Composing for the violin and viola

A large amount of basic information of the violin can be found in textbook and online sources. However, from a composer’s and violinist’s perspective I want to focus our attentions on issues that are often neglected or not extensively studied. The goal is write effective and virtuosic music without making it impractical to perform.

Before we begin, here’s a playlist of examples we’ll be referring to.

First I want to talk about articulation. Articulation marking can be interpreted in many different ways depending on the tempo and the stylistic context.

The most basic articulation. Detache, or separate bow, is the default bow stroke if no articulation is present in the music. This is the easiest articulation in violin playing. Any trained violinist is capable of playing a Detache passage at a medium fast tempo. Example: Kayser 36 studies for violin, no.1.

The next simplest articulation is Legato, to connect two or more notes with slurs. When slurs are added, the sound becomes more connected and fluid, and sometimes enhances the direction of the melody in the case of a long slur. While increasing the amount of notes played in a single bow, a long slur has to be played at a fast tempo in order to maintain adequate bow speed and sound quality. Short slurs may seem insignificant, but it’s an effective shaping tool for the melodies by grouping the notes symmetrically or asymmetrically. Very often they’re quick puzzle solvers for awkward bowing. In general, I like to think of slurs as Melisma in vocal music. Note that “slurs” in Brahms’ music usually represent phrase mark, not articulations. Example: Kayser 36 studies for violin, no. 12.

So far we have only discussed the articulations that don’t have accents or silences in between. It’s time to talk about the dot. A dotted articulation can be performed with various techniques depending on the context. If no other written instructions are present, a dotted articulation means simple separation in sound at a slow tempo. If no slurs are present, at a medium tempo, a dotted articulation can be played as Martele or Spiccato. Simply write one of these two terms on the music and the performer will play accordingly. Any accomplished violinists are capable of playing these basic articulations. Example of Martele: Kayser 36 studies for violin, no. 7. Example of Spiccato: Kayser 36 studies for violin, no. 13.

As tempo increases in music, everything becomes more challenging. Let’s now discuss advanced articulations. At a very fast tempo, a dotted articulation is played as Sautille, a fast bow bouncing stroke. This is a virtuosic technique that not every violinist can master. In order for this articulation to sound effectively, the writing for the left hand has to be very violinistic, which I will discuss later. Example: Kayser 36 studies for violin, no. 9 & 19.

Before we move on to the next set of advanced articulations, let’s remember that both Spiccato and Sautille are played off the strings, while Detache and Martele are played on the strings. String players usually prefer using the terms “on” or “off the string” in rehearsals.

The next set of advanced articulations is based on a combination of slurs and dots at a medium to fast tempo. Staccato is a series of articulated short notes played in one continues bow stroke. Up bow staccato is more common than down bow staccato. It’s effective at a medium fast tempo. Example: Kayser 36 studies for violin, no. 33.

At a very fast tempo, slur-dotted articulation is played as Ricochet. Sometimes it’s also called “Jete” or “throw bow.” Due to the physical characteristic of the violin bow, down bow ricochet is easier to control compared to up bow ricochet. Usually, a controlled, down-up bow two way ricochet is effective when it articulates fast, one-octave arpeggio. A down bow only ricochet can be either controlled or uncontrolled. Controlled ricochet is effective if it’s bounced four to five times. This is because the left hand only has four usable fingers on the fingerboard (five when adding opening string), when there’s more than five notes, it requires either shifting or string crossing, therefore making each bounce difficult to articulate the note accurately. Example: Paganini Caprice no.1.

Now I want to recapitulate on the term “violinistic.” Keep in mind violinist writing not only relies on good articulation marking, it also needs to carefully take the left hand into consideration. Even with the most detailed and logical articulations, an awkwardly written passage for the left hand can be impractical to play. For example, the original manuscript of Bach’s Unaccompanied Violin Partitas and Sonatas has no indications of articulation (except slurs) or dynamics. However, the writing is very violinistic. On the other hand, the articulation and dynamics markings in Schumann’s Violin Concerto are very specific, but the writing is not violinistic at all.

Let’s look at the left hand of a violinist. As I mentioned previously, we only use four of our left fingers: index, middle, ring, and pinky. When we run out of fingers at a stationary position, our left hand shifts to a different position or simply plays on different strings. A good violinist can combine complex shifting and string crossing to make a difficult passage playable. However, being playable is different from being practical. This is especially true in a fast passage. For examples, successive arpeggio, scale-like patterns, and repetitive 2, 3, or 4-note patterns (transposed or non-transposed) are practical writings. In a repetitive pattern, the maximum interval between the 4 fingered notes on the same string should not exceed a tritone when the left hand is in a lower position (towards the scroll of the violin). However, this tolerant of interval can be increased to a sixth in a higher position (towards the performer), because the spacing between each finger becomes smaller as the position gets higher. The beginning of the 3rd movement in Barber’s violin concerto is a good example of 4-note repetitive pattern in a lower position.

