Roman numerals above string instrument notes

I'm reading the score of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, and I've come across some unfamiliar markings in the score:

Google has informed me that they are used to specify which string the players should be using. I'm not a string player, so I'm curious about why one would specify the string - it probably changes the sound quality compared to the "default string", but in what way? I'm not sure I can tell a difference from the recording I have. Are there more examples that show how this technique is used?

• You are correct that the timbre differs from string to string, and that is why composers often specify which to play on. For solo pieces, us performers may take the liberty of choosing a different string if we prefer that sound. Oct 12, 2017 at 11:40
• That can make certain passages harder or even impossible if you change the positions like that. Oct 12, 2017 at 11:55

1 Answer

The Roman numerals often indicate that the notes should be played on a particular string. For the Violin, `I = E-string, II = A-string, III = D-string, and IV = G-string`. In your example, the first and second violins are expected to play the passage on the G-string in 6th position (nearly halfway up the string). The violas are also meant to play on the G-string (III for viola). Notes played high on the G-string have a very dark and beautiful quality which cannot be reproduced on the D-string.

There are also instances where Roman numerals indicate the position, rather than the string, i.e. `I = 1st position, III = 3rd position, V = 5th position, VII = 7th position, etc.` Caprice #6 by Pierre Rode for example uses Roman numerals for such position indications.

The violinist usually can figure out which is meant by context.

Examples of Roman numerals for string indications

1. Paganini Caprice 18 - IMSLP Link Opening Corrente section played entirely on the G-string up to a high E reached by stretching from 7th position.

2. Bach Partita 3, Prelude - IMSLP Link Measures 64-66 are played on an open A and fingered D-string. Measures starting at 67 are played on an open A, with fingered D and G-strings.

Example of Roman Numerals for Position

1. Caprice #6 by Pierre Rode Measures 35-40