The Position of the Viola in the String Quartet by James Dunham

My 2¢ on this topic:

As always, I share much in agreement with my friend and colleague Ivo:

•That we are all, to a lesser and greater degree, creatures of habit;

•That there are advantages, and therefore disadvantages, to each seating;

•That pairs are incredibly important in a quartet and that it is desirable for each pairing to be in close proximity;

•That seating is a highly subjective matter, tempered by musical reason.

I was founding violist of the Sequoia Quartet and played with that group for 15 years. I then joined the Cleveland Quartet and played with that ensemble for almost 9 years; a total of nearly a quarter century. Both groups were primarily viola outside, but interestingly, both groups moved the viola inside from time to time, mostly (as Ivo pointed out) to gain the immediate contact between the vital inner voices, especially in classical compositions. The fact that my quartets nevertheless remained viola outside had a great deal to do with our concept of keeping the bass at the center of the group; it was also our habit and comfort as a foursome. CQ cellist Paul Katz and I had (and still have) a very close relationship, but I confess, IF we had opted to retain the viola inside seating, my right knee would have had significantly fewer pokes from the cello bow!

1113a Budapest quartet

Budapest Quartet: viola outside

I would say that, for both of my quartets, the argument for having the “viola outside” had little to do with the viola and much to do with the cello placement. We preferred the cello centered where we thought it was best able to support the sound of the quartet from “underneath” the ensemble. We were concerned that the cello not be facing slightly to the side of the auditorium, whereas the violist (with f-holes almost facing the rear of the concert hall!) could at least turn out when necessary—and much more easily than a side-angled cellist.

The fact that both “viola in” and “viola out” versions have a long history—and that both have a long history of success(!)—tells me that, in essence, there really isn’t that much critical difference. The concept of stereophonic direction, from cello up through viola to violins, is to my mind more a matter of the visual than the aural. From 30 feet away and beyond, I’m not sure that many ears can make that aural distinction. From a distance, at least in my own experience, the sound grows from low to high, rather than right to left. Of course, if you “listen with your eyes” as well as your ears, it is a beautiful thing to “see,” but perhaps not necessarily important from a purely sonic point of view.

1113b Amadeus Quartet

Amadeus Quartet: viola inside

One important point: when I performed in my two quartets, we sat very close to each other, valuing the unity of the collective sound, only separating from each other by design and by choice (a technique I love, use, and teach!). Today, likely due to larger and larger auditoriums, more and more quartets are sitting in ever widening arcs (including standing, often quite far apart), so that the sonic separation mentioned by Ivo certainly can be very distinct. My thoughts are from the close and, to my mind, more intimate seating that we used.

Yet, believe it or not, there is even a third version of string quartet seating, used at one time in the late 1800s by no less than the famous Joachim Quartet!

1113c Joachim edited

Joachim String Quartet: cello AND viola inside!

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