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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Which part do you prefer when playing in a string quartet?

May 23, 2009 at 4:16 AM

Talking to Philip Setzer of the Emerson String Quartet several weeks ago made me think about the nature of string quartets, and in particular, the roles of the first and second violins.

For 30 years, he and Eugene Drucker have played together and solved the dilemma of who would play first and who would play second by switching off on a regular basis. 

"Second fiddle" is a term that's come to be associated with "second-rate," but in a serious musical ensemble, it's just not true. Unless every part is played at a high level, the music will suffer. And sometimes the second violin part is quite noodley and awkward -- a real challenge.

That said, what part do you enjoy playing most? The first violin part is considered the hot seat, yet sometimes it's a relief to sit there, you can ride the melody, put it all out there, get into the mindset and go. The second violin role has its benefits, too -- the harmony, the feeling of being in the middle of the sound, the comfy feeling of sitting in the passenger seat.

If you had the ideal situation, the ideal partners in a quartet, which part would you prefer to play: first, second, or switch hitter?


Posted on May 23, 2009 at 5:22 AM

another challenge confronting the 2nd violin is matching the tone,etc. of the first...the viola and cello are singletons.

From Eugene Chan
Posted on May 23, 2009 at 7:08 AM

Is that regularly as in regularly every piece, or regularly every bar? Because I'd really like to see the latter ;-)

From Royce Faina
Posted on May 23, 2009 at 12:12 PM

I like 1st since I can pick up on the melody of songs and just virtualy go by ear.  I like 2nd since it gives body and holds the 1st up.  It takes much more listening for me and I have to focuss more to play what is written to avoid playing what I think is too be played.


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 23, 2009 at 12:53 PM

You should add viola as an option!

From Ruth Kuefler
Posted on May 23, 2009 at 3:17 PM

I agree with Karen. :)

I've played both parts equally, and while I like both, deep down I prefer 2nd violin. I like playing a more accompanimental role, and don't always enjoy the stress of being in the 'hot seat.' ;)

From Christopher Ciampoli
Posted on May 23, 2009 at 6:11 PM

In an orchestra I absouletely prefer violin 1. In a quartet however, I enjoy providing the "personal" level of support and groundwork if you will (not to say orchestras are impersonal but I think you get what I'm saying).

One of the other difficulties besides what has been mentioned is when the Violin II has a segment of material that needs to be brought out of the otherwise accompanying texture, it's quite a challenge to voice it seamlessly with the other players.

That being said, I like playing both first and second violin

And in response to the viola option, when my quartet worked on Dvorak No. 12 "American" the chamber coach (a violinist) said, "I think I've performed all the parts of this except the cello."

From Mark Heckler
Posted on May 23, 2009 at 7:10 PM

Both. Why limit yourself? :-)

Each provides challenges unique to that part, and switching between them just makes you a better and more versatile player.

What a great question!


"A day job is there to support a playing addiction"

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on May 24, 2009 at 2:31 AM

Mark, I love your quote.  I wonder whether the Germans have a word for it.

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