Soon after I arrived here in Wintergreen, it struck me that all of the composition students, who are all in their early twenties, have written, are writing or will soon write string quartets.  As someone who waited until his forties to venture into this medium, this was an interesting phenomenon.  It raises two complementary questions: why are young composers so fearless when it comes to writing string quartets?  And why did I wait so long?

And then I remembered.  When I was a composition student in the late 1970s, I heard about a festival featuring Elliott Carter and the now-defunct Composers String Quartet, for which the CSQ had an open call for a new music reading session.

They received 1500 submissions.

This was a story I heard from one of my teachers, and it’s possible that he exaggerated the number.  But the story made a strong impression: I vowed I would never write for that ensemble.

Three things have happened since then.  First, a generation of quartets emerged that was attaining an unprecedented degree of virtuosity, especially with regards to pieces that demand extreme levels of rhythmic and technical dexterity.

Second, an bunch of string quartet workshops sprang up around the country: one- or two-week, intensive sessions in which budding quartets worked closely with established ensembles, learning not only how to play at the highest level, but how to survive in a shifting marketplace.

And third, a new type of quartet emerged, one that attracted new audiences by shunning the canonic works of the repertoire and exploring connections with contemporary popular music.

These three developments led to a situation in which string quartets were seen as flexible, adaptable and cool, in a way that wasn’t imaginable 35 years ago.

So perhaps young composers see the string quartet as an opportunity for exposure and exploration, not as an intimidating body of masterpieces.  All in all, a positive turn of events.

3 Responses to “Who Writes String Quartets?”
  1. This post makes me sad.

    “They received 1500 submissions. … I vowed I would never write for that ensemble”

    vs

    “perhaps young composers [now] see the string quartet as an opportunity for exposure and exploration”

    What happened to writing for a particular ensemble because you believe you have something to say, or just simply want to?

  2. Elaine Fine says:

    Thanks for mentioning the Composers Quartet in your post. I am very close friends with two of its founding members, violist Bernard Zaslav, and cellist Seymour Barab. Bernie left the CQ in 1968, and Seymour remained in the Quartet into the 1970s. You could get the straight story from Seymour (I can give you their contact information if you e-mail me privately), or from Gunther Schuller, who was their manager.

    Anyway, I believe that string quartet writing is done best by musicians who play in string quartets, and it’s done second best by musicians who understand what it feels like to play in a string quartet. Perhaps the best thing that any young composer can do is to learn to play the viola or the violin (even at a beginner level), and play the inner parts of a bunch of 18th-century String Quartets with willing friends (or perhaps a teacher). You can even learn something by playing with recordings.

  3. Lawrence Dillon says:

    Elaine, I like your recommendation, though in my case I learned to write for string quartets by sitting in on a whole lot of string quartet rehearsals with first-rate ensembles.

    Tim, do not be sad. Of course it’s a good idea to write for string quartet “because you believe you have something to say, or simply want to,” especially if you have more than enough time in your life to accomplish the things you are interested in accomplishing. In my case, I have far more things I want to do than I will ever have time for.

    When I was young, I thought it was amazing that Haydn wrote 104 symphonies (I know the number is arguable, but it’s still a nice, large number). Then I wrote my first symphony and realized that, yes, I could write 103 more without too much trouble. But I don’t live in late-18th-century Austria, or anywhere else that needs that many new symphonies, so it makes more sense for me to focus my energies on the things I want to do that I feel the world I live in needs. Not for more recognition or financial gain (Let’s take a moment to chortle at the thought of making these kinds of decisions in the hopes of monetary gain), but rather because I want to do something that will make this world a little more interesting.

    When I was nineteen, the string quartet universe was somewhat narrower than now, or so it seems to me in retrospect. One thing that is certainly not a question of perspective is the fact that I did not have the technical wherewithal to write a worthwhile quartet when I was nineteen, and I am perfectly happy that I waited.

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