WRITING FOR STRING QUARTET
2 violins, viola, cello
Strings and pitch
All of our instruments are set up as they would have been in the romantic period, 1800-1900, using strings made from sheep or sometimes cow gut, 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 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, now widely referred to as the pitch of the classical era.
Since the core of our repertoire in the Consone Quartet comes from the classical and early romantic periods, we have also settled for A=430Hz, which sounds roughly a quarter tone flatter than A=440Hz.
Both factors - the gut strings and the lower pitch, relieve tension from the instruments, allowing for a subtler palette of sound colours.
The bows we use 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, more nimble and great for “speaking”/articulating, but also wonderful for long, singing lines.
While those were not commonly used before the twentieth century, our instruments are capable of producing them: pizzicatti, natural and false harmonics, col legno, sul ponticelo, 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 our instruments are not any different to those of their modern day equivalents. Their open strings are as follows:
Performance traditions / style / techniques
We have discovered from looking through players’ editions and performance treatises of the time, 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). We find this a particularly interesting path to follow because, as string players, we are often taught to hide the natural slides that occur when shifting between notes by releasing some of the string contact in our bowing arm, or by simply choosing more “practical” fingerings, in pursuit of a cleaner sound. Portamento is an expressive device that we have embraced in our 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. In adopting this “rubato” in our group, we have found it to be another expressive means. Not only do we “test” our listening capacity as chamber music partners, but we also influence one another by pushing and pulling the tempo – mostly rushing when the music intensifies, spending time enjoying the top of a phrase, and relaxing again when the music does so.
Although portamento and rubato are not something that the composer would ordinarily dictate in the score, we were hoping 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.