Violin compositions: from the piano bench or midi keyboard.

October 28, 2006 at 05:28 AM · What do you think about music written for orchestra with obnoxiously awkward passages for the strings...written from a piano bench.

What about string quartets composed on Finale.

Or solo violin/viola/cello rep. written without heed to the abilities of the instruments, and the unfreindly unfingerable sections?

Is that the same as music that is not necessarily enjoyable to play, but has an effect on the audience? A political statement through music?

Or is it insensitivity to the people you are asking to make your creations come alive.

So many beautiful violin pieces are not violin-friendly, no matter if you are a very accomplished professional or not.

I greatly respect the students at the college who stop me in the halls and ask me about how we would play a certain passage. For their class string quartet arrangement assignment. I will give them as much time as they need, because it IS very important to consider.

Still...much music has survived and been hailed. And we play regardless.



Replies (24)

October 28, 2006 at 05:23 PM · Hi, interesting question. My first thought was, well, a composer must know what it is they want to hear, and if that is true, should just write it that way. I do hear your frustration, though, and would also say that a composer who wants his/her compositions played and remembered would do well to learn to play the instrument sufficiently that they at least know when they are asking for fingers to be tied in knots.

October 28, 2006 at 08:06 PM · ..Or work closely with someone who knows!


October 28, 2006 at 11:54 PM · I find a lot of passages in such music that are really much more work than they are worth. It's all doable, with careful practice and strategies, but when you're done, it still remains just a bit of texture behind some other orchestral part, and that could have been accomplished as well or better with music that lies under the fingers. We play it, because that's what is written, but it is, as I say, more work than it needs to be for the result.

There's nothing wrong with Finale, when it's used in the same fashion as a word processor. It's a tool for getting stuff on paper, and for making changes without agony. I'm not familiar enough with its features to judge how much it can insinuate itself into the composition process, but I have played some student compositions that showed all the signs of having been mindlessly constructed from some sort of software automaton. I don't object to automating parts of the creative process, much as one does with image processing software to create textures for a graphic work. But when the automaton has more say in the final result than the composer, there's something seriously wrong.

There was one piece in which the string players were all struggling with arbitrary fingering patterns, but the trombonist had it even worse. He was directed to gradually remove a mute while playing a multitone passage that required moving the slide. A neaby tuba player had to be called into service to work the mute. What do the professors teach in composition classes these days?

October 29, 2006 at 12:22 AM · My understanding from my experience with composers and the composing experience of my own is that composers hear an abstraction, regardless of instrument, and then try to adjust it to the technical abilities of the instrument in question. Some adjust more than others. However, we have to understand that the more they adjust the farther it goes away from the original abstraction...Would that be a good thing?


October 29, 2006 at 12:47 AM · Obviously it would be a good thing if the composer was more pleased with the result than he would have been. No other criteria that I know of. Or...I can imagine a situation where his initial idea, or the abstraction, wanting to be violinistic. In that case the more help the better if he needs it. Or another example, two alternatives might work equally well, one violinistic and one not.

October 29, 2006 at 12:56 AM · I personally use finale, and am very glad for the program, and my accessability to it. If you write the music down on paper first, and use it for publishing or printing, I don't see any problem. But there are function on there for transposition, creating reduced scores, re-notating, and..worst of all...playing the music into the computer through a midi keyboard and it notates it for you.

This seriously lends itself to awkward passages, because sequences that come naturally to the hands on the piano (augmented and diminished ex), are as one person put it...knotting for a violinists hands.

I am struck by the differences in pieces I am playing at the moment. The Mahler 5, for example. It is hard! There are some difficult passages, but for the most part, if you can position them right, do-able. And in the end, it is a formidable piece to perform, and quite gratifying.

I recently played a Gershwin piece, which has an overture that is impossible to play unless you stretch the 4th finger up to a C# followed by 1st finger F#, with variations, but usually up to the C# inbetween notes. Not only did we have to rehearse it a long time because it goes very fast and is doubled by the winds, but it is messy, and caused pain for many of the violinists. Could we not have played another note in the chord each time? I haven't read whether Gershwin(s) collaborated with orchestrators who knew strings, but I do know it was originally written at the piano.

