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I would like to share a work originally from my student days over 40 years ago, that was never played back then and that I largely re-composed recently with the help of MuseScore. Compared to much of what I've heard here it is a very traditional work in a late Romantic idiom, so I'm a little nervous about presenting it here. I uploaded a recording of a slightly earlier version to SoundCloud last weekend but have since made some (minor) changes. I will try to upload the score directly here.

Historical details: everything up to bar 113 is largely as written in 1975, with the exception of small tweaks for dynamics, and also the pizzicato figure in bars 29-31 was originally written sul ponticello. There are other passages marked sul ponticello that are not realized in this recording because MuseScore's string soundfont doesn't have a channel for sul ponticello. (Similarly, there are a couple of places where individual notes should be played senza vibrato but aren't; I did not even mark them as such in this score.) Everything from bar 117 on was composed within the last month.

I posted a link to the first version a few days ago on another board and received only one comment from someone who liked it, but offered no critiques or suggestions. I am hoping that folks here will have more to say about it.

MuseScore playback:

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Well, the problem about commenting is, first question: why are you offering a work more from more than 40 years ago?

Question 2, What do you want us to say about it? Would critical comment be worthwhile as you’ve probably moved on in the intervening time? Like, how would it influence you now, assuming you were receptive? Do your changes attempt some consistency with the original or do they reflect your development?

Question 3, are you a string player?

Ok. I’m looking at the score. The computer rendering lets it down. It’s an expressive work and a live quartet would make miles more of it than this. The difference in the dynamic levels is too narrow (the first forte in bar 8 doesn’t distinguish it well from the pp of the opening). Entries that seemed important don’t really announce themselves. Many of the hairpins don’t seem to happen.

The Vn2 double stops starting bar 25 look awkward. I mean, they’re playable a bit up the fingerboard – 5th position? Until bar 29. That in bars 33 & 34 would be in a high position. Although a seamless glissando starting on the G-string in bar 35 can be done by a quartet player, I doubt it would stand out at mf against the f cellos in the treble.

The piu mosso (bars 49 – 57) sounds dramatic but the build up of aug 4ths/ dim 5ths sounds like an old fashioned horror film. The episode following is lyrical, pleasant.

Best if I leave it there. I listened throughout but I’m unsure of what sort of comment you want.

As for tonality, it sounds freely atonal to me. Pays lip service to tonal centres occasionally. Your claim it’s in A minor is presumably ironic because it does end on a chord of A minor.

I'm fine with this genre of music but yes, let's hope others comment.

Cheers, Dane.

Hi Dane,

Thanks for your comments, they are (mostly) appreciated. ;)

To answer your questions in order:

1. The work is not really from 40 years ago, since I only just finished it in a form that I am even somewhat satisfied with.

2. Critical comments would definitely be worthwhile. I really appreciate your comments about the double-stopping in the second subject group being awkward. That is the sort of thing I need to know, since (to answer your question #3) no, I'm not a string player. I know the ranges of the instruments but I don't have a good sense of what is too awkward to play to come across as intended.

Yes, the work reflects changes in my musical thinking since my student days (how could it not?) but I also tried to be faithful to my initial idea. So that brings me to other questions that I have about the work: does it hang together or is it a hopeless hodepodge of different styles and idioms? Does the later working-out and recapitulation make sense in the context of the first 113 bars? Do the more tonal, lyrical ideas even belong in a work that opens in a sort of Bergian idiom?

3. See above.

On the computer rendering - if I had a real performance to present I would have posted that, not a MuseScore playback. But the piece has never been played by humans. I would like to whip it into shape to where a group could actually play it. So passages that can't be played or come across as cheap - as you said, the buildup of tritones after bar 49 tends to sound like a horror film, though I'm not sure how much of that is the writing and how much is the computer rendition that stresses each quarter note in an unnatural way -- that kind of feedback is helpful too as I may just decide to cut it out, or replace it entirely.

I'm surprised that you say that it sounds freely atonal overall. The opening does to me as well, certainly, but many parts feel tonal to me, particularly the more lyrical third subject group starting in bar 63, and its return starting in bar 176. And in bars 151-2 is what I wanted to be a question in the dominant, followed by an answer asserting the tonic (A-flat). Overall I feel that the work becomes more and more tonal as it progresses. No, I did not intend the A minor designation as ironic, the final viola solo feels to me as if it is groping for, and then finally finds the tonic. I am unsure whether that A minor chord is even needed, and I am thinking of letting the viola's last note die away unaccompanied. But it would still feel like A minor to me. Am I hearing something that's not in the music as written?

