask your students, where do they think those places are?" Lewis said. Some might coincide, others may not; all are potential spots to highlight in the music.

The other new piece by Michael McLean is called "Preludio," written for four violins. Below is a video of most of the piece; it leaves off the last 20 bars or so. It also follows the music, which is yet to be published. (I will drop links into this story as soon as it is!)

Throughout this piece is a bariolage passage with rapid string crossings over all four strings. Sounds super-impressive to the non-violinist, yet it's not difficult to play if you practice it correctly. As far as the left-hand is concerned, it's a series of mostly slow-changing chords. For the right hand, it's the same string-crossing motion throughout.

To get the left hand in order, practice the passage as blocked chords, toggling between G-D and A-E strings. Here is a little excerpt of what Lewis had us practice:

Something to remember, when playing chords, is to avoid tension in the left hand. One way to minimize that tension is to be aware of how much pressure the left fingers are exerting.

"What happens when you drop your hand on a table?" Lewis asked. "You don't keep pushing it down!"

Similarly, when you place a finger on the fingerboard, concentrate on "having that finger there, without pressing, with only enough weight to keep it down," Lewis said. "Physical tension is the enemy of movement!"

Another thing Lewis recommended for ensemble playing: have the score and use it. "Do not be a one-line player." In looking at the score, ask questions such as: "Who is passing the melody to one another? Where is the motion? Who is playing with you?" Lewis said. Also, try playing other parts, in order to be familiar with them.

Lewis recommended introducing students to the study of full scores when studying Mozart concertos. For the violinist, a good way to practice following a Mozart concerto score would be to listen to the piece while following first the violin solo part, then the first violin part, then the second violin part, then flute, then oboe -- then start getting into other clefs with the cello part.

Teachers need to be aiming not just to create good players, but also intelligent musicians. "Make intelligent musicians who can make decisions," Lewis said. "You are not only their taskmaster, but their guide." Dorothy DeLay provided a good example to teachers: "She was a force of nature," Lewis said. "She really got her students to think about their own artistry."

If you are looking for a (much) more advanced piece for four violins, Lewis recommended Sinfonia Concertante by Ludwig Wilhelm Maurer. "Ms. DeLay loved this piece," he said, "it's like Paganini for four violins!"

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