The violin is often seen and used as a monophonic instrument. However, it is quite capable of producing incredible homophony. Double, triple, or quadruple-stops have always been largely employed in violin music by Bach, Paganini, Tchaikovsky, Bruch, and Ysaye. Multiple-stops are expressive when used effectively. It’s crucial to remember a few rules. First, because of the curvature of the violin bridge, only double-stops can be fully sustained, whereas triple and quadruple-stops can only be rolled and partially sustained. Second, the top and bottom notes in a double-stop cannot be played on the same string simultaneously, because the top note will stop the vibration of the bottom note. This also applies to any multiple-stops. For example, it’s impossible to play an open-G and a B-natural on the G string simultaneously. Third, except open strings, the maximum interval between the top and bottom fingered note should be no larger than a tenth for professional violinist, and no larger than an octave in the case of a mediocre performer. Example: Kayser 36 studies for violin, no. 20.

Other frequently used violinistic techniques are harmonics, trills, and left hand pizzicato. And I will go over them briefly as such kind of information can be easily retrieved from various sources.

Harmonics are effective in medium to soft dynamics level. The degree of effectiveness also varies depending on the harmonic type and the relative location on the string. Normally natural harmonics sound as written, with the 1st partial harmonics being the loudest (1/2 of the string length) and easiest to locate. For artificial harmonics, we use the index finger to play the bottom note and pinky for the top note. Hence only the played notes are written most of the time. Occasionally you see the sounding notes written in smaller note heads. That is not necessary, since the we’re busy reading two notes simultaneously and adjusting the spacing between the two fingers. Keep in mind that harmonics require adequate time preparation, therefore tempo must be taken into consideration.

While harmonics rarely appeared in baroque and classical period violin repertoire, trills have existed in violin repertoire for a long time. Tartini’s Sonata “Il trillo del diavolo” is great model of how trills can embellish the melody and increase tension in music. Trills are most effective when the two notes are neighbors. The further they’re apart, the harder it is for the fingers to trill at a fast speed, this is because our ring finger and pinky have relatively weaker muscles and fewer nervous tissues. Normally the interval between the two notes should not exceed a tritone.

Left hand pizzicato is a virtuosic technique that appears in violin show pieces by Sarasate, Bazzini, and Paganini. It is most effective when used for a group of 4 notes in a descending stepwise motion (5 when the top note is plucked by the right hand). In Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, the descending arpeggio figure (3:26) is played by both left hand pizzicato and arco alternately, with the arco left finger also being the plucking finger for the pizzicato note. In general, left hand pizzicato should be used purposefully as a way to achieve certain sound effect, and not to be treated as a random “cool gadget” in your composition toolbox.

In the previous paragraphs, we can already start to see that the issue of structural limit such as bridge curvature plays an critical role in violinistic writing. May I remind you that the absolute lowest note on the violin is G3 (G below middle C), and the highest practical note is C8 (highest note on the piano). In addition, please carefully study the list of possible multiple-stops and harmonics in Samuel Adler’s “The Study of Orchestration.”

Be careful of what you write, but don’t restrain yourself from exploring the full potential of the violin. Virtuosic writing always brings excitement to music and amazes your audience. Finally, I want to share with you a list of advanced musical examples. Are you ready for some virtuosic adventures?

Brilliance of the E string: Mendelssohn violin concerto, 1st movement.

Warmth of the A string: Mendelssohn violin concerto, 2nd movement.

Maturity of the D string: Tchaikovsky violin concerto, 2nd movement.

Power of the G string: Saint Saens violin concerto no.3, 1st movement.

Seamless welding of all four strings: Tchaikovsky violin concerto, 1st movement. Opening cadenza.

Run, scale-like figure: Paganini Caprice no. 5.

Arpeggio, one or multiple octave: Bruch violin concerto no.1, 1st movement. Mendelssohn violin concerto 1st movement. Paganini Caprice no. 5.

Trills: Paganini Caprice no. 6.

Natural and artificial Harmonics: Monti, Csardas

Left hand pizzicato: Bazzini, La Ronde des Lutins.

Multiple-stops: Bach sonata no.1 for unaccompanied violin, Fugue. Paganini Caprice no. 20. Tchaikovsky violin concerto, cadenza. Bruch Scottish Fantasy, 3rd movement . Ysaye solo violin sonata no.3.

Spiccato: Tchaikovsky violin concerto, 1st movement.

Sautille: Paganini, Moto Perpetuo. Wieniawski caprice no. 4.

Staccato: Dinicu, Hora Staccato.

Ricochet: Paganini Caprice no. 1. Bazzini, La Ronde des Lutins.