The harmonious String Quartet

The first step towards achieving harmony is to play with another instrument that plays just  a tune line, such as another violin or cello or a flute.  There is a lot of baroque music that can be played by two instruments in this way, but as music developed and became more complex in its harmonies there is less and less repertoire written for this combination.

 The next step up is violin and piano as in the Beethoven piano sonatas. Hear the piano provides the harmonies to accompany the violin, but also plays tune lines in his own right. I always think it's very unfair on The Pianist that's such piece of music tend to be called a violin sonatas, putting The Pianist in second place. Just on the basis of note count, a pianist is often playing  fistfuls of notes, so it would seem more fair to call it a piano and violin sonata. Perhaps it's called a violin sonata because the bulk of the melody tends to be played by the violin and much of the emotional element of the music comes from the stringed instrument because of its greater range and  subtlety in Dynamics and inflections.

 The next step is the string quartet or string quintet. It is said that the string quartet is the most beautiful and purest musical form.  As a violinist I would of course agree,  but it's perhaps rather like wine that the best wine is the wine you like not what the wine Buffs claim you should drink and the best music is the music that you like. But there are many reasons for this accolade of the string quartet. It has the four instruments that can produce the four notes of a full chord, with first violin tending to play the highest, 2nd violin lower, viola below that and cello at the base of the chord. Of course it's not always this way round, but that is the logic of the instruments in the string quartet. Many of the greatest composers have produced what they and others considered their finest works for string quartet, although often it is not the most popular of their music, the Symphony Orchestra probably being the ensemble that has gained the greatest popularity.

While we are talking about the string quartet it would be useful to consider the additional tasks that a musician has to contend with when playing in this grouping. When playing violin and Piano there are only two people to co-ordinate.  Usually it is the first violin that takes the lead in tempo and dynamics, but with a good duo that task is shared and depends on who has the musical element that is most significant at any moment through the work. One common problem when playing violin sonatas is that the majority of pianists are not used to play with other people. Piano tends to be a very solitary instrument and by the time a pianist is good enough to play with a violin and tackle the difficulties of a violin sonatas, they've spent many years learning to play by themselves. There is a tendency for The Pianist to do their own thing and ignore the violin. Musically this is a disaster and normally leads to the to two musicians falling out. However a pianist who is skilled at playing with other instruments,  who is able to cope with the given take and cooperation that is necessary from all the string players in a String Quartet, is a truly talented musician. Such a pianist tends to be called an accompanist, which I think it is rather unfair and degrading, putting them in a position of just supporting the violin. This isn’t the case. It is a duet in the true sense with both parts of equal importance, just as in a flute and violin duo.  When a pianist plays in a Piano Trio, piano quartet or quintet, that is piano and two to four stringed instruments, then they become a part of the ensemble and have to be able to work in the same way as the string players. So what is that way?

 First of all there is the timing. There is no metronome, there is no conductor, so the players have to set the speed and keep to that speed by consent whilst playing the music. With baroque music this just tends to require precision as the tempo doesn't normally change within a movement. There are big tempo changes but they are between sections in the music. However it is totally different with the romantic composers. In a piece like the Ravel string quartet, the tempo changes frequently within a few bars and can even change within a bar. It has to be agreed who is in charge of the tempo and who is going to follow. This isn't usually a formal agreement that is decided before the piece of music is played, it is something that is naturally done through experience depending who has the tune, or who may have the fast notes at a change of tempo for the tune to follow. So it's not always the first violin who may be playing the tune that leads the tempo, it could be a viola who is playing an accompaniment or a tune.

 The tune is not of course always played by the first violin, it often passes from instrument to instrument either in its entirety or as part of a tune. There may be more than one tune occurring simultaneously and what is considered  an accompaniment and what is considered a tune can change throughout the piece.

Let us look it's the way that tempi can be indicated. When starting a piece of music it's not the done thing to count 123 - in. This is acceptable in a jazz band or jazz orchestra, where the conductor may well say one two, one two three four to bring people in. But this is a different tradition and would never go down well with symphony orchestra conductor or the leader of the string quartet. ( In a barn dance band or ceilidh band one gets over the starting speed problem by the fiddler playing a solo four bar introduction. This also lets the dancers know the speed of the dancing.)

The normal way to start a movement and get everybody playing together and at the right speed, is for the leader to raise the end of the violin and lower it again at a speed that represents one beat of the bar. How fast this movement is done is all the indication the rest of the quartet get about when to come in, assuming they will start together, and at what speed the music is going to be taken. This movement is very small, often only an inch or so. Of course it's not always the first violin who begins a piece and sometimes it's more appropriate  for another of the  musicians to begin the piece and set the tempo. It's not practical for the cellist to waggle the end of their instrument in the way the violinist can,  so they may indicate the start and the tempo the music from the speed of a slight nod of the head or even raising and lowering the eyebrows. So even starting a piece of music with a string quartet is more difficult than an orchestra,  where the conductor with their button may well beat half a bar or more before the orchestra comes in.

Once the music is started you may think that they just have to listen to each other to judge the speed and keep in coronation. Whilst this method is vital,  it has limitations. Sometimes it may be difficult to hear clearly at what speed another instrument is playing specially if they are playing some complex rhythm that cuts across what other instruments reply. It's also a method that, on its own, can result in scruffy sounding music. If each musician is listening to the others,  if there is any discrepancy between the other 3, which of them are they to believe. Also by the time notes have been played it's too late to take them back, rub them out and try again. Everything happens in real time. So another method is needed to improve on the accuracy of the coordination.

This method is physical movement. Movement that naturally occurs because the instruments are being biwed,  thus a musician can see what the other players aredoing. Also the movement of the whole body, which is normally at a much lower frequency than the movement of the bow, becomes an indication of the the bar length. Some string quartet will sit relatively statically, but most of them, particularly the really good ones, have a lot of physical movement and this is one element of coordination and the transmission of expression ie body language.

So if you're watching a String Quartet perform,  be aware of what is going on between the musicians. They will be watching each other, they will be moving their whole bodies in time with the music. Different musicians will take over the lead. If there is a pause,  look at who is determining the length of the pause and who it is that is bringing them in all together into the music.