Composing and Arranging for String Quartets
I have scoured the planet for a text on composing (and, or, arranging) for the string quartet. Nothing, could I find.
Not even a text long out of print.
(And, in passing, nothing, even, for the string orchestra.)
One outcome of my success with the Weaver MacFarlane Choon Book has been requests for string quartet arrangements, particularly for schools. I can "learn on the job", (and, in response, have written six quartets in the past few weeks,) but I thought for certain someone would have published a text on this.
Sure, every orchestration book has a few pages on each string instrument, but it is all very "introductory".
And the application of harmony, part-writing and counterpoint, and form, to this genre is clear to me.
But, with its unique textures and technical demands, I am quite surprised composing for the string quartet has not been discussed in some depth.
Do you know of a book I could chase down?
Just players guides. Try Editions Silvertrust for reviews and sound clips along with his Chamber Music journal articles. There are some good analyses of the standards : Beethoven and Haydn primarily republished by dover and norton if memory serves. Cobbett produced a comprehensive players guide.
I cannot think of any specific rules for writing for the string quartet. I think what's most important is writing playable and interesting material.
Playability is important. Recently I was playing a piano quartet that was very obviously written by a pianist with limited sense of what works on string instruments. For example double or triple stops that required awkward fingerings and large jumps up and down the fingerboard, but with a little redistribution of notes between the string players became much easier to play. And therefore also better sounding.
What about private lessons? Find a university professor who teaches composition who might be able to spend some time helping you analyze your first opus of quartets and understand where they are strong and weak. For a fee, obviously. It strikes me as glaringly inconsistent that we accept that the violin cannot be learned without ten years of weekly tutelage but somehow composition can be mostly self-taught after receiving the basic university courses in counterpoint and harmony.
I remember as part of the program-talk from a quartet concert a few years ago that Faure was hesitant to write string quartets due to not wanting to walk in the shadow of Beethoven, or something along those lines. He eventually wrote one and it was quite amazing. Studying past master works is a great place to start. Didn't Stravinsky say something along the lines of 'Good composers borrow, great composers steal'?
Now, thank you. Much very good advice in the above respnses.
Write what's on your mind, and see what happens. Anyone with some musical background could try composing music.
I did not realize that you play the violin and the cello. In that case you already know what is doable and not. You might still want to learn the viola, though. It is a great instrument ;-)
Of course the viola is a great instrument. Learn it if you want.
The clef is the only difficult adjustment. If you start with a small viola, violin will largely translate with some minor adjustment in bowing. The other option is learn alto on cello. You can play at the correct octave and it might be a little less mind blowing going from tenor or you can transpose down to bass clef which is a step off of bass.
The essential information is in any orchestration text-book. After that, scores of Beethoven, Mozart, Bartok, are the best model.
What you will discover about the viola is that most things that you can do on the violin are a little bit harder on the viola just because most violas aren't as responsive as the violin and the finger stretches are larger. But then there are a *few* things that are *much* harder on the viola and these include double stops generally but especially octaves and tenths, but if you are writing string quartet music there won't be that many of those. And passages that involve a lot of high 4th finger in fist position on the viola are not especially friendly. Mainly you just have to remember the viola's A string is NOT like the violin's E string. Going way up there on the viola's A string usually sounds like crap.
On crappy violas with poorly matched strings played by poorly trained musicians.
Edward suggested "players guides". A week ago I received my copy of "String Quartet Playing: A New Treatise on Chamber Music, its techinique and interpretation". The book was first published in 1925, when string quartets were common at both amateur and professional levels.
Last Resort Music Publishing Company has arranged a wide range of compositions for various instrument combinations up to string quartet. You might check out their list and select books from the series that contains compositions similar to the ones you want to rearrange - not a DIY book, but a possible guide.
The following is advise from Carl Nielsen to a younger swedish composer (Bror Beckman):
"just like the ..."
Take some of Bach's 371 chorales (or any SATB church hymns) and transcribe them for quartet. You may want (or need) to change the key in order to get better (more playable) fingerings (and/or string crossings). Take popular old-time songs from the "Blue Book of Favorite Songs" and score them for quartet. In those cases, changing a piano part to a quartet may mean reducing the piano part to just four lines, or thickening a thin accompaniment to accommodate what a quartet can do. In general (in the beginning, until you have a specific reason NOT to so), keep to the same rules as to four-part SATB choral writing (everything you leaned in music theory class about voice-leading, avoiding parallel fifth and octaves, avoiding direct fifth and octaves, leaps are generally followed by steps in the opposite direction, consecutive leaps outlining a chord, avoiding leaps of sevenths and of augmented and diminished intervals, etc.): each violin and viola can be up to an octave one from another; with the cello being as much as two octaves lower than the viola. Try to write idiomatically for the instruments, making use of appropriate open strings (or 4th fingers), harmonics, double-stops, etc. as needed. Start with small projects and get bigger as you get comfortable with the process.
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