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The Position of the Viola in a String Quartet by Ivo-Jan van der Werff

Since I first played in a quartet, aged 13, I have always sat between the second violin and cello. When I moved to the USA—to Rice University in 2007—and played in my first faculty recital, Mozart’s G-minor string quintet, I found myself on the outside, feeling distinctly uncomfortable! I knew quartets had different seating arrangements but never really thought about it till that day. Broadly speaking, British quartets sit with the violist on the inside, American quartets with the violist on the outside. “So what?” one might ask? Well, I have thought long and hard about it (and actually really enjoyed thinking about something that I had always taken for granted and, after nearly 40 years, was such a habit for me), and I have discussed this with many eminent colleagues and friends (and we are probably all too used to the habitual way we do things to change), and these discussions did make me consider things differently.

The arguments I hear most in favor about having the viola on the outside are the following (there may be others I’ve not considered!):

• With the cello on the inside it helps focus the intonation and also allows the cellist to be heard more strongly.

• With the violist on the outside, the viola sound is closer to the audience; it is basically louder.

My first reaction to this is that the back of the viola faces the audience, not the front. It also means that to project a solo line above the texture one has to turn out, which to me causes all sorts of physical discomforts. I have to admit, though, that the viola does gain a presence in its sound, but I feel this is at the expense of being rather isolated, rather than being part of the texture.

In my quartet, our cellist always sat on the outside but turned very slightly out toward the audience, reflecting the position of the 1st violin. There never seemed to be any balance problems  related to hearing the cello.

I then considered what a quartet is made up of. Four instruments, of course, but one can consider a quartet as Six pairs of instruments: Violin 1 with violin 2, with viola, or with cello (pairs 1–3); violin 2 with viola or with cello (pairs 4–5); and viola with cello (pair 6).

My next question is: Which are the most important pairings in a typical, classical quartet (take any from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, etc.)? In order (viola based naturally!):

violin 2 and viola;

viola and cello;

violin 1 and cello.

My reasoning? Well, how often does a classical quartet start with a down beat on the cello followed by an accompaniment on the middle instruments and a melody on the 1st violin? If the middle parts are separated by the cello, it makes it much harder to play together and sound as a unit. Often the “outer” voices of the 1st violin and cello have answering melodies. Also, it makes logical sense (at least to me) that there is a progression of strings from the lowest to the highest. The ears of the audience can be led from right to left as a melodic line or pattern moves from the bass up toward the treble, or it can work in the opposite direction. There are so many times when a composer will not follow this pattern, but on the whole this is probably the most common.

As a few examples, take Beethoven op 59/1, where the cello starts with the melody and the middle parts take the accompanying eighth notes. Or the start of Mozart’s G-minor quintet, where the melody is in the 1st violin with accompanying eighth notes played on violin 2 and viola 1. Viola 1 then takes the melody with viola 2 and cello accompanying. I personally find it aurally and visually confusing as an audience member not being able to follow where the line has gone when the 1st viola is separated from the 2nd violin.

As to the presence of the bass line being more in the center of the quartet and easier to tune to, that is a very compelling argument, but it is not enough to persuade me due to all the other considerations.

In conclusion, I always ask my students to consider which chair they take. I really don’t mind as long as they have good reason. I am a creature of habit, as are the majority of long standing (or sitting!) quartet players; we often do things because that is the way we do things . . . no other reason. I’ve had fun working out why I feel as I do, though I’m certainly willing to be convinced otherwise!

I would love to start a dialogue about this. I want to know if my assumption of important pairings is correct or if the importance of a descending or ascending line is relevant. I know there will be many examples from the standard, core repertoire that can make one think one way or the other. The bottom line is that we probably do what we were brought up with.

Finally, I want to add that there is probably no “correct” way, but very few musicians I have spoken with have really considered this thought, hence my writing this blog post!


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