Solo Violin vs. Ensemble Violin: What's the difference?

December 3, 2011 at 07:48 PM · I've heard discussion in various places of violins that are better suited for solo performance, and some that are better suited for ensemble work.

Is it safe to say that the solo instruments are louder, edgier maybe? And that an ensemble violin might be considered warmer and more mello? Or is it more the talent and technical ability of the violinist\musician?

Replies (37)

December 3, 2011 at 08:12 PM · Louder, edgier, and I've also heard them described as "brighter" or "brilliant"...a soloist's instrument may indeed have a sweet tone, but projection is desirable, not something that's going to blend in. And yes, the way it's played does make a difference, but only to an extent: some violins will have a more intimate sound no matter what you do to them.

Blending and articulation are important aspects of ensemble playing, the bigger the ensemble the more so, I think. You want an instrument that can easily lose itself into the sound of ten or twenty other violins and then is versatile enough to be crisp and clear in other passages. I played a violin that was a spiccato-loving fiend, which was great for playing all those excerpts with thousands of little notes, but overkill in a section.

December 3, 2011 at 08:23 PM · Players with top fiddles tend to use them for concertos and chamber music. You need a strong instrument whatever you are performing.

December 3, 2011 at 10:31 PM · When I talk with ensemble players, they frequently mention "a good blend".

That's probably exactly what you don't want from a solo instrument. It needs to stand out, either by virtue of the player, the instrument, or both.

December 4, 2011 at 01:26 AM · about $150,000 or so.

One caveat about violins that stand out. You want the instrument to stand out in a good way.

I can play in orchestra, and I can play in the rests, and I guess that makes me a soloist, but that's not so good you know?

December 4, 2011 at 10:05 AM · Albert

"about $150,000 or so.

One caveat about violins that stand out. You want the instrument to stand out in a good way.

I can play in orchestra, and I can play in the rests, and I guess that makes me a soloist, but that's not so good you know?"

In the UK that's known as playing a "domino" but if its a good one it's OK.

Regarding the fiddles, sometimes a well known soloist plays chamber music using his same fiddle.

Also, some well known quartet leaders have been known to own and use Strads and del Gusu's - (I know, it's unforgivable - but true) - so do they fill them with foam (aka John!!) so they sound a bit more wooly? Or do they just take it easy and play down - or maybe put the fiddle through a blender first?

December 4, 2011 at 10:28 AM · It'll be ok if the other three are playing Strads or del Gesu's ;).

I've heard there's a quartet consisting of Strads. Anyone know who they are?

Regarding "toning down" a solo violin for less prominent playing, perhaps a change of strings or bow would be sufficient? Or perhaps simply just playing a little further away from the bridge.

December 4, 2011 at 10:46 AM · Would there really be that much difference between a Strad or a del boy Gesu and other very good instruments in a quartet? Some in a quartet might be on top instruments (I know of more than one where this is so, vln 1 and viola - but 2nd fiddle and cello on contemporary instruments).

I dont think there's a problem.

Also the old Vermeer Quartet had first on a Strad (I think) and the others on others! Never noticed an imbalance.

There is a lot of hype about Strads etc.

The other day at a masterclass the person giving it had a Strad, but all the students were on French fiddles (not my favourites) but they all seemed to have a bigger and brighter sound than the Strad.

December 4, 2011 at 11:48 AM · As an orchestral fiddler, I found "satisfaction" for nearly 20 years using a Vuillaume, which was "louder" than almost any Italian violin. I could hear what I was doing, yet the sound wasn't too individual or coloured, so it didn't stick out. The French makers' heyday was essentially the 19th. century when large orchestral scores came into vogue - they clearly knew what they were doing ! The great Italians seem to come into their own when it all goes quiet and OOH ER !! Panic !! you have a solo to play. Those guys seemed to excel at producing a noise that though not too loud under the ear has the capacity to "turn the heads" of listeners, forcing them to pay attention. Star quality !

I have noted that to many of my orchestral colleagues Italian fiddles of all ages are something of a "closed book". That's partly to do with lack of experience playing them - the high prices make them inaccessible to humble mortals - and as Ruggiero Ricci wrote on an LP note "the more output and resource an instrument has, the more difficult it is to handle". One colleague, offered the use of a fine Girolomo Amati II, when his usual fiddle was in for repair, couldn't play it, finding the sound harsh - yet the violin's Concertmaster owner would sound absolutely top-class when he used it for Concertos.

An eminent principal violist here (UK) got me and some colleagues to test some new violas for him. He opined on the subject of new instruments, saying "They sound all right on their own, but they don't blend". Absolutely new work doesn't offend from my own experience, but when varnish etc. has stabilised newish fiddles can sometimes "stick out" when used in a section.