Anyway, thanks again for your comments.


Well, it holds together well enough and it flows. The recap of the opening cello theme (b168) brought a lighter texture (until the abrupt awakening in b197) Altogether likeable. The close was superb (if listening beyond musiscore). The only bit that I didn't get on with was the aug 4th few bars.

But looking again through the score, you'll have to rethink more of your double stops.

Those in Vn2 bar 20 are impossible. (It may be possible to play them in a very high position but unless the violinist happens to be Paganini they'd be of such a different timbre as to be noticeable.) I was hoping there'd be others here who'd comment. 

Those that start in bar 98 (tremolos) are a mix of difficult and impossible; those in bar 114 are impossible again.

Some of your double stop sequences need a change of finger "shape", like e.g. when you change from an interval less than a 5th to one larger than a 5th. So a real legato is impossible. (A general point, there are exceptions.).

I found a diagram on the web that may be useful:

Principles to note are:

If one of the strings is open (G, D, A, E) then any note on an adjacent string can be double-stopped with it.

The distance between semitones decreases as you move up the fingerboard. (Worth remembering this because when playing double stops in octaves (for instance), the fingers don't stay the same distance apart unlike they do on a keyboard - so as you move upward your fingers get closer together. (That link shows how the distances diminish.)

Double stops in high positions on the lower strings are more awkward as the player has to reach over the instrument .

Oh...and a final point, this time round!.....If you insist on giving the cellist a tenor clef you may have to buy them a drink or two - they won't like that (though at least two of the cellists in our town orchestra are ok with the alto clef! 

So...a solid piece that a lot of work has gone into. Congrats for that.


PS, I'm flattered that you looked up one of my quartet pieces. Thank you!

Dane, thanks for the help with this! That violin positions diagram is great, really helpful. Too bad they don't seem to have one for viola. For the double stops in bars 20 and 114, I wonder if it would be playable if the lower notes (the D, E-flat, and A) were given as a double-stop to the viola. The first double stop would be A-flat E-flat which should be easily playable on the G and D strings, then C A which I'm less sure of. Are the fingerings on the viola the same as those on the violin, with everything a fifth lower? I'm guessing there are differences, and of course the instrument is larger so the spread of the fingers might be a challenge.

I'll have to think about the ones in bar 98 et seq; might have to cut out a voice or shorten some of the notes and make them sequential.

Not sure what you mean by having to buy cellists a drink for giving them the tenor clef? What is so hard about it? If's just hard for them to read I'd just rewrite it using the alto clef (or even bass clef for that matter). No biggie. Now the treble clef passages I expect would be hard on a cellist, but I specifically wanted the timbre of that high register. Yet another reason I'm a bit worried as an unknown and amateur composer about getting anyone to play this.

Thanks for your kind words about the music.

And yes, I've been nosing around, listening to what people are doing. I was trying to see if anyone had done anything for string quartet recently and finally found your work several months back I think. Interesting piece, in an idiom I haven't heard before. Lots of complex rhythms, dynamic shifts, and syncopations, and neither tonal nor atonal. I felt it was very well conceived for string quartet, but to be honest I would have to listen again, probably more than once, to really grasp it.



Oh, about the cellists - they aren't used to reading that clef which means the dreaded "work"! I wrote a quartet for Cellos, a little Caribbean flavoured thing laid out mainly in: treble, alto, tenor and bass clefs. The most experienced cellist in our town orchestra told me off about the tenor clef! It's a moderately competent amateur orchestra with a few ex-pros. They'd never play the Rite of Spring but can make a lot of noises that approximate it!!

I posted a rendering of the piece here a little after joining. 

As for the viola, yes, the stretch is a little bigger but not that much. Full-sized instruments (excluding peg box and scroll): violin 14 inches, viola 15 1/2". (I (try to) play viola). Should you be interested, the increased length of a viola is disproportionate to tuning a fifth lower - effectively too short so the strings are slacker. It's what gives the viola its more... what? 'sandy'? 'nasal'? tone. 

