Few professional, and fewer student and amateur quartets, play on a matched set of instruments. Part of the fun and intrigue of a quartet is finding instruments that can work together, blend together and yet have individually distinct voices.
The 2009 String Quartet is a set of matched instruments, inspired by the work of Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù. We would like to have the quartet played as widely as possible, and we invite you be involved. The quartet is available for loan to established string quartets, professional, student or amateur.
This is an opportunity to explore the practical functioning of a designed matched string quartet. Having the instruments played is good for them; having them heard and seen is good for us; we hope that having a chance to play on these instruments will be interested and engaging for you and that you will provide feedback to evaluate them individually and as a set.
This is the third matched quartet that Douglas Cox has made. The first was in 1984, a medal winner at the Violin Society of America competition. The four instruments in that quartet were sold separately to players all around the world.
The second quartet was commissioned by Lawrence University, made in 2007 and delivered in 2008. The 2009 instruments are the same models as the 2007 quartet, with some modifications. In April, 2011 they were featured at the closing event of the A. Cavallo Violins annual exhibition in Omaha, Nebraska. The instruments were recently reunited as a quartet here in Southern Vermont, and are available now to be played and heard.
The 2009 String Quartet
On Making A Matched String Quartet
1. An ensemble of four musicians playing stringed instruments, usually two violins, a viola, and a cello.
2. A composition for such a group.
3. Two violins, a viola and a cello, made to be played together by such a group.
Chamber musicians respond not only to the other members of their ensemble, but also to the instruments they and their colleagues are playing. This interactive process between players and instruments suggests that a particular quartet of instruments can lead to new and exciting, if not entirely predictable, results.
The true communicative value of an instrument lies less in its intrinsic quality of sound than in its ability to convey meaning through contrasts of volume and color, or the shapability and flexibility of the sound in the player’s hands. I value the clarity and harmonious interaction of the voices in the quartet over a seamless blend, and I want to keep in touch with each vocal personality as the music unfolds. So I aim for individual strength of character and personality in each instrument, with enough flexibility in each to allow for seamless blend when desired.
Because I love working in the style of Guarneri del Gesù, I used that style as a unifying visual and tonal theme. I chose similar top wood — the material that does most to affect power and ease of response — to help achieve balance of power. The spruce for violins and viola comes from the same log. I chose contrasting back wood — which does most to affect the tone color of the instrument — to give each instrument its own voice and personality.
“It was challenging and exciting figuring out how to get the very different sounds. But as far as making the instruments blend as a quartet, we quickly figured out we didn’t have to worry. That’s what they were made to do.” — Danielle Simandl, 2008 Viridian Quartet, Lawrence University
The First Violin
For the first violin I chose the Kreisler del Gesù violin as the model.
This is perhaps the most Strad-like of del Gesù’s violins, giving good power and flexibility with a medium warm tone color. I was looking for healthy, strong core and middle, typical violin sound.
One of the greatest influences on my work has been the mentoring and guidance of Robert Koff, founding second violin of the Juilliard Quartet. Robert believed that the second violin needed to be naturally more powerful than the first in order to provide balance from its position behind, and at lower pitches than the first. My goal was a powerful violin with brilliant highs and a dark, woody low end to provide transition to the viola sound. The “Leduc” pattern, a favorite of mine, provides these qualities, and I chose back wood from stock I know to provide a dark, woody color.
The size of the viola was my first consideration. The 16-3/8” body length is a size that most violists can handle. The pattern from Andrea Guarneri, grandfather of del Gesù, is harmonious and robust. If del Gesù had decided to build a viola he might well have used a form he found sitting in the back of the family workshop.
In a quartet I want a viola to have a distinctive color, with breadth in the bass to blend with the cello, and enough edge and core in the top to both sing and cut through the violins.
The cello in a quartet must have an enormous bottom to support the edifice above, and a singing top to intertwine with the upper voices.
The cello for this quartet starts with a moderately proportioned Montagnana model, extends the rounds at top and bottom, lengthens the mid-bout and reduces the length of the corners to make it more playable and to incorporate the aesthetic and style of late del Gesù. The lengthened ƒ-holes complete the styling and work to accentuate the bass.