Since a lot depends on playing style, I think it's dangerous to generalise; yet I'd go for a big sound with not too much color for orchestra and a fiddle with a bit of "twang" for solo or top chamber-music performance.

December 4, 2011 at 12:07 PM · "Since a lot depends on playing style, I think it's dangerous to generalise; yet I'd go for a big sound with not too much color for orchestra and a fiddle with a bit of "twang" for solo or top chamber-music performance."

David, I agree totally.

This Ricardo Bergonzi fiddle I have on trial is not so easy to play, and has I'm sure a big sound. However, playing a Beethoven quartet the other night it was OK and I could do quiet things too, so I wasn't unhappy with it.

I'm probably addicted to it, so my fate is sealed ...

December 4, 2011 at 03:05 PM · Peter, if that Bergonzi is, or is similar to, the one on Tom Blackburn's website, it's probably very similar to play to a similarly-aged Cremonese I have which is also a Guarneri copy. If the left-hand contact is kept firm and a gripping bow applied I can get a big, big sound - it's not a case of wafting with lots of bow speed, as with some fiddles. Best of luck. The one on the Blackburn site has great looking timber for the table.

December 4, 2011 at 05:23 PM · Every time I make a commercial recording I use my Strad, but whenever I play in a major orchestra I prefer my Amati.

Hope that helps.

December 4, 2011 at 09:30 PM · David


It's one and the same!

December 4, 2011 at 10:20 PM · "Blending" can be double edged sword, especially in a quartet or other small ensemble, yes?

I hate it when I can't tell what the viola is playing because it disappears into the mix.

On the subject of Amati's, I saw an amazing show in Seattle some years back by an orchestra that is conductorless. There was a q&a at the end and someone asked what instruments people were playing, so they went around and we all said "ooh and ah". It came to one of the principals, I forget her name (shame on me!) but she said "Amati" (and it was the really old one) and there was a notable reaction of fascination from the audience.

Her fiddle was one of my favorites. I could hear it's distinctiveness. So maybe not all Amatis are so blendworthy haha.

Oh, she is "famous" for being one of the young women in the Heifetz Masterclass movies--she had a semi-bob cut and dark hair. I'll see if I can remember her name.

December 4, 2011 at 11:06 PM · I think many quartets are blended to death. I'd rather hear a quartet of four individual, expressive voices for most of the repertoire. A conversation is more interesting if there's more than one voice involved in it.

December 4, 2011 at 11:49 PM · Ulf, I've appreciated that too, but have also heard some quartets where the players were especially focused on the blend, which totally blew me away. My first experience of that was with the Shanghai quartet.

It wasn't that that the voices were the same, or lacked individuality, but that they were combined in a very effective and practiced way. Throw a different instrument into the mix, and it might be a pretty steep learning curve to achieve a similar result.

I've had a few instruments turned down by pro quartet players, because the instruments ostensibly overpowered the group. My response was, "OK, buy three more to get the balance back", but of course, I was only kidding. They know what works best for them.

December 5, 2011 at 02:32 AM · I love the quartet format, but I've often wished to hear more zest from the violins and more oomph from the viola, if you see what I mean. I'm glad to have provided a few quartets with violas with oomph, so I feel my mission isn't hopeless.

I have, like David, had one of my violins rejected by the first violinist in a quartet, because it was too powerful. That violin was later seriously considered by a soloist as a replacement for the Strad she had on loan. So of course the problem of balance is more delicate for a chamber musician than for a soloist. But the quest for an "intimate" sound should perhaps not be taken too far, so that you end up with a small sound.

December 5, 2011 at 06:11 AM · "I've had a few instruments turned down by pro quartet players, because the instruments ostensibly overpowered the group".

We players are a funny lot. Though we say we search for "power" and "brilliancy", when we find it in new instruments we then complain of "boominess". Thurston Dart, lecturing at Cambridge University, circa 1960, was scathing about "Tertis model" violas, saying they "boomed" when put into a quartet, but I suspect it was the newness rather than the design that caused any problems. Yes, I do recall a local quartet in which the 'cellist had a quite new instrument, in company with older ones, and it did seem to "boom". The logical follow-on to the Burgess suggestion is to have all instruments of the same vintage. As a student group we were issued with a quartet all by Alfred Vincent. These "worked together".

BTW I never understood how Amati instruments gained a reputation for having a sweet yet feeble sound. Nuts. That may be true of some, but surely not all.

December 5, 2011 at 03:02 PM · Mr. Jennings,

In answer to your question concerning a Strad quartet, I seem to remember reading in some book from the library that the Tokyo string quartet played the Paganini Quartet which consisted of all Stradivarius instruments :) I also remember reading that the viola, interestingly, was worth all three other instruments combined but don't take my word for it :):):)

December 5, 2011 at 04:08 PM · @John Dukes, Thank you for that info. Delving back into my memory, the Tokyo Quartet indeed seems to be the one.