Violas aren't as standardised. You'll find some full-sized instruments 16" and others 14". 

If you haven't a violinist / violist close by to try out your intentions, maybe best to stick to any double stop with one string open but otherwise no more than an octave for violin/viola and 3rds to 6ths for a cello.

Take care writing double stops in artificial harmonics remembering that they take 4 fingers. Best leave them alone or limited to 4ths 5ths and 6ths. 

There are performers here far more competent than me who may contest that...please come forward.  

Cheers, Dane

Okay, I thought you might be tongue-in-cheek kvetching about some cellists you know. I just couldn't see insisting on a particular notation. Practically anything that would make sense to write in tenor clef could be notated on a bass or treble clef, it's all just convenience.

I'll look for the piece you mention later on, though I'm still not too familiar with this board's search and other informational functions.

Thanks for the guidelines and info about the viola. I think I've taken care of the impossible double stops in bars 98 etc. I shortened one tremolo in the upper voice to allow the lower voice to be played sequentially, which makes for an interesting change in the texture; in the rest I raised the lower voice one octave... at least in MuseScore the difference isn't too noticeable. For the rest that are difficult but not impossible, I think I will leave most of them in until I have had a chance to talk to whomever I ask to try to play it. I could not imagine making this piece work limiting myself to one open string double stops. I think all of the double stops in the newer parts are possible though some of them might be difficult.

I've made some other changes; the pure tritones in the buildup that you objected to are replaced (inner voices move up/down by semitones and back again), and the octave pizzicato writing in the coda is now the figure against its inversion. I've some more changes to make and then I will upload the revised score for anyone who is interested.

I would love to hear from other string players too...

Hi Liz,

Small point of quite trivial order compared to the weighty matters you and Dane are discussing. I see here you have titled the post String Quartet in A Minor, but on your SoundCloud page it is titled A Minor Quartet. I would definitely avoid referring to it that way, it could be read as a sentence fragment referring to a minor work, rather than a piece in the key of A Minor. 


Oooh... good point Gav, and actually I'd had that thought but decided, what the heck, only musicians will be listening to this anyway. But yes, that's valid and I'll see if I can change it on SoundCloud (not sure that's possible after posting).



Edit: it is possible, and done.

Gav Brown said:

Hi Liz,

Small point of quite trivial order compared to the weighty matters you and Dane are discussing. I see here you have titled the post String Quartet in A Minor, but on your SoundCloud page it is titled A Minor Quartet. I would definitely avoid referring to it that way, it could be read as a sentence fragment referring to a minor work, rather than a piece in the key of A Minor. 


The revised score... I think everything in it is playable, though perhaps with considerable difficulty in places.


Hi, Liz,

It's going along fine - and awaiting a rehearsal just to iron out any final problems is probably the best bet. There were still a couple of cello double stops at or close on an octave that may be problematic: the 10th in bar 43; the maj 7th bar 98 (the A would be playable on the G string but could be done on the C in a higher position (in which case the whole 'phrase' from bar 96 would be played high). Best to consult a cellist. No doubt they have ways! They can use the thumb to bar strings, I believe.


Thanks Dane! Right now getting that rehearsal is going to be the big challenge, since I have no contacts today in the performing community. I never had many, but lost all of them 40 years ago. Living in a small town in rural New England with no local orchestra and few local resources is a bit daunting.

On a positive note, I just learned that an (almost) neighbor I met socially a couple of years ago is actually an internationally known composer who has written for the string quartet medium. I am trying to work up the courage to contact him...

Hi Elizabeth

I listened to the recording and looked at the score you made. You are clearly very knowledgeable in tonality and tonal variation. In reading what your intent was, I believe you have attended to that very well. I found listening to this gave me varying levels of tension and suspense all very well played out!  The fact that you added to the score later on must have given you a great feeling, to add to something you've worked on and have it still sound very intact and cohesive!

Thanks for sharing the score which further served to enlighten me on the construction of this. Your choice of instruments fits so very well. I understand maybe some or your frustration in not being able to fully put this down in MuseScore in a way that you were entirely happy with. Still I think I have the main intent here which was well delivered.

Thanks for sharing this and I hope to hear more from you!

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