Making a Full Quartet of Instruments: Matches Made in Heaven?

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It’s both a privilege and a challenge to build a quartet of instruments that are intended to be played together from the start. Peter Somerford speaks to players and makers to discover both the pitfalls and the opportunities

A commission from a professional quartet for a complete new set of instruments might sound like a dream project for a violin maker. But for all kinds of reasons, from economic realities to individual player preferences, it nearly always remains just that – a fantasy. What’s more likely, though still rare, is one of two scenarios: either one member of a group commissions an instrument first, and then the other players ask the same maker for instruments in subsequent years until a quartet gradually becomes complete; or a foundation or collector commissions a set of instruments, to be loaned out to one or more quartets for varying periods. Each scenario presents different opportunities. The first allows the maker to work directly with the musicians, listening to them and responding to what they want, both individually and collectively. The second means a maker can start with an ideal concept of what a quartet should sound like, in terms of the different instrument voices and how they work together. But the two scenarios also give rise to similar considerations and choices. Do you make the sound of the four instruments tonally complementary, or do you aim for uniformity? What models work best together? How consistent should you be with wood choice and finish?

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