Sunday, October 6, 2013


Quartetto for Three Violins and Cello

Here are some articles from the Internet 
that explain about this unique music:

American readers of this blog need no introduction to Benjamin Franklin. For others, a reminder: His face is on the US $100-bill. Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and one of the most extraordinary geniuses ever known. Born into the family of a Boston candle maker, he was a writer, scientist, diplomat, entrepreneur, and, most interestingly for us – a musician.

Franklin played harp and guitar, and invented a version of the glass harmonica that nested the glasses and made the ‘instrument’ much easier to play.

And he wrote at least one string quartet! One is still lost, but there is a manuscript of a string quartet bearing his name as the composer is in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

It is a very experimental piece, showing off not just the musician but the scientist in him.

It’s written for three violins and cello rather than a standard quartet. The really interesting aspect is that all the instruments use ‘scordatura’. This means the strings are deliberately tuned to pitches other than normal tuning.

This enables the piece to be played entirely on open strings only, so the left hand is not required to touch the strings on the fingerboard at all. Only the right hand holding a bow is required to play the piece. Beginners could play the piece, though I doubt that was Franklin’s prime intention. More likely he was challenging himself to come up with the mathematical ingenuity required to devise the tuning system.

So what does it sound like?

The very first recording was made by the Kohon Quartet in about 1969. You can hear samples and purchase it here. (Note: it’s the last quartet on Disc 1 – it’s not very clearly labelled)

The video above is of a student quartet playing it. I wish the audio quality were better but you get an idea of the piece.

Below is a much better recording (transfered from LP), but the piece has clearly been rewritten for normally-tuned instruments. It defeats the purpose, in my opinion, but you can hear the tunes Franklin wrote.

- See more at:

About Ben Franklin
Benjamin Franklin was a fine amateur musician who was very knowledgeable in the history, theory, and harmony of music. He studied music as a Science, and practised it as an Art. It is said that he could play violin, cello, harp, and guitar. When Franklin drew up plans for his home in Philadelphia, he specified a particular room for music and entertainment. It was on the third floor, painted blue, and became know as the Blue Room. It housed his musical instruments which included the Armonica, a viola da Gamba, a Welsh harp, a harpsichord and a set of tuned bells to help him tune his harpsichord which he said "when properly tuned, it's music exceeds what can be produced by common instruments, but (without the bells) too useless for me."

He loved to play duets with his daughter, Sally, she on the harpsichord and he on his "beloved Armonica." Of all the things Franklin accomplished, the Armonica gave him his greatest personal joy. Franklin loved to play Scottish songs as he felt their beauty lay in their simplicity.

Franklin loved to sing and often joined friends in evenings of song. He felt singing was a melodious way of speaking. He wrote lyrics to many songs which included "My Plain Country Joan", a song that extolled the virtues of his wife, Deborah.

Franklin attended many concerts in his lifetime, many in America but more in Europe where he spent over 28 years as Colonial representative in England and then in France as Ambassador. In fact, while in England in 1759, he attended the last concert of The Messiah conducted by Handel just eight days before the death of the composer. In his diary, Franklin wrote that he saw "the sublime old man, one of the sturdiest characters of modern times, led to the organ for the last time to conduct one of his works."

Another Version:

I. March

II. Menuetto

Use this document to tune your instruments 
Quartetto / a/ 3 violini / con / Violoncello / Del Sig Benjamin Franklin 

Scholars revive debate on whether Ben Franklin composed tongue-in-cheek string quartet
July 30, 2006 12:00 am
By Andrew Druckenbrod / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In addition to all his other interests, Franklin had a passion for music.

Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn ... Benjamin Franklin? Born 300 years ago, Franklin (1706-90) had many talents: author, printer, statesman, diplomat, scientist and inventor. Although it is lesser known, the Philadelphian also had a passion for music.

Franklin played the harp, the violin and the guitar. He printed hymns, wrote a treatise on musical aesthetics, invented a four-sided music stand and attended many concerts. His most significant contribution is the invention of an improved, mechanical version of water-filled musical glasses popular at the time, known as the armonica, or glass harmonica.