Many of the great composer/pianists have written wonderful violin concertos, with the help of violinists who premiered them. In my experience, those concerti are worth it.

This comes into play when choosing solo lit. I always listen intently to a piece to decide whether I like the work enough to spend the many hours and frustrations it takes to polish a piece. Otherwise, I get disheartened after a few months and don't ever enjoy it. I am glad most of the major lit pieces are worth the effort.

The most helpful part of Finale is the feature that you can listen back to what you wrote, at least to hear if the harmonies and rhythms are what you intended. But it doesn't help much when you write parts that are outside of the range of the instrument, or have horrible leaps and bounds, or if you reduce the part to a piano score that has the hands playing five notes at once...In order to use finale well, you have to know the ranges and abilities and texures and colours of the instruments. That is I think what composition classes now focus a lot on. Using the programs. I also like it because hand written scores are hard to read.

I am happy to have finale in another sense. I am putting a lot of my Dad's old scores on the computer, so I can hear them and try to get the better ones performed. If I put a wrong note in, listening back will tell me that.

So I don't have a problem with Finale, but I do wish more composition students would be more aware of our fingerings and bow techniques and what is possible and what is a pain.

A composer may hear an abstraction in their head, and be trying to reproduce that as imitatively as possible, but it takes much more talent to do that than some composer students realize. The most played literature that survives composers, are the ones that are beloved by performers and audiences alike.

In my humble opinion....


October 29, 2006 at 01:16 AM · "Do you honestly think I'm worrying about your damn fiddle when the Muse visits me?!?!?" --Ludwig van Beethoven

I can compose much better at the piano than at the violin--probably because I'm an appallingly bad pianist. When I try to compose AT the violin, I inevitably end up being unadventurous and boring. When I compose at the piano, even if I'm composing FOR the violin, I seem to do much better. Maybe it's something like, since I can't play the piano well at all, I am less concerned with instrumental stuff and able to focus more on the actual melodies and harmonies I'm composing. And since I'm a violinist, my violin music isn't awkward. :)

Maybe that's the solution--make composers have to know at least a little bit about how to play each instrument, just well enough to compose for it but not so well as to get stuck in its cliches. :)

October 29, 2006 at 01:35 AM · If those guys always wrote comfortably, we would have nothing to complain about, no?


October 29, 2006 at 01:52 AM · I totally agree with you, Maura! I'm the same way... :) Although, once I get the basic violin ideas down, usually when I go back and play through them, I start adding even cooler things in, you know, little licks, runs, etc.. that enhance the hwole experience.

October 29, 2006 at 03:56 AM · I don't understand why any composer would write anything that didn't sound good on the instrument the piece is intended for. When it feels good to play a piece of music, then music happens. When the written music is loaded with passages that are awkward or are not resonant, the resulting performances are always awkward and dull. I think that the whole reason for writing music is to write music that sounds good and is fun to play, and it is the composer's duty to make sure, either by consulting with people or by having a practical knowledge of the instrument or instrument group s/he is writing for (i.e. woodwinds, or brass), that what will come out of the instrument(s) is what is intended.

I always use Finale for notation, and I find it very useful. I often come up with ideas for pieces by messing around on an instrument, and then I write them down, and then I enter the ideas into Finale where I can mess around with them (try out different keys, different rhythms, different counterpoint, etc). I think that it is great that composers have so many options and tools to make the practical process of composing easier and quicker.

October 29, 2006 at 08:13 AM · Elaine,

Have you ever played Schubert?


October 29, 2006 at 11:19 AM · IG, his symphonic lit, or sonatas or...? Why?


October 29, 2006 at 12:14 PM · let's specify. late schubert.


October 29, 2006 at 02:37 PM · Yes, that C major Fantasie (which I assume you implying, Ilya) is difficult. Really difficult. I tried to read it once and couldn't believe that Schubert (or anyone) could write such a difficult piece. And the piano part is even more difficult than the violin part. I bet Schubert wrote it for for a violinist who wanted a real challenge--something really difficult to play. It is a really unique instance in the repertoire of "great" violin music.

