Lessons for Rufus: Writing for strings (2)

July 6, 2006

Professor Berlioz checks his email to find a note from Rufus:

Yo Prof! I’m in Denmark and haven’t been thinking solo violin lately, I mean it’s summer. Baroque music is for wintertime. I fooled around with one in the studio the other day. I thought you might be interested in what I came up with.



Professor Berlioz was NOT amused and sent Rufus a howler:

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT! HOW DARE YOU SEND ME SUCH AN INSIPID PIECE OF WORK. I EXPECT MORE FROM SOMEONE OF YOUR TALENT. I expect a work for solo violin from you, due one week from today. Score it using Sibelius notation software, and the piece should be a prelude, say around 2 minutes long. Study the Bach scores that I mentioned last time. I will send you an addendum to this email with some new things to incorporate in your string writing.

Don’t make the mistake Lenny did: keep your composition alive, make performing your 2nd priority.



Berlioz slapped the SEND button shaking his head in frustration. He sat back, opened up a new word document, and began to give Rufus his next lesson with help from a scanner and the internet.


With regards to bowing, the string player will either play one bow per string, giving it a well articulated sound, or play 2 or more notes under one bow, making the sound more smooth, more lyrical, and the notes seem more connected. Sometimes melodies want to be slurred in little groups of 2’s and 3’s, and sometimes a composer will put a whole string of notes under one bow. (I’m assuming you know that “bow” means to draw the bow across a string from the bottom part (the “frog”) to the top (the “tip”), and back again.

Here is an example of detached playing, or one note per bow. There is an interesting sparkle to this passage that may not be obvious. Remember that a downbow feels a bit more like a downbeat, and an upbow feels a bit like an unaccented beat. Playing up-and-down is a binary articulative process: up down up down — a duple feel. The example below is in 6, so that the strong beats, beats 1 and 4, have a downbow on 1 and an upbow on 4 that accentuated the two-groups-of-three in the 6 beats. Notice compositionally, the wild shape of the note directions: Not boring scales and arpeggios, real music with melodic fantasy.

Let’s look at some different kinds of bowing techniques. The first 4 bars of the next example illustrate a technique where one note is held, like a drone, while the other has a melody. The melody has to be relatively simple and able to be played well while sustaining the other note.


Then, afer those four bars of 2-part music, the texture becomes solo for the next four bars. And then the 2-part texture returns for four more bars, and this alteration between numbers of “voices” changes phrase by phrase, almost like a call-and-response. Look at ms.5 and 6: the 8ths are slurred in groups of two (Bz sings: “dyah da, dyah da, dyah da” and so on). Then in m.7, there are no slurs. This means every note gets a separate bow, which gives each of those notes textural importance: they stand out in the phrase because they are played differently than the rest of the passage.

The above example alternates between 1 and 2 voices. Look at this example: it’s a fugue for a violin, and damn hard to play. You see the subject come in in m.1, it then repeats in the lower voice in m.2 while a simple accompanimental countersubject comes in over it. Look at the chords happening simultaneously beneath the third appearance of the subject in m.3. Very difficult to play. Easy for a keyboard, hard for a stringed instrument.


Here is an example of a chaconne, a famous one in d minor. A chaconne is a chord progression that repeats over and over, which is quite common in popular music. Notice how the contrapuntal business of each line is clear, attention is paid to detail, and it is clear what is foreground and what is not.


Now here is a fun texture: good for fast passages, climactic music, and country fiddling. If you look at all four measures, the 16th notes on the off-beats are all E’s. Not only that, but they are all E’s on the open E string. What is happening in the 16th notes on the downbeat is the melody being played on the next lower string, the A string, but it’s being played in the same register as the open E, so you get this back-and-forth between a fingered string and an open string.


You’ll also notice funny little italic recommendations. This is the birth of DYNAMICS. (They eventually became single letters rather than words.)

Alright m’boy, I’m sleepy, but study these examples; they are all in your book. Buy a CD. Listen to this stuff all the time. Get it in your head. Learn how string music “goes.” Abandon string washes. Give string players something challenging to do. Goose eggs, er whole note, ain’t it.


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