Have I Written String Quartets?

I finished another string quartet today – or at least, a piece for string quartet. See, I was asked to write a string quartet, and my original idea was to write one in three movements. I’m not much of a three-movement kind of guy, though, and the idea I had for the first movement got too long and too formally all-encompassing to be a movement. So it grew into an imposing, probably too-long, 25-minute movement, called The Light Summer Land. To title it just String Quartet seemed misleading. But I still had these ideas for the other movements, so I went ahead and wrote the third one anyway. It’s a four-part canon at the major sixth, 13 minutes long, called Hudson Spiral – a companion piece to my nine-part triple canon Chicago Spiral, which I wrote in Chicago, and now I live in the Hudson Valley. I’ll probably finish the second movement as well, and that’ll be another independent piece. I don’t think they can all fit in the same, wrist-slittingly long piece, being based on unrelated ideas. 

But I still don’t know what to say if someone asks whether I’ve written any string quartets. Before this year, I had written only one little six-minute piece for string quartet in just intonation, called Love Scene (2003) – actually an arrangement of a love scene from my opera The Watermelon Cargo. All the pitches are in the overtone series on C, and it’s a waltz in 3/4, but it still scares people away, and no one’s ever played it. So I always said I’d never written a string quartet, thinking of a string quartet as a rather sizeable piece. Wikipedia, which of course represents ultimate truth, states that “A string quartet is a musical ensemble of four string players… or a piece written to be performed by such a group.” Now I’ve written three pieces to be played by such a group. One of them, the big one, I can think of as a “string quartet.” The others are pieces. Or are they all just pieces for string quartet? It’s confusing.


  1. says

    Why not call them all string quartets? Revueltas’ astonishingly complete String Quartet no. 4 is all of 8 minutes long, like Bartók’s 4th boiled down to a concentrate. Then again, if a shorter piece doesn’t display wildly contrasting moods in that manner, do we tend to perceive it as being smaller in scale, and perhaps less worthy of the capital-letter designation String Quartet?
    Maybe the measure of a String Quartet versus a piece for string quartet lies less in duration than in how much perceptual “ground” the music covers in the allotted time? You’re right, it is confusing…
    As to what to say, when people ask if I’ve written any string quartets, I just answer no, despite what my catalog says. I spent nine months writing a four-movement, 30-minute behemoth only to learn that I needed to wait another twenty years to write a string quartet. Kudos to you for jumping in.
    KG replies: Well, I did wait 11 years longer to write a quartet than Brahms did to write a symphony.