Franklin assembled glass bowls of different size on a horizontal rod, which was turned by a foot pedal while the player ran moistened fingers across their edges to create tones. "The invention achieved a certain popularity in America but exercised far more influence in Europe," writes the New Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Even Mozart wrote for it.

But was Franklin also a composer? A Pennsylvania professor of music thinks so, and he wants to add that vocation to the Founding Father's impressive resume.

Kenneth Sarch, director of orchestral activities at Mansfield University in Tioga County in north-central Pennsylvania, has revived an old debate on whether Franklin wrote a most unusual string quartet while living in Paris around 1778. If it were true, it would add even more richness to the legend of America's celebrated polymath in this, the tricentennial of his birth.

The five-movement quartet is written for the unusual arrangement of three violins and one cello, rather than the format of two violins, viola and cello that had become somewhat standard for string quartets by the late 18th century. But that feature is tame compared to the F-major quartet's most bizarre quality: "[It] calls for all four string instruments to retune to different pitches, creating 16 notes to be played without left-hand fingering, using only the bow," says Sarch, who is creating a performing edition for student orchestra.

This technique is known as scordatura, a retuning of a string instrument to lend different tone and color to the strings (usually to make them sound thinner or brighter). The most famous examples come from Romantic composers Mahler and Saint-Saens. They applied the technique to the violin for supernatural flavor in Symphony No. 4 and "Danse Macabre," respectively. However, even these composers would have thought it unusual to employ scordatura so that no fingering is required. If anything, composers tend to avoid open strings because the timbre is hollow and the player cannot use vibrato.

Just as strange are the quartet's various melodies, which are passed, note by note, around the four players. "If you can imagine four players with four hand bells having to ring one note at a time in different rhythms, that is what this is," says Sarch. Typically, of course, melodies are played on one instrument before they travel to another.

On top of that, the particular 16 notes don't allow for the music to change key or develop harmonically. Says Sarch, "There is no other quartet like it in the history of music that I know of."

Clearly, something fishy is going on here. This is no ordinary piece written for court or concert.

"No serious composer would tolerate such restrictions unless done with tongue in cheek, simply as a musical joke," wrote W. Thomas Marrocco in a seminal study of the quartet in 1972.

This assertion, one of the few issues of consensus among scholars, makes it unlikely that Haydn, Pleyel or Ferrandini composed the work, even though the quartet is attributed to these three well-known composers in various copies peppering Europe. Franklin is given credit for the work in what may be the earliest manuscript, one found in Paris, but it is not in his hand. So it is up to conjecture whether he wrote it.

While Franklin is known to have penned a drinking song in his youth, "there is no evidence that he learned to read music," says Bruce Gustafson, a music professor at Franklin & Marshall College.

Similarly, Franklin frequented the Parisian salon of Mademoiselle Brillon, an accomplished amateur musician. Her soirees would have been the perfect opportunity for Franklin to show off such a quartet, performed by the dilettantes at these parties. However, "there is no mention of it that I have found in the abundant correspondence between Franklin and Mlle. Brillon," says Gustafson, who has done several studies of the Parisian socialite.

The best evidence may be our general knowledge of Franklin. He possessed a genius for puzzles, inventions, chess and mathematics. "Franklin was brilliant and inventive and loved cracking problems and puzzles, so he could well have figured out how to combine some sounds on stringed instruments," says Gustafson.

Franklin's musical beliefs were strong, too, outlined in a short treatise on music and several letters. He preferred clear and simple music that didn't distort the words, and he went so far as to criticize Handel's opera "Judas Maccabaeus" for its misplaced accents, repetition and "screaming."

These facts, combined with Franklin's known predilection for musical gatherings while residing in Paris, would suggest he would have had good reason to impress guests with such a parlor game of a work as the quartet. "It is part of the amusement, to make a piece with this idea," says Sarch. "I can imagine him sitting around in the evening with a couple of his friends trying to make music doing this."

