The week before last I attended a new chamber music course in St Andrews called ‘Strings in Spring’, which was coached by the fantastic Fitzwilliam Quartet (composed of Lucy Russell, Marcus Barcham-Stevens, Alan George and Heather Tuach). It was a chance for local string players to receive expert coaching from these eminent musicians, and to hear some top class playing when it came to their own concert. My trio (a string trio, which is a quartet minus the second violin) went along and we got some great advice on playing Mozart and Beethoven, as well as the unforgettable opportunity to play the first movement of Schubert’s ‘Rosamunde’ quartet with Lucy Russell playing second violin!
We also had the chance to play in a string ensemble for some of the sessions, and covered everything from Purcell’s Fairy Queen to Elgar’s Serenade and Mendelssohn’s Octet, which was really good fun, as members of the quartet are also specialists in Baroque playing and could advise us on how to get the most authentic sounds out of our instruments, and the benefits of playing with gut strings and baroque bows.
It was when I went to hear the quartet play in their own concert, entitled ‘Latest and Last’ as they played the last quartets composed by Mozart and Haydn as well as some recently written works, that I was struck by an aspect of playing music that I had never considered before. Musicians, especially those playing chamber music, have to be minutely aware of the subtleties of the other players’ playing, so that if one player suddenly decides to take time or change the dynamic in one phrase, the others must notice this and immediately adapt to it. This sensitivity to the tiniest changes in pitch, timing, dynamics and many other factors is helped along in a quartet by the fact that its members (hopefully) know each other very well and can anticipate what each other will do. Of course rehearsal is also essential to get to know the music and where the difficult patches are, but in performances, spontaneous things can happen and mistakes can creep in into the most well rehearsed passage, and the adaptability of chamber musicians in these situations is key to the success (or failure) of the performance. I remember when I was playing in a quartet in a concert (I think it was a fairly light hearted piece Schubert), and the cellist decided mischieviously to pause for longer than we had rehearsed before playing his pizz, thus momentarily throwing me and the rest of the quartet – but since we knew the piece well, we quickly adapted. This responsiveness, coupled with musicians’ heightened awareness of moods and emotions portrayed in music, means that as chamber musicians we can read music that we don’t know and pick up some of the nuances of it straight away.
The intimacy of chamber music is a large part of the reason I like it so much – you can hear yourself and your own sound very clearly (as opposed to in an orchestra where others are playing your part and it is more difficult to hear yourself), and you can bring your own interpretations to the music, as there are a much smaller number of players in the group and you are not being directed from the podium. Chamber music allows musicians to express their personalities through the music, and to interpret the composers’ intentions directly, without the medium of the conductor. A large part of chamber music is the close relationship of the players to each other, and the fact that you use eye contact and visual cues much more to be aware of what the other players are doing – without this, it is very unlikely that a string quartet or chamber group would ever be fully together. (This is the same in orchestras and choirs, only it is the responsibility of the conductor to make sure everyone is together). You will often see quartet players looking up from their music and looking at each other for large parts of the music – they know the piece so well that they can play from memory and use the music as an aide, concentrating instead on the ensemble. This strategy is great, until you are sight reading a piece or don’t know it very well – I’ve lost count of the number of times I have looked up and then completely lost my place in the music!
I leave you with a funny quotation from an unknown musician on the nature of quartet playing:
‘A quartet is four people who used to be friends….’