It also occurs to me that a quartet consistng of Strads would drive an insurance company nuts! Would the players be required to travel on different aircraft, or something like that? Like in the UK the Sovereign and the Heir to the Throne never travel in the same aircraft. (Presumably, in the US the President and VP never travel together?)

December 5, 2011 at 04:54 PM · (Presumably, in the US the President and VP never travel together?)

I don't know the answer to that, but why not? We have plenty of fill-ins right in line behind them...

December 5, 2011 at 05:28 PM · If you were trying to take out the US government, then killing the president separately from the VP would make things a lot more difficult and a lot more likely to fail. On the other hand, if both could be killed together, one would only have to worry about the Speaker of the House. (I think :)

This discussion makes my want to read Tom Clancy’s Executive Orders again.


December 5, 2011 at 05:56 PM · You could take out the whole lot, it wouldn't matter. That's the genius of our way of governance :-D

December 5, 2011 at 06:12 PM · Always so optimistic Mr. Platt :):):)

Maybe everyone should now return to the original question.

I always thought, as others have stated, that soloistic violins are more piercing and generally more harsh under the ear while orchestral violins have a darker warmer sound that blends and disappears very well.


December 5, 2011 at 06:36 PM · I don't think that is true at all. Some very good orchestral players and their instruments have quite big piercing sounds.

December 5, 2011 at 08:38 PM · The Takacs quartet is either all or 75% Guadagnini. The upper strings blend beautifully. :)

I wonder if a maker commissioned to do a quartet would deliberately choose models or personalities of instruments that are different from each other.

December 5, 2011 at 08:49 PM · Yes, you are correct, the three upper strings are all Guadanini. Edward's, the first violin is lovely as I know from first hand experience, and the viola I sort of knew many years ago when it belonged to my teacher.

The cello is a Seraphin I think if I remember correctly who was I think a Venetian maker. They do all blend very well but they can and do have individual characteristics as well.

December 5, 2011 at 09:00 PM · My apologies if someone has already answered the question about the quartet that plays on strads (I didn't have time to read through the whole thread).

The Tokyo String Quartet plays on a set of Strads.

December 5, 2011 at 09:57 PM · David Burgess - the Shanghai is a fabulous quartet. We know them from the Hampden-Sydney Music Festival (now defunct). My recollection from talking to them is that they mostly have modern instruments, at least the violins and the viola. I remember the first violin telling me that Feng Jiang made his violin, and it cost him about 18K. It was made within the past decade, and he said he thought it was better than much more expensive Italian instruments.

December 5, 2011 at 10:14 PM · I really like the sound of the recordings of the Takacs Quartet in their present form. They seem to produce an unusually brilliant, open, dynamic sound with a broad palette of colors from each instrument, and still manage to make a harmonious mix. The viola has a beautiful tone with sufficient power too. I hope to get to hear them live when they play in France in January.

If I was to make instruments for a complete quartet, I'd try to make the first violin sound "broader" and more extrovert and the second violin warmer, to help the viola "glue" the quartet's sound together. The first violin would have to have a fabulous E-string, and that's perhaps the most difficult thing to have complete control over when making violins.

December 6, 2011 at 01:15 PM · Stephen asked,

"I wonder if a maker commissioned to do a quartet would deliberately choose models or personalities of instruments that are different from each other."


That's often done or attempted, but there's really almost a non-existent market for complete quartets of instruments these days. When quartets are made,(or assembled from individual instruments by the same maker) this is most often done for entry into the Violin Society of America competitions, because there is a "quartet category" in that competition. Afterwards, the quartets are usually broken up and the instruments sold individually.

The chances of four instruments made as a set happening to furnish the ideal instrument for each individual player, as well as for the group, are pretty slim, compared to being able to pick and choose from all the individual instruments on the market.

The market for quartets of instruments may never been very strong, and here's something interesting that a lot of people don't realize: Of the "quartets" of antique instruments running around, like those of Strad or Amati, none were made as quartets. They were just pieced together, including the "set" of ornamented Strads owned by the Smithsonian Institution museum.

December 6, 2011 at 05:32 PM · I think that the instruments used by the Amadeus Quartet were Guarneri del Gesù, Stradivari, Stradivari and Montagnana. But someone who read a book that I don't have alleged that they DID agree on using Tourte bows. Is that correct ? Someone will know !

A principal Violist I knew thought the whole "bow" business was BS until he tried Peter Schidlof's Tourte. Can it be that even if the instruments don't quite match, the bows must ????

October