Music Study – The String Quartet

Of all forms of composition, the String-Quartet is the only one that presents the peculiarity of never admitting any kind of padding or accompaniment. Each of its four parts is concerted, that is to say that each possesses its own individual interest, equal to that of the three others ; and if all produce solidarity with regard to the effect of the whole, yet each preserves its liberty and personality for the interpretation of the thousand details with which the work swarms. This is the reason that the intellectual pleasure experienced in executing a work thus conceived cannot be compared to any other pleasure of interpretation, the intensity of which it is almost impossible to imagine without having tasted it. Another peculiarity resulting from the same cause, is that the sum of the pleasure of the interpreters is infinitely superior to what they can communicate to their hearers, for they alone can penetrate into the interior of the work, comprehending its intimate structure, touching the wheels and making them move, and experiencing the strange sensation of themselves forming a part of it, identifying themselves with it and giving life to it.

It is a little like Whist ; I beg pardon if this somewhat brutal comparison is ill chosen, having never touched a card in my life ; but it seems to me that even those who know the game take less interest in following a hand than is experienced by the partners who are playing it.

Nevertheless, hearing this kind of music strongly captivates some amateurs, witness Napoleon Bonaparte, better known as a general than as a dilettante, remarking to the celebrated violinist Baillot that for himself, from the very first notes, a Quartet takes hold of you, absorbs you, and ” changes the disposition of the soul in an instant.”

In order to make the interest belonging to this study, which is worthy of every elevated mind, better appreciated, I think I should not resist the desire to cite in extenso several paragraphs from a little work in which this question is treated by a master hand.

” Two Violins, a Viola and a Violoncello ! But let us not be deceived ; this little orchestra contains within itself a mysterious power that one would hardly suppose. These four voices are at once four spirits that sing, talk, dispute, or agree, according to the influence that dominates them.

” To the first violin belongs the choice and responsibility of the movement, the indication of the general character of the work and the initiative of the phrase. All of these are conditions on which depends essentially the moral and material effect of the Quartet as a whole.

” He must, like an orchestral conductor, dominate the others, hurrying them along or holding them back, but yet being always ready to abdicate at any required moment and take up the part of accompanist. Without this suppleness of authority on the part of the first violin, a quality much rarer than is thought, the Quartet is no longer a conversation, but turns very quickly into a quarrel, in which, led away by the example of the leader, each player, crushing, overwhelming and dominating his neighbour, egotistically triumphs over the ruins of the work !

” The second violin, the natural confidant of the first, notwithstanding its modest rôle, is called upon at a moment’s notice to dominate the musical conversation in his turn. This part, formerly played upon a much larger instrument than the French * violin used by the first violin, and of a less brilliant tone, was easily distinguishable in the ensemble; but to-day the tone of the two instruments being identical, infinitely more tact and discretion are required from the player to keep this part in its place, and greater attention from the listener, in order to follow this delicate part which alternately appears and disappears according as it is entrusted with an interesting figure or with a secondary accompaniment.

” As for the viola, or alto, this part in the Quartet is entirely conciliatory ; tuned a fifth lower than the violin, it seems, by the very nature of this accord, brought here to bind the shrillness of the violin with the deep tones of the bass. Its sweet and expressive voice participates in the roundness of the one and the lightness of the other, while perfectly preserving its individual timbre. To it are confided those notes whose plaintive sensibility cannot be translated by the dominating voice of the violin nor the firm power of the bass ; it seems to be to the Quartet what the bas-soon is to the Orchestra. How many examples might be cited in which this instrument seems to have in-spired the phrase entrusted to it for rendering !

” Lastly comes the violoncello, which presents itself under the double aspect of the low bass of accompaniment, as Haydn uses it in a great number of his Quartets, or a singing part embracing the entire compass of the diapason, and as fully entrusted with passages as the other voices of the Quartet, as Mozart and Beethoven have treated it, and all the modern composers with them. It is upon this part that the harmonic edifice rests, as if it were the keystone of the arch, and its importance in giving assurance to the Quartet modulations, etc., almost equals that of the violin.

” From the modest amateur Quartet to the most brilliant interpretation that a skilful artist can effect before a large audience that he charms and instructs, the pleasure of the Quartet presents itself under many different aspects and in very different degrees. Let us say, however, that the best condition for the enjoyment of this kind of music is in the intimacy whose charm is so well allied to the natural and the simple which the masters whom we have cited knew how to preserve.”

Its name defines it : chamber-music. ” This it is that leaves to the executant, with liberty of choice, abandon, the unexpected, spontaneity and self-forgetfulness in the work. This it is also that permits us to play without any mental reservation of certain beauties in which science dominates and which we might often fear to compromise in the presence of a too numerous audience.” * Let us add : or an audience containing some profane individuals, for really, to give all your heart and soul to a performance of this nature, and seeing in front of you only indifferent or bored faces is suffering; it freezes you.

Returning to our lover of a stringed instrument, and to the means by which such an artistic satisfaction is accessible to him, apparently the simplest course is to form a group of two violinists and a ‘cellist, all three amateurs knowing how to use their instruments, and to hire as professor and guide a good violinist who is accustomed to and experienced in chamber-music. Each of the amateur violinists can play alternately the second violin and the viola, unless each prefers to keep constantly to the same part, which is perhaps more reasonable to begin with. When he feels strong enough, the second violin can also take the place of the first from time to time, in order to get accustomed to the command ; the ‘cellist alone remains riveted to his instrument. In this way, one or two regular meetings a week can be organized, between which each can read his part and study the difficult passages. It is not a bad thing to have some substitutes and supernumeraries, so that the meeting can still be held on the day when one of the members happens to be absent. This also makes it possible to have Quintets occasion-ally. The materials for this study are certainly not lacking, for, without mentioning the most recent works, we find as a basis, Haydn, seventy-six Quartets ; Mozart, ten Quartets and ten Quintets; Beethoven, six Trios, seventeen Quartets, and three Quintets. Then there are also Boccherini, Onslow, Mendelssohn, etc., and the moderns.

Begun coldly and almost like a mere trial, this study will take hold of you and captivate you in a singular way ; four ardent artists, understanding to what height the philosophy of music may ascend, accustomed to play together, mutually to support and to reply to each other, ” forming but one soul and penetrating together into those mysterious beauties, raise themselves and their hearers into the highest regions of art. Such is the charm of the Quartet, which nothing can explain so well as itself.”

It seems to me superfluous to insist any further upon this. I will add only that the amateur who is well broken into the difficulties of the String-Quartet will be perfectly at his ease in every kind of ensemble music, especially at the piano, which will permit him, while procuring therefrom new artistic delights, to render himself useful and agreeable in many circumstances.