Witches and String Quartets

Updated: Aug 21, 2018

Today we’re talking string quartets, and are featuring a short recording by the Emerson Quartet. This multi-Grammy award winning string quartet has been in existence for 40 years and is considered one of the greatest chamber groups performing today. If you’re unfamiliar with Emerson, you may enjoy watching this short video of them talking about how they make musical decisions as an ensemble.

String quartets are probably the best-known form of chamber music, with hundreds of pieces being written by Mozart, Hadyn, Beethoven, Brahms…String quartets are always made up of two violins, a viola, and a cello. With each instrument creating sound the same way (bow on string), the blend created by this set of instruments is easily recognizable.

Franz Joseph Haydn (Austrian, 1732-1809) was well-known for many reasons, not least of which are his string quartets. Haydn falls in what we term the “Classical Period” of music history and was a great friend and mentor to Mozart. The classical period is marked by music with formal structure, and clear melody that stands apart from the harmonies.

Let’s take a listen to Emerson performing a movement of a Haydn string quartet. As always, I recommend listening through once, just see what you take in.

First question: did you notice they’re rehearsing in their socks?! That’s almost my favorite detail!

As the Emerson Quartet mentions, this piece is called the “Witches’ Menuet” because of its funky, rather grim and plodding feel. The piece opens in d minor, and with a very unusual effect—the violins are playing in exact octaves, and the viola and cello enter one measure later, playing the same music and ALSO in octaves. Octaves simply mean the same note, but lower or higher—on a piano, a designated length of piano string is called a C, but if you cut that string in half, it’s still called a C even though it sounds higher. Same thing on violins or cellos. Octaves can be quite tricky to tune because if you miss—eesh, it sticks out!

Fun side note: Octaves are part of what we call “perfect” intervals—the others being 4ths and 5ths. These are the intervals that were traditionally considered consonant (or “sounded pretty”) and it can all be traced back to Pythagoras. But that’s a blog post for another day.

Start the recording again (taking in the socks) and listen for that wide open feel that’s created by the instruments playing the same notes, just octaves apart from each other. Notice, too, how the two violinists move together, as do the cellist and violist. If you’re listening very carefully around 0:56, you’ll even hear the violins play a fancy little “turn” and the lower voices will repeat exactly after them at 0:57. That’s difficult to do—when you have an echoing part like that, the voices that follow must follow exactly as they are led.

At 1:48, our plodding mood lifts as the key changes to D Major. Haydn sets this up with lifted notes—watch how the players are barely moving their bows, which creates the short notes, and they are also lifting off the string which creates a more bouncy feel. In this section we finally have a more traditional melody + accompaniment as the first violin soars above the other three instruments.

At 3:17 our original plodding theme comes back. You recognize this melody by now! The form of this movement is in what we call a “menuet and trio” form, which was very common in the classical period (remember what we said about formal structure?). It is basically a fancy A B A structure.

A—minor key, plodding

B—major key, first violin has solo

A—minor key, plodding returns

At 3:58, watch the violist’s hand. Notice how he continues to move his hand (to create vibrato, or small pulses in the sound) even though he’s not actively bowing? That’s because the sound is still resonating and he must follow through or the sound would fall flat.

Emerson has a great collection of recordings that can be found on iTunes. You can check out their other playlists on YouTube, too.

Happy listening!

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