OT - string slurs

I’m writing some music for strings with a lot of divisi. I know very little about strings so I have a lot to learn.

I thought I’d study Strauss’ Alpine Symphony as that has a lot of lovely divisi writing.

I found that Strauss uses slurs as phrase-marks not (as Elaine Gould and other sources say) to indicate a single bow-stroke.

I’ve found the same with Brahms and Sibelius.

So I’m confused as to what I should doing.

Can anyone provide me with some context to make sense of this?


I think modern orchestral string players generally expect slur-type lines to indicate bowing. Notation practices got a great deal more standardized in the 20th century (as music became increasingly stylistically diverse).

We can understand 19th-century composers’ phrase marks without too much trouble because the music was in a narrower range of style. Nowadays phrase marks and other indications of feeling have become less-used than specific indications of how to play.

you’ll get on much better with most libraries if you use slurs for expressive phrasing (though some do have programmable bow changes that are worth paying attention to). That’s what I always do and on the occasions my music has been performed by live players, no-one seems to have had any problems.

Even if it’s very clear from the length of the slurs that they are meant as distinct bow-strokes, the actual bowings get changed all the time from orchestra to orchestra. Yes, even if the orchestrator themself is an experienced string player. So even then, slurs mainly indicate phrasing in a more detailed sense: which notes should be legato and which ones should sound separated. In the hands of an accomplished player, both of those can be executed completely independently of bow direction, so any attempts to be overly prescriptive about bowing will just result in cluttered pages and annoyed players who now have less space to pencil in their own, undoubtedly different bowings.

Pretty much the only universal rule is that if you don’t write any slurs, you will never get legato from live players, even with the word legato. When in doubt, just add some phrasing slurs and they’re able to treat it like Brahms and come up with their own idiomatic bowings.

This all being said, I don’t quite understand why the divisi is relevant? A string part’s a string part whether it’s played by a tutti or (actual Strauss example!) only the 7th desk of the second violins.

Thanks, that’s very helpful advice. The divisi is not really relevant, it was just my motivation for studying Strauss.

Thanks Mark, that’s very helpful.

Thanks, I’ve been experimenting with that. In busy passages, shorter slurs seem to help with clarity. When there’s more space, longer slurs seem to give more sense of line.

Longer phrasing slurs indicate a musical connection, whereas “bowing” slurs indicate a technical instruction (bow direction change for string players, breathing for the winds). Even shorter bows indicate articulations.
This all is a bit confusing, as these terms are used in a different meaning in the DAW environment.

Strauss maybe isn’t the best model to study. While he was a master, he got a way with a lot because he was Strauss.

He got the range of the Heckelphone wrong in the Alpine Symphony, which led to the creation of the Lupophone, essentially a Heckelphone but pitched two whole tones lower.