Tag Archives: Felix Mendelssohn

Working on a string quartet

I don’t remember exactly when, but I think it was sometime in my second year in the music program as an undergraduate, that one of my teachers said something about how a string quartet was a hard group to write for. I had initially thought that I’d write my music drama with a string quartet accompanying the five singers. But my mentor Christian Asplund recommended thinking of the possibility of a different constellation, and I settled on two clarinets, violin, and cello. Here is the page where you can hear Stone-waltz. And here is the page where you can find Electricity-dance, two of my favorite pieces from the drama The Exchange.

A few years ago I approached Don Peterson, who was then the director of the Wind Symphony at BYU. I was interested in writing a piece for his ensemble. He asked me if I listened to a lot of band music? And the truth is, I hadn’t really done that. He gave me several of his ensemble’s recordings and I started listening to them all the time for a while. It helped me get a feel for how the ensemble works, what different roles the different instruments can play, etc. It took me a while to complete the work, but I still have the first movement and it hasn’t been played yet. Holler if you know of a band that wants to try it! I call it Acceptable, and the title might bring to your mind grading at Hogwarts. But it’s actually derived from scriptures in the New Testament.

There are several that talk about acceptable sacrifices to the Lord, such as this one: 1 Peter 2: 5. “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” (italics added).

Well, I have tried playing string quartets one time when I lived in Rundvik. I had gathered a few friends from the folk music ensemble (Umeå spelmanslag) and we got together for a few months and played some quartets. I know playing chamber music can really improve your overall playing, and besides, it’s just a lot of fun. Your part is really important, but it’s so playful because it’s constantly interacting with the other parts. And nobody else plays exactly your part, so it’s a good challenge.

A little while ago I had the idea I should try my hand at writing a string quartet. And instead of having to check out CDs or buy them, I can now just stream them. So I made a playlist with a bunch of Felix Mendelssohn and Bártok quartets that I could play while driving, cooking, watching kids climb, or whatever I needed to do with only using half a mind. And recently I had a first rehearsal with some other string players to try out quartet playing. It was exhilarating! The music is so beautiful, and it’s fun to try and give the composition justice in our interpretation of it.

One day a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to work on a solo piece, but I had left my notes at home. So instead I just started a score for string quartet. And today I pick it up again. All that listening will probably affect the way the quartet sounds! I like more augmented triads, and I like to think that I’m not still in the harmonic language of Mendelssohn, beautiful as it is. But the playful interaction between parts, that I hope to retain. The figures going from one instrument to another. The importance of landing on a chord that sounds like the harmonic language I have chosen. It needs to feel like one piece that fits together with itself, if you understand my meaning.

Back to gathering inspiration

I guess it should be a welcome theme. Finish a project, try to get started on the next. I’m finding myself listening to lots of Felix Mendelssohn, playing some of it, and loving it so much. And today I’m trying to get to know Charles Gounod’s music better. I had known a couple of his pieces before, but today I discover his Funeral march of a Marionette, and it really moves me.

His music that comes at me from the Amazon artist station is deeply emotional, and I suppose that is to a great extent what music is meant to do. It grabs at any sadness or grief that is deep in your heart, and lets you just feel it. I can hardly catch any of the French in his opera lyrics, but the melodies, harmonic progressions, and orchestrations are still moving me, and I think it is true, that if the singer or musicians are pulling from inside them when they play or sing the music, that it transcends the language barrier.

I think this is just as true for instrumental music. You have to make more translations for yourself when you work on interpretation, but it can definitely communicate your feelings, and it can help the people listening to process their own emotions.

I didn’t think much about this aspect of music when I decided to follow the music path at 15 years of age, but I don’t regret taking that road.

(For those who don’t know that story, I’ll share it briefly here. In Sweden, when you are in 9th grade, you get to choose a program for your last three years of school called Gymnasiet. I had gone to a school that had an auditioned music program for grades 4-9. I learned a lot about music then, but aside from that, I was also a pretty good student, and I aspired to reach greatness in science on a separate path, that might take me away from full dedication to music. I knew I had a good chance of success in getting into the school of my choice, so it was important that I tell the admissions which was my first choice and which was my second.

I made it a matter of prayer, and I consulted with my mom about it too. I have never regretted choosing music as my main field of study, and I have cherished the experiences I had at Södra Latins gymnasium as a music student, and everything that it subsequently led to, with regards to further study of music, and a life full of music creation.)

I’m toying with ideas for my next project, and all the listening will hopefully help inspire me to make a piece that will also grab at your heart when you hear it.

Time to gather inspiration, and more work on the song

Yesterday I delivered the parts and ended up doing very little to write more music. I prioritized playing my viola for a half hour when I had the opportunity because I think it’s easier to get back to the sound I love if I do it more frequently. Then when the kids were climbing, I had my viola part for the Mendelssohn quartets and listened to Opus 13, 80, and just barely started on 44 when it was time to wrap up.

How deeply emotional they are! I’m trying to put my finger on why they are triggering such profound emotions when I listen to them. I think it is because they have a certain melodic turn-shape, and then it’s the repetition of that same shape. It’s coming from one instrument, then from another. It’s in one octave, then in another. It’s at one dynamic level, and then it’s at a different one. It’s the lovely development of ideas, and then the juxtaposition of a very different sound. It’s the dance-like structure to some of the movements that make me want to get up and dance.

Studying the quartets with the viola part helps me hear that part especially well, and I know when to anticipate what I think is a general pause in the musical flow.

Today I’m looking at my song again. Adding in a measure of rest for the vocalist, because I think it’s too much to keep singing for so long, and it’s good for the people listening to have a break in listening to the text as well. I know I need to add in the piano part, and it’s more than I think I can do in one sitting. So I’ll just get started and we’ll see how far I get.

I decide to work on a bass line in the piano part, from right before I stopped on the right hand line. I’m realizing I am writing the part so that a contrabass could play the bass line, and I like it. It would sound great with a contrabass and some other instrument, maybe a clarinet, and soprano. Well, a clarinet could only play one note at a time. A guitar I believe could do it well, with the few chords I have written, and mostly melodic line accompanying with a single note at a time.

So I think I might write another instrumentation for this song once I finish all the lines. Maybe tomorrow.