3 Pieces of Violin Repertoire for Developing String Quartets

By Miranda Wilson | From the January/February 2020 issue of Strings Magazine

Unlike the piano trio, where three talented individuals can come together convincingly on an occasional basis, a top-level string quartet is a full-time job. There can be few musical activities as intense as two violinists, a violist, and a cellist trying to build a group sound composed of perfectly matched bow strokes and seamlessly blended tone. Perhaps the toughest challenge of all for those new to quartet playing is the never-ending quest for convincing intonation. Constrained by the pitches of the instruments’ open strings, the group also has to judge the appropriate uses of just intonation, Pythagorean intonation, or a combination of the two. Even more perplexingly, dynamics, bow speed, articulation, contact points, and so on can affect pitch. If the string-quartet genre affords some of history’s greatest repertoire, performing this repertoire requires intense time, energy, and concentration.

String Quartet Technique
By McGill International String Quartet Academy director André J. Roy

String Quartet Technique, an instructional work by McGill International String Quartet Academy director André J. Roy

Today’s music industry boasts an unprecedented number of professional string quartets and postgraduate quartet programs, so it’s surprising that relatively few pedagogical materials on the art of quartet playing have been published. String Quartet Technique, an instructional work by McGill International String Quartet Academy director André J. Roy, addresses the many challenges of building melody, harmony, and sound blend as a group. Using relatively simple exercises such as scales and arpeggios, Roy staggers the parts so that the instrumentalists enter, overlap, and drop out at different points in the texture. By altering rhythms, strokes, articulations, dynamics, and timbres, Roy’s exercises teach groups to build melodies and harmonies in a multiplicity of possible contexts, in preparation for tackling the great repertoire.

Little direction is given in terms of intonation how-tos, such as altering the third degree of major and minor triads, but perhaps this affords aspiring quartets the chance to self-teach and experiment with different intonation systems. The study of chordal patterns culminates in a Circle of Fifths exercise, where the principles of intonation are practiced in every key, and the melodic exercises build up to Roy’s intriguing arrangement for string quartet of a Kreutzer étude. It’s a remarkable achievement to transform a one-instrument composition into one for four players. In skilled hands, this étude would give the impression of being performed by one gigantic sixteen-string instrument—which is surely the unifying goal of a quartet. String Quartet Technique demystifies the process every quartet must go through on their journey together. This is a must-buy for professional, amateur, and student quartets of any level.


Sarasate: Carmen Fantasy, Op. 25, for violin & piano
G. Henle Verlag, $22.95

Sarasate: Carmen Fantasy, Op. 25, for violin & piano

Fantasies on opera themes were all the rage in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and certainly a trend that young violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate cultivated. Writing such works, 13 in all, showcased his talent as both composer and performer. The prevailing passion for opera made these works especially popular with concert audiences. Fantasies by de Bériot, Alard, and, above all, Paganini had belonged to Sarasate’s repertoire since childhood.

He wrote the Carmen Fantasy, inspired by Bizet’s hugely popular opera in Paris in 1881, after almost five continuous years on tour. Completed in Marseille when his friend Bizet’s opera was enjoying a triumphal reception, it appeared at a similar time to his other friend Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. Sarasate had provided Lalo with motifs from Spanish folklore and was also its dedicatee.

In his Fantasy, Sarasate employs colorful Spanish themes—the Introduction and four following sections display Andalusian folk songs and dances like the Habanera, Polo, and Seguidilla. Most famous is the “Gypsy Song” sung by Carmen in Act 2. Sarasate used Bizet’s orchestral score as well as the piano reduction as the basis of his composition, introducing variations to the original as well as virtuosic elements like trills, harmonics, double- and triple-stops, octave leaps, pizzicato, and of course, rapid passagework.


The Carmen Fantasy is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant and beloved works in the violinist’s repertoire. The composer played it all his life to great acclaim, and it still dazzles today. Two violin copies enhance this exceptionally spacious Henle edition, one unedited and the other fingered and bowed by Augustin Hadelich. This edition testifies once again to this publishing house’s meticulous printing and research. —Mary Nemet

Tchaikowsky: Complete Works for violin & piano Critical Performance Edition, Heifetz Collection; edited by Endre Granat
Lauren Keiser Music Publishing, $26.95

Tchaikowsky: Complete Works for violin & piano Critical Performance Edition, Heifetz Collection; edited by Endre Granat

This edition is primarily based on the first print by Russian publisher Jurgenson. Interestingly, the composer accepted corrections by pedagogue Leopold Auer and violinist Vasily Bezekirsky, and these are indicated in the violin part. Indeed, the evocative Meditation, the lively Scherzo, and nostalgic Melody (collectively named Souvenir d’un lieu cher), and Sérénade Mélancolique are dedicated to Auer.


Of the remaining works in this collective album, the Valse-Scherzo was dedicated to budding virtuoso violinist Josif Kotik and the Andante Funebre to Ferdinand Laub—perhaps Tchaikovsky’s favorite violinist. The enchanting Humoresque brings up the rearguard in this collection edited by Endre Granat, a former pupil then colleague of his iconic teacher, Jascha Heifetz. Premier concertmaster for the Hollywood film industry, Granat comments, “No performer has been capable of doing justice to the enormous stylistic and emotional range of these works more than Heifetz.”

Effectively his edition is a fine tribute to his legendary teacher, with Heifetz’s bowings, fingerings, and performance suggestions an integral part of this publication. As a violinist I found these to be extremely helpful and, still today, technically and stylistically appropriate.

Lauren Keiser’s printing is spacious and clear, and apart from awkward page-turns in the Meditation and Scherzo, this is a very attractive and useful album that evokes the spirit of a legendary composer and perhaps his most famous exponent.