Inside A String Quartet – Playing it by Ear…..

Inside A String Quartet – Playing it by Ear….. Playing in a string quartet can be one of the most satisfying ways of making music. All four parts have the opportunity to be ‘heard’ (as opposed to an orchestral string section where this rarely happens), yet there is a constant blending and give and take. The other three parts assume a role more important than one’s own (in that¬†our ears are finely focussed on their parts in relation to ours) and yet there is a conversational quality to it that is very sociable. Here is a movement from a charming quartet by Spohr performed by The Manor House String Quartet:

This conversation can be of a jocular nature (as in many of Haydn’s quartets); it can be temperamentally volatile (like some of Beethoven’s) or introspective and melancholy (like Shostakovich’s 8th quartet). In addition, string quartets (in common with other chamber music combinations) bring out the most deeply personal aspects of a composer.

Much emphasis is given to ensemble training at a college level and many students spend hours rehearsing in great detail. Occasionally four compatible personalities will ‘gel’ and make an outstanding ensemble. But for most musicians finding this combination is a lifelong quest and one which is comparable with finding an ideal partner for marriage! After all, the qualities that make a totally integrated group often take years to develop: such as the internal metronome; the ability to change one’s fine tuning in context with different intervals or registers; the constant yet subtle adjustment of rubato; and the ability to subordinate one’s own line to allow the melody to emerge. All these can be taught in a masterclass but it is only when they become part of one’s musical makeup that they can then flow naturally without sounding ‘rehearsed’.

One aspect of playing which often varies widely from one group to another is the use of sight to anticipate changes in tempo and aid ensemble. I was most relieved to read an interview with the celebrated Guarneri Quartet (in their book ‘The Art of Quartet Playing’) that direct eye contact contributed little to their playing. When asked whether they looked at each other in an effort to improve ensemble, they replied ‘We try to avoid that. . .I haven’t looked at these guys in years. . .Eye contact doesn’t do any good, because you don’t play with your eyes’. The problem in so many situations is that as soon as you’ve looked, the moment has gone! It’s almost like walking down the street with another person walking directly towards you, you look up and immediately confuse one another, both attempting to change your course. When you don’t look, both people effortlessly steer their own courses, naturally sidestepping the obstacle (or other person) by instinct. Certainly at the beginning and end of movements all four players will have direct eye contact, but for the rest, peripheral vision allied with a mutual feeling of the rhythmic pulse will suffice in almost every situation.

I’ve often noticed players who have reached an exceptional standard of playing and yet have quite a poor grasp of the rhythmic pulse of the music. In virtuosic passages they will ‘fit’ all of the notes in, and yet dislocate the basic ‘beat’ which all music possesses. In quartet playing, this would probably result in the wheels coming off the cart! Even in virtuosic passages, the rhythmic pulse must always be very clear with a singing line that possesses a natural flow.