WRITING FOR STRING QUARTET
2 violins, viola, cello
Strings and pitch
The instruments use strings made from sheep or sometimes cow gut, as they would have done in the romantic period 1800-1900, as opposed to the steel or synthetic strings used on most stringed instruments today. Warmth, richness and depth are words that come to mind when describing the effect of these strings. They provide a unique blend, which can be compared to the sound of a viol consort.
Pre-1900, the pitch that instruments were tuned to varied hugely not only between countries, but also from city to city, across Europe. Nowadays, it has settled around A=440Hz (or as high as A=443Hz in some European orchestras). When instrument makers began looking into making copies of old wind instruments, basing their models on originals they had found in museums and private collections, they had to choose a common pitch, for groups to be able to play together. They settled on A=430Hz, which sounds roughly a quarter tone flatter than A=440Hz, and is now widely referred to as the pitch of the classical era, .
Both factors - the gut strings and the lower pitch, relieve tension from the instruments, allowing for a subtler palette of sound colours.
The bows are essentially a less sophisticated version of the modern bow, without any of the metal or mother of pearl decoration around the heel/frog. This means that they are lighter, nimbler, and great for “speaking”/articulating, but also wonderful for long, singing lines.
While those were not commonly used before the twentieth century, the instruments are capable of producing them: pizzicatti, natural and false harmonics, col legno, sul ponticello, sul tasto, etc. Bartok pizz. is possible, but preferably avoided on gut strings as they are fragile and could easily snap or detune when being pulled.
The ranges of the instruments are not any different from those of their modern-day equivalents. Their open strings are as follows:
Players’ editions and performance treatises of the time show that string players chose expressive fingerings, utilising the technique ‘portamento’ (audibly sliding from one note to another) as a means of showing the connections between the two notes of an interval (similar to a sigh). This is a particularly interesting path to follow, because string players are often taught to hide the natural slides that occur when shifting between notes by releasing some of the string contact in the bowing arm, or by simply choosing more “practical” fingerings in pursuit of a cleaner sound. Portamento is an expressive device that is well worth embracing in both playing style and sound palette.
Pre-recording days, players tended to have a more flexible attitude to rhythmic alignment. Although they would have a rhythmic framework underpinning a beat, a bar or even a whole phrase, within that they allowed themselves to be flexible with time. Adopting this “rubato” allows another means of expression. It “tests” the listening capacity of the chamber music partners, who can influence one another by pushing and pulling the tempo – mostly rushing when the music intensifies, spending time enjoying the top of a phrase, then relaxing again when the music does so.
Although portamento and rubato are not something that the composer would ordinarily dictate in the score, it might influence and inspire you to write something which gives room for these forms of expression to happen. Equally, by all means write “gliss.” in the score, between notes you feel have a strong connection, or “accel.”/ “rit.” where you would like the music to move forward or relax.