Since no other composer took credit for the piece or has had it attributed to him by later scholars, the quartet may well have been by Franklin. "The only thing in favor of the Franklin attribution is that it was obviously not written by a musician," says Gustafson.

To this point, a contemporary review of the work ravaged it as a "musical farce," a "miserable work" and "degrading to the art." But the rest of this commentary in the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung makes it fairly clear the author was most upset by the quartet's refusal to follow established compositional rules. That's a claim conservative theorists and critics have often levied against innovative music over the years. So the quartet is not as bad as the review suggests -- which is not to say it deserves canonization along withBeethoven's revolutionary experiments.

"The music is not very profound and is harmonically quite simple," admits Sarch. "Although not one of our great masterpieces of music, it is a charming and fascinating suite of short dances."

It was most likely the technical aspects of the quartet, rather than the aesthetic qualities, that Franklin (or the composer) hung his hat on.

"[It] is unique in using retuned open strings without fingers," says Sarch. "My feeling is that Franklin was very proud of what he was able to do," he adds. I think he must have taken the manuscript around to different parties and gatherings and said, 'Look at what I have done. Let's try to play this after dinner.' I think it was so much fun and such a hit trying to do these pieces -- just playing open strings with a bow -- that copies were distributed all over Europe."

Sarch first created a performing edition of the work for a conventional string quartet in the '70s, using left-hand fingering to make it easier to play. Actually, he added the fingering to make it possible to play. The called-for retuning, as much as four and five notes higher, would either break today's less flexible synthetic material (gut, often sheep gut, was primarily used in Franklin's time) or simply "be awful-sounding," according to Sarch.

Since then the Sarch has wanted to introduce children to the piece: "Over the years, I said it would be really great to make a version so that school kids could play it, because it is not that difficult to play -- it is just in a weird format."

This year, Mansfield Universityawarded Sarch a grant to create the student orchestra version, using the Paris manuscript as the source. He has been testing it with students at a string camp on campus this month.

Sarch wants the piece to be appreciated or critiqued on its own merits, but he also sees the benefits of where its performance could lead.

"The opportunity to learn about one of our great patriots through music is phenomenal," he says. "If kids could play music that Ben Franklin wrote and then find out about his kite experiment, the glass harmonica, his work with the constitution, [his being] ambassador to France and the rest of it, it would give insight into how his mind and heart worked."

To this end, the mere fact a scribe placed Franklin's name on the top of the quartet in an early manuscript says a great deal about his musical ability. Even if he didn't write this quartet, the attribution addresses Franklin's contemporary reputation as a multitalented genius, and the continued debate says much about how we revere him today.

"The fact any of us can think it possible says a lot about his extraordinary abilities and wide-ranging interests," says Gustafson. "Nothing was impossible for him, it would seem."

Franklin didn't follow every aphorism he penned, but his dabbling in the musical scene in his 70s and 80s shows he adhered to this one: "When you're finished changing, you're finished."
Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at 
or 412-263-1750.First Published July 30, 2006 12:00 am

Ben Franklin finally a published composer
Written by Andrew Druckenbrod on Monday, 18 August 2008 2:03 am.
Here's a nice update on a story I reported in 2006.

Kenneth Sarch, a professor at Mansfield University, concertmaster of the Williamsport Symphony and a conductor, arranged what he argues is a string quartet written by Benjamin Franklin around 1778 while he was living in Paris. Not only is a music composition by a founding father news (and adds further legend to just how versatile Franklin's skills were), but the work is singular, says Sarch in a release:

"The instrumentation - three violins and cello - was not standard in the eighteenth century nor were the unusual directions given to retune all the open strings of each instrument to provide 16 different open string pitches. To play this five movement dance suite, players have to bow only open strings to create melody and harmony without left hand fingering - like a handbell choir of strings!"

Last month, Ludwig Masters Music Publications released Sarch's arrangement of three movements of Franklin's Quartetto for String Orchestra.

