The string quartet musician
There are several things that the string quartet players must consider when tackling a string quartet work. Firstly they need some knowledge of the composer’s period, the musical styles and the intention of the music. The second is to take note of how people close to the composer interpreted the music. This is obviously quite difficult with the composer like Mozart but with a more recent composer such as Edward Elgar, where one can listen to recordings of string quartets played in his lifetime. But there are written accounts of music critics and instrumentalists who played under the earlier composers. A third way is to listen to recordings of current and more historic performances. This is to do with current style and tradition. The fourth is to go with one’s own feelings and interpretation of the music, interpreting it as it means to oneself in today’s context rather than in the context of the composer.
So far we have been talking about the style and tradition of playing the piece of music that has been composed for a string quartet. But before a group of four players can tackle any piece of music they must become familiar with the art of playing as a quartet. There are a set of problems quite different from playing in an orchestra playing a solo part. The quartet means for individuals who must perform as a unified whole, without a conductor, but must also remain as individuals.
This is totally different to a soloist, who can largely do what he likes and be accompanied by the orchestra, piano accompanist. He or she can be a lawn to themselves. In an orchestra individuality is subsumed, the conductor setting the style of performance and the strings making every effort not to stand out individually but to blend in with a whole string section. A soloist it performance of one member of the string section can be disastrous.
Phrasing, bowing, vibrato, dynamics, fingering methods and tempo will take on a new significance in quartet music, with the subtlety and variety that does not exist in other ensemble sizes. Unlike a soloist, the playing of any individual part in the quartet is not about showing off technical brilliance so much as performing brilliantly but in relation to the other three parts of the music. This means that the most brilliant soloist may be a pretty lousy quartet player, with their individualistic flashiness and vitality disrupting the music.
This is a greater danger still when playing piano trios, quartets or piano quintet’s (that is a piano with the string duo, trio, or quartet.) Most pianists are trained and brought up as soloists and have little concept of how to play as part of a small ensemble. The pianist who can do this successfully is a very valuable creature.
As a result, no two string quartets are alike in their style of performance. Depending on the combination of personalities some will focus on elegance and style while others will focus on energy and excitement. This means it can be very difficult to get four players who can get on together for any length of time, without a divorce taking place between one or more of the players.
The concept of string quartet ensemble
The quartet playing style is difficult to develop, and the homogenate that appears so simple to achieve cannot be come by without long and detailed practice and a full understanding of the roles of the individual players in the performance, and the instrumental voices in the composition.
The first requirement for good ensemble is for each player to have a sense of the whole performance. Not only must they know their part, but they must know what the other parks are playing and the relationship of the other parts to the heirs and vice versa. Furthermore each musician must listen to the entire sound and not just what they are playing. This can be very difficult for somebody who has been taught and brought up in the solo tradition. It can also be difficult for the orchestral player who may feel as if they’re sticking out like a sore thumb when playing in a string quartet, play being the only person who is playing their particular part.
It takes practice to become familiar with the other parts, to adjust themselves to fit in, or to assert themselves where appropriate and let the others just to them. Who is leading and who is following our accompanying can change bar by bar, or even within a bar. Only in this way can one achieve the give and take that as a constant juggling act during a string quartet performance.
All this work is done during practice sessions, which often take place in the same room each time. But when it comes to the concert, perhaps a formal concert, perhaps a wedding ceremony in an echo of the church or maybe playing for a wedding reception in a modern hotel that is acoustically dead, but when it comes to the performance, everything can sound completely different. They can no longer hear each other in the same way as in their familiar practice room, the players might be in a stressful state in front of a large audience or maybe having to put up with chattering guests, will be trying to see when the bride is about to enter the church even though their line of sight is blocked by fonts, pews and guests. Even with these circumstances they must not lose sight of the need to play as one and above all, keep calm.
So while being busy with their own part, which may be technically difficult, a must maintain a background awareness of what the other three players are doing, picking up on tempo changes, intonation fluctuations, particularly a problem in cold churches where the instruments can quickly go out of tune, and dynamics so that none of the important parts are drowned out.
And whatever happens, the music must go on and sound seamless, even when one of the players gets lost. There is no stopping, it is like the flow of forceful river, and even a player who has got out of step somehow with what’s going on must go with the currents and find their way in again, preferably without any in audience becoming aware.
In a formal concert such events are rare, but in the situation of a church or civil wedding, or the drinks reception where the quartet may be playing outdoors in breezy conditions for indoors in cramped and noisy conditions, it can be easy for one player to get out with the rest of them, possibly because of distractions, possibly because of not being able to hear the other players probably above laughter and conversation, or possibly due to being bulldozed into by some tipsy guest. If they’re not too far out and provided they know the music well, which they certainly should do, they can normally find their way back into the music without too much problem. This is part of the additional art of string quartet playing for wedding ceremonies and receptions. But sometimes the disruption has been so great and the difficulty of hearing is so acute, that it is impossible to get back in on aided. Here it becomes necessary for another member of the quartet to call a bar number altogether very strong visual lead on the next phrase or section of the music to bring the lost member back in to the fold and restore proper ensemble.
There are a number of relationships that the musicians must remain aware of. The first violin and the cello (highest and lowest notes) provide the outline or framework for the other parts to sit in. In general the first violin is the chief melody bearer of the string quartet and the cello is the baseline, but this often changes from time to time through a piece of music. The two violins, two similar instruments carrying the upper voices, tend to play with the first violin playing a higher part and more the melody the second violin, but has always, this can change, either for a phrase or few bars or indeed on occasions for the whole movement. Second violin and viola former central team, providing the middle voice functions for much of the music.