The quartets (I have played the viola parts for some of them) are great, as are the piano trios, the quintet, and the octet.

October 29, 2006 at 03:00 PM · Schubert Octet (the one for string quartet, bass, horn, bassoon and clarinet--it's practically a chamber orchestra) was damn awkward to play, if that's the kind of Schubert you're referring to. The cello quintet, on the other hand, (at least the second fiddle part) wasn't too bad at all.

October 29, 2006 at 03:33 PM · Bach transposed some of his compositions to other instruments and wrote others without indicating any particular instrument at all. For example, the first movement of the solo violin partita in E also wound up as the right hand of the organ part in one of his cantatas. Perhaps for that reason, his music is often harder to play than it looks.

For that reason, I don't think of Bach as being "idiomatic" for particular instruments.

In contrast, Telemann's music often seems to me to have kept the player in mind. For example, he wrote quite a bit of music for recorder, and I often find that the passages that sound difficult are actually surprisingly easy to finger.

Then, of course, there is the question of staying within the instrument's limitations. I imagine that Beethoven must have chuckled when he wrote that long, low B-sharp in the cello part of the first movement of the op. 131 quartet.

Finally, I have heard quartet movements written in keys such as F# so as to force the players to avoid open strings.

So I guess my answer is this: Some pieces are tied to a particular instrument; others aren't. If you are composing with the aim of evoking a particular sound from a particular instrument, you have no choice but to understand the instrument. If, instead, you want a particular melodic line, and want to leave it up to the performer how to play that line, that's legitimate too. And if you make your lines particularly easy or particularly hard to play on the intended instrument, the performer will remember you--one way or the other.

Incidentally, I recently had the opportunity to listen to Elliot Carter talk about one of his compositions. He said that he writes for the performers, not the audience. His view is that if he writes music that is fun to play, the performers will convey that enthusiasm to the audience; and if he writes music that's not fun to play, it won't get played at all.

October 29, 2006 at 11:48 PM · Schubert Last Quartet's 1st violin part has to take the cake - there is not one recording I heard where the primarius would do it justice. But would I change a single note there if I were given authority? No way. It's Schubert at his most vivid.

F# Major has been mentioned, and it is a great example indeed. Take slow movements of Haydn op.76 No.5 and Franck Quartets. Those things are practically impossible to get in tune, but if you moved them up or down half-a-step, it would be a different ballgame altogether sound- and overtone-wise...

Leave those poor geniuses alone already:)


P.S. Carter talking in "fun" terms referring to his music is just too precious.

October 30, 2006 at 01:21 AM · Some music that is very violinistic is also not worth the effort, small as it is. As some of you note, the result can be hackneyed and trite.

Certainly not all music that is "worth the effort" lies easily under the fingers. Schubert's music is very tricky, but once you get through the struggle, a luscious musical experience awaits. Similarly for some Beethoven.

Then there are those other pieces, the ones I was thinking of when I wrote my earlier post, that force you to struggle to play what amounts to a noodling texture, evidently because the composer was never told that the passage forces unnatural leaps and twists for the player.

I am not surprised by the quote from Beethoven, but we know that he played the violin well enough to know what he was doing to us when he made us suffer. And it is pretty clear that he never induced such agony that the music suffered. I don't want to be coddled. Challenge is part of the joy of music. But I don't want someone standing on my throat while I play, either! Or if they do, the musical result had better be something truly awe-inspiring.

October 30, 2006 at 01:39 AM · Paul,

The only example of the kind of refined sadism you pictured in the end of your post I can think of is Berio Sequenza for viola:) However, even that is up for debate...


October 30, 2006 at 02:52 AM · OK, speaking as a long-time Finale user:

1. There is no excuse for a Finale score to have parts out of range. It has a range checker for most instruments I've heard of, providing beginner, intermediate and advanced ranges.

2. As a long-time amateur composer/arranger, I partly blame the string community. I have a string quartet that I wrote over 20 years ago, and I have heard it once. I've given it to three different groups who have each kept it at least a year, and couldn't find twenty minutes to run through my piece and comment. I also did a couple of arrangements for string quartet, that also didn't get played.

I now only bother to arrange for groups I'm in.

I would love some comments on my pieces. I would be willing to discuss changes and learn more. Even though I've played bass for most of my life, one reason I've started viola is to write better string parts. (And to have a group more likely to play my stuff.)

So when you are approached by some budding composer, try to make time to at least look it over. Or don't complain that you don't get any good, playable new works.

Sorry to vent, but I couldn't resist the captive audience.

October 30, 2006 at 09:26 AM · I love captive audiences.... He he.

I'm gone for one day and so many responses!!!

I have played quite a few student compositions, and I have also had the gratifying experience of having my own work performed. It is such a wonderful moment.

I'm not against challenging music. I do get frustrated, though, with music written in a way that lends a musician to injury, leaps and bounds that I can't find sense of, and, well, for instance, chords that take finger gymnastics, written by a composer who doesn't know which fingers we would be using and how.

If a composer knows what they are doing, that is a different story, because it is intentional and usually part of something bigger. I just struggle to enjoy playing some pieces that, admittedly, I might like to listen to, but are not idiomatic. It might be me, though.

I do realize that we should be greatful composers are still writing for strings. Especially with these strikes going on, fighting for jobs where we are being overtaken by synthesized strings that have no limitations as far as which notes where, and how. The only thing left is the why.

A range checker on a computer program should be sort of like a spell checker. One should study and know the ranges if they are to write for that instrument, and the checker is like a final editing tool before showing it to the performer to avoid embarrassing mistakes. I hate that studying and learning could be replaced by a feature or button.

But that is a different argument that covers much more ground than just the musical scene...

Thanks for your thoughts, I find it interesting, at least, what the violin community thinks on this matter (or these).


(hoping no gross mis-spellings have occured in this post).

October 30, 2006 at 03:19 PM · Dana,

Throughout history composers have had to figure out ways of getting people to play their music. I think, from having a lot of experience with the kind of thing you are talking about, i.e. giving music to people with the hope that they might play it and I might hear it and learn something, that composers have to go out on a limb and create situations for their music to be played. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries composers had to do this all the time.

My current solution to this problem is not to set my sights too high and aim for performances by established great musicians. Great musicians, for the most part, can make anything sound good, but they are often busy with learning other things or, in the case of new music, commissioning composers they know to write music for them. Until you establish yourself as one of those composers, one of the people who is asked to write music for certain concerts, ensembles, or occasions, look to the younger generation: even to kids in high school.

I live in a small university town with a small arts council. I approached the arts council with an idea of them sponsoring a concert of local music (written by me) played by local musicians. I asked them for $600.00 which covered the rental of a church, photocopying programs, and paying each musician $50.00. Four of the people playing (the concert is not until February) are high school kids, three are college kids, and two are adults. They are all honored to be able to play, and I know that they will all take the whole thing seriously and prepare well. The arts council is happy because arts councils are supposed to do things like this in order to continue getting their funding.

If this can work in my little town, I'm sure it can work in other places.


October 30, 2006 at 08:13 PM · The mcgill symphony is doing a piece that was written by a graduate composer. In this piece there is a scratch tone. Today she ran up to the stage, grabbed the concertmaster's violin and bow, and proceeded to play a scratch tone with such pronation that a lot of us actually thought she was going to break the bow.

When she asked if we wanted her to demonstrate again, everyone said no. It was hilarious and terrifying at the same time.

November 2, 2006 at 10:29 PM · Elaine,

Good idea. Actually, one of my fantasies is inspired by Charles Ives. I have enough money to hire all the musicians, hire the studio and say "Play, dammit!"

I have to say that my string quartet did get played once by a local adult quartet in our small town, and they did pretty well. The others have been local professional groups, but one irritation is they agreed to take it.

Jennifer, I agree, it won't work to just write any old notes for any old instrument. One of the best aids I have on arranging/composition is a 20-page summary, one page per instrument, breaking the RANGE into sections. Consider the difference between the lowest octave and next for violin. All the instruments are like that. So I could write a lot in ledger lines, but know that it will usually sound strained.

And if I write music that is awkward to play, tell me. I may change it or not, but at least I know.

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