There is still doubt whether Franklin did write the work, which was discovered in 1945 in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris ascribed to him. "There is no mention of the Quartetto in his writing or correspondence and the manuscript is not in Franklin's handwriting," says Sarch. "However, there is nothing like it in the entire literature and I have no doubt that Franklin did compose this work to fulfill a challenge to add to his many interests and intellectual pursuits. Franklin penned a drinking song in his youth, published music, improved the Glass Harmonica (for which Mozart and Gluck wrote) and wrote an essay on the esthetics of music."

Either way, it is a strange work. Listen to it through links on my original story.

Living legacy
Professor publishes three movements of Ben Franklin’s work
August 18, 2008
Williamsport Sun-Gazette

MANSFIELD - Mansfield University Music Professor Kenneth Sarch's arrangement of three movements of Ben Franklin's Quartetto for String Orchestra has been published by Ludwig Masters Music Publications.

Armed with a faculty development grant from Mansfield, Sarch researched Franklin's composition at the Philadelphia Free Public Library before working on his arrangement.

When the arrangement was finished, Sarch and a Mansfield University student string quartet were invited to perform the work at the opening of a new wing of the Rare Books Library in Harrisburg in October 2006. The main library was founded by Franklin.

The arrangement, "March, Minuet and Capriccio for String Orchestra," was subsequently recorded by the STRING FLING High School Summer Music Camp String Orchestra at Mansfield and submitted for publication. The release of the work for string orchestra is a milestone in the literature, allowing young students throughout the nation to perform music written by one of America's founding fathers for the first time.

"Years ago, I obtained a copy of Franklin's score from the Free Public Library of Philadelphia and reworked it so that my string quartet could recreate the hocket-like effect by fingering the required pitches so as not to have to retune all our open strings," Sarch said. "We performed Franklin's delightful suite for a meeting of American history teachers in North Carolina. Since then, I kept thinking, 'wouldn't it be wonderful if school children could play this music composed by one of our Founding Fathers?' George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who played the violin, did not leave us any music, but how exciting it is that Ben Franklin did."

Discovered in 1945 in the Bibliotheque Nationale (Music Division) in Paris, the instrumentation - three violins and cello - was not standard in the 18th century. Neither were the unusual directions given to retune all the open strings of each instrument to provide 16 different open string pitches.

To play this five movement dance suite, players have to bow only open strings to create melody and harmony without left hand fingering like a hand bell choir of strings.

"During the recent Tercentennial of Franklin's birth, I applied for a Faculty Grant from Mansfield University to arrange the Franklin music for string orchestra so that it could be played by school children in normal fingered form and heard in schools and other venues across the country," Sarch said. "My colleagues called it 'The Ben and Ken Project.' I selected three of the five movements for this project in order to make a compact and attractive concert version for young people. I have not changed a single note or rhythm from the original except to add an occasional B natural to avoid minor dominants. I doubled some pitches in order to accommodate the five parts of a string orchestra and filled in a few 'empty' spots. The key of F Major is the same as the original and nothing was "simplified" for young players, so that what Franklin wrote is what you get"

"Franklin must have written this quartet as a way of entertaining himself and his amateur music-loving friends, who couldn't play the string instruments" Sarch said. Adding, "There is some question as to whether or not Franklin actually composed this work around 1778 while he was living in Paris."

"There is no mention of the Quartetto in his writing or correspondence and the manuscript is not in Franklin's handwriting. However, there is nothing like it in the entire literature and I have no doubt that Franklin did compose this work to fulfill a challenge to add to his many interests and intellectual pursuits. Franklin penned a drinking song in his youth, published music, improved the Glass Harmonica - for which Mozart and Gluck wrote, and wrote an essay on the esthetics of music."

"Young string students can play this music as a way of reaching back to the 18th century and getting in touch with one of our most famous and influential Patriots. My hope is that this version of Franklin's music will spark the interest and imagination of our children so that they will want to know more about our great history and historical figures."

The piece is available through most music stores and Internet music services from Ludwig Masters Music Publisher.