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I finished arranging the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata in F minor for a string quartet, only to find out that the chord at bar 7 is impossible for a violinist. My instinctual reaction was:

No, it isn't impossible, listen, it is arpeggiated. Arpeggios are easy. And your typical triple or quadruple stop is an example of arpeggiation out of necessity, not out of beauty.

The person who told me that the chord was impossible, also happened to be a violinist herself. And here was her response to my reaction:

When it is written down as an ordinary chord, we try as much as possible to make it sound simultaneous. I would suggest that you stick to the C grace note as you have in the previous 2 bars. It will still be difficult since it is a leap of an octave then, but it won't be an impossible task.

Here is Beethoven's original:

enter image description here

And I will only be showing the arrangement of a few bars for the sake of space here, but that should be enough for context. Here is my arrangement as it is now, just taking Beethoven's notes and spreading them across the quartet:

enter image description here

You can see the arpeggio symbol that I made invisible in Musescore in the image at that chord.

The violinist that commented on the chord saying that it is impossible is suggesting that I do this instead:

enter image description here

Now, there is another option, but one probably not familiar for most violinists, leaving the arpeggio symbol visible. Most arpeggios on the violin are written out explicitly, with a note value for every note of the arpeggio, not like an arpeggiated chord(which is what Beethoven wrote).

If I go with the grace note option, that leaves me wondering what to do with the other notes of the chord.

Should I go with the grace note option that the violinist is suggesting to me? And is the quadruple stop as I have it right now really an impossibility for the violinist or is it just difficult? I mean surely a closed position triad including a note an octave above the bass note is possible as a quadruple stop for more than just the lowest G major chord in the violin's range, even if it has to be arpeggiated.

  • For an arpeggiated chord, us bowed string players really like it if it can be played as a "separated triple or quadruple stop" . Perhaps ask your violinist if the chord can be adjusted so the notes can be played on at least two and preferably 3 strings. e.g. first two notes on the D string, then easy(!!) cross to A string without a left-hand position change for the latter two notes. – Carl Witthoft Sep 24 at 12:06
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    The bolded bit at the end is simply not true. There is an octave and a 6th between the lowest open string and the highest open strength. Because the pinky is the shortest finger, it's the most comfortable to put on the E string in a quadruple stop. Therefore, the most comfortable quadruple stops to play on the violin have two octaves between their lowest and highest notes. Closed quad stops are very hard or impossible - open ones are much easier. – Alexander Woo Sep 24 at 21:24
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The octave your violinist suggested is fine. Another possibility is the following:

same with a violin-friendly chord

Why did Beethoven not write the above chord in his piano sonata? Because that major tenth is rather awkwardly wide for a pianist's hand. The chord he did write spans only an octave and so fits the pianist's hand. People writing for the piano prefer what is easier (and prefer not to write what is needlessly hard) for a pianist to play.

Likewise, seeing as you are writing for a violinist, it's as well for you not to write what is needlessly hard for a violinist. Chords that span an octave, and are played with piano keys that fit under the fingers well, are idiomatic for the piano. What's idiomatic for a violin is chords made up of fifths and sixths. Fifths because the instrument is tuned in fifths. In chords of more than two notes, sixths are easier than small intervals because a small interval entails placing a finger on a lower string but avoiding it touching higher strings, and this might be tricky.

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    This is both an excellent suggested solution, and a good general point: You don’t need to always follow the original spacing/voicing of chords and parts so closely. Beethoven’s choices in the piece were partly shaped by writing for the piano, and he would have made different choices in many places if he’d been writing/arranging it for a string quartet. – PLL Sep 24 at 13:32
  • Great answer. How exactly do you play that chord on violin – ring finger for the a♭ and pinky-barrée f and c, I'd guess? – leftaroundabout Sep 24 at 13:46
  • @leftaroundabout Violinists often move their left hand up and down the finger-board as needed. So it doesn't have to be those fingers. It might be index and middle fingers, with the hand in a higher position. – Rosie F Sep 24 at 14:30
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    This would be played in 3rd position, fingering 2-3-3. (Ring finger on the 5th.) – Jeff Y Sep 24 at 17:42
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    @PLL I would make that point slightly more strongly: you usually shouldn't follow the original voicing so closely when transcribing a keyboard piece for an instrumental and/or vocal ensemble. – phoog Sep 25 at 14:12
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Don't be so literal minded. This is easy to play, and effective:

enter image description here

If the quartet know the original piano version, they can easily simulate the arpeggio simply by violin 2 playing a bit ahead of the beat.

Trying to get Violin 1 to play all four notes as written will probably be sound clumsy at this tempo, and it won't be as "ff" as something easier to play because of the technical problem of coordinating the fingering and bowing across the two or more strings.

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    This is the right idea. Beethoven's intent was power and drama, not that it must be a rolled chord per se. I would go even further and use the C grace note as suggested elsewhere plus appropriate double stops on the downbeat in all lower parts. "Ka-POW". – Jeff Y Sep 24 at 17:48
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Disclaimer: I'm not a violinist. What follows is all head-knowledge, not practical experience.

As you know, since a violin bridge is curved, no more than two strings can sound at a time, so any chord will of course need to be arpeggiated. This isn't that big a deal, and is part of the characteristic sound of violin stops.

However, you also need to consider where the fingers will be stopping the strings. As I'm sure you know, violin strings are tuned in fifths. In order to play a chord, each note must be located on one of those four strings. Your chord has a high C, E♭, G, and a top C, which would need to be played o the G, D, A, and E strings respectively. The C on the G string is up an octave and a fourth (up 17 semitones), which is well past the half way point along the string. Now I'm not sure how high a violinist can go up the neck, especially on the G string, so I don't know if that's actually possible. But let's assume it is, and look at the rest of the chord. The F is going to be played on the D string, a minor third more than an octave (so 15 semitones up), the A♭ is going to be played on the A string (13 semitones up), and the top C will be on the E string (8 semitones up). You can think of these counts of "semitones up" as if they were imaginary frets on a guitar, so your essentially asking for a chord that requires fingering on the 8th, 13th, 15th, and 17th imaginary "frets" -- covering a span of 9 "frets". I believe in normal violin playing, the fingers are all within about 5 or 6 "frets" of each other. Nine is probably more than what can be stretched.

This is why violins are not good with close-voiced chords. If you want to retain a chord, one possibility might be to use a more open voicing. Obviously, you need to retain the top C, as that's the melody note. Skip the A♭ below that, and go down the F. That's a fifth below the C so it will use the same 8th "fret" as the the C on the E string. Then add the A♭ a sixth below that (and octave below the one you have written). That fits on the D string at the 6th "fret". At this point, you've got all thee notes of the chord covered, and you may not even need to add a fourth note. You'd have to check with a violinist to be sure, but I would think this open-voiced chord should be more doable on a violin.

A completely different possibility, though perhaps not elegant, would be to split the chord up between the first and second violins. For example, the first could play the octave C that your friend suggests, while the second plays an A♭ and F (either separated by a third, or by a sixth as above). In this case, the 2nd violin's F on beat two could either be missed, or added as a double stop to the viola.

Finally, if you want to notate an arpeggio that isn't a quadruple stop, instead of using a chord with (or without) an arpeggio symbol, I think it might be clearer to notate it as a series of arpeggiated grace notes (as WillRoss1 already suggested). I say this purely from a notational standpoint, without knowing if it's any more playable, though Jomiddnz seems to indicate it is.

  • There's a difference between playing a quadruple-stop and playing a four-string arpeggiated chord. Since the original score is an arpeggio, it does provide a bit more leeway in the transcription. – Carl Witthoft Sep 24 at 12:07
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    AFAIK violinists span 6 "frets" on the very first position (that starts on the second "fret"). The distance from 6th to 7th is about 1cm so spanning 10 "frets" in the middle of string should be quite easy, the distance will surely be like 8cm or even less. And there should be about two octaves available on the neck. – Džuris Sep 24 at 12:53
  • -1 for that second paragraph. Good lord no violinist is going to play like that. – Jeff Y Sep 24 at 17:38
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    @JeffY That second paragraph isn't how Caleb Hines advises a violinist to play; it proves, in his words, "why violins are not good with close-voiced chords". – Rosie F Sep 25 at 5:37
  • @RosieF is correct. I was attempting to explain why OP's friend might consider the chord unplayable, in the context of her statement: "When it is written down as an ordinary chord, we try as much as possible to make it sound simultaneous." – Caleb Hines Sep 25 at 5:52
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Your arpeggiated chord is perfectly fine. All four notes can be played in 2nd position on the A and E strings only (not as a quadruple stop). It could also be played in 3rd position on the D, A and E strings.
Of course only the top C note will be sustained, but the effect will still be there.

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    I am a violinist, and although you are correct that it is playable, it is rather awkward. For "chords" like these, even broken ones, it is normal to write notes that are playable on different strings. Unless every note is absolutely necessary, I would prefer playing one of the other alternatives already suggested here. In any case, it would need to be notated differently (with grace notes); that would be more familiar to the vast majority of violinists. – orthocresol Sep 24 at 14:39
  • @ orthocresol. I am also a violinist. I am surprised you think 'it is rather awkward'. In both 2nd position and 3rd positions, it is perfectly comfortable to play the exact notes that Beethoven wrote for that chord (using three grace notes leading to the sustained top C). I imagine that retaining Beethoven's original notes would be the arranger's preference. It is not only comfortable to play, but quite typically violinistic. – Jomiddnz Sep 24 at 22:17
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    @Jomiddnz I think the point is that, as written, a typical string player will read it as an instruction to quadruple stop (because it's a chord) - in which case it isn't possible. If it's written as grace notes, then it is possible as you say, and will be read as an instruction to play the arpeggio ahead of the top C. – meta Sep 25 at 10:32
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To play a chord on a bowed string instrument, even if by necessity of string crossings it is a spread chord (i.e. arpeggiated), the key point is that you want to be able to put all of your fingers in the necessary positions at the same time. That is impossible for the four note chord written.

It would be possible to rewrite the chord to be playable, by choosing notes such that they can comfortably be played one on each string in some position - this means going for a less closely voiced version of the chord.

The reason you see more arpeggios written out with note values in string music is that they are being played as arpeggios rather than "as close to simultanous as possible" - meaning that the player is moving their fingers around - strings are much more limited in the chords they can play comfortably than the piano, although scales and arpeggios generally work fine.

For this, if you don't want to rewrite the chord, you've got the option of putting some notes in the other parts. Alternatively, write the arpeggiated part as grace notes - so the player actually plays say C F A as an arpeggio as fast as possible, leading in to the top C (which would then be the only note held), similar to the start of the following bar. This, unlike playing it as a chord, should be possible

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You might be able to meet in the middle and use a triple grace note, like in the next measure, only on C-F-A. Only having to sustain the high C might take it from impossible to challenging, while still maintaining all the notes from the original in some form. That said, I'm not a violinist and have no clue if this would actually work, so definitely run this idea by someone that knows what they are talking about first!

(If anyone on here can confirm or deny the practicality of this idea I will gladly update my answer to reflect that)

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I'm a bit attached to the dramatic effect of having the first real chord of the piece - FORTISSIMMO - there...

I would suggest a more radical change:

0) Transpose the whole piece up a whole step, so that for the string quartet, you're writing in g minor. (Beethoven arranged exactly one of his piano sonatas for string quartet, Op. 14 No. 1 - the piano version is in E major, but the string version is transposed up to F major.)

1) Write that chord as a quadruple stop - low G and D on the open strings, B-flat on the A-string (a ninth above the open string), D on the E string (a seventh above the open string). (It will naturally be arpeggiated since a violinist can't play it otherwise; you don't need to indicate it.) This is easily playable in 5th or 6th position - because of the grace note f# at the beginning of the next measure, 5th is probably best, but a violinist can figure this out.

  • I should add that Beethoven had a good reason to write the piano sonata in f minor - the high F's in the piece were the highest note on the piano when that piece was written. Most pianos of the time had the F below the low G that is the lowest note in the piece - but not all - and some had the F but were missing the F-sharp in between. – Alexander Woo Sep 24 at 21:45
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    I usually stick to the key that the composer originally wrote it in unless there is an absolute necessity to transpose. This is because transposition changes the character of the piece. Going from F minor to A minor for instance is like going from deathly sadness to the neutrality of the void. If something like a bass note out of range occurs, I do changes like different articulations or adding another instrument that can reach that range before I decide to transpose unless the key is difficult for the instrument(like F# major on strings). F minor typically isn't a difficult key at all. – Caters Sep 25 at 22:15
  • Changing instruments also changes the character of the piece, and sometimes transposition (partially) undoes the character change from changing instruments – Alexander Woo Sep 25 at 22:41
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Don’t draw attention to it.

Don’t make it stick out and ungainly. It’s a detail leading to a cadence . You are pedantically stuck trying to translate piano into violin.

It’s the leading (note of a short phrase)soon forgotten

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    @Caters is clearly aware that some things need to be adjusted, simplified or dropped entirely when translating from one instrument to another. There is certainly an argument to be made about leaving off the other notes entirely, but this can be done objectively, without critiquing general arranging ability (ie, "you're doing it wrong"). Something like "The lower notes of the chord serve a more ornamental purpose in the original. Leaving them off entirely is a perfectly viable alternative." – WillRoss1 Sep 24 at 17:48
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I am not a violinist. If anyone can correct me, please do so and I will update this answer as necessary:

Play the chord as is. It isn't impossible to quadruple stop, just hard.

Because the bridge is curved, in order to strike all four strings simultaneously, you need to physically bend the two strings in the middle. This detunes the notes on those strings up, and must be compensated for by detuning on the neck in the opposite direction (playing less than a half-step lower than written). This is extremely hard and is rarely done. You have two options: either tell your violinist to play the chord as written, or move parts of it between the voices as necessary.

If your violinist is using an electric violin, or other violin with a significant sustain time (effect pedal?), you also have the third option of having her perform a pizzicato strum (like on a guitar) and switching back to a bow in the half bar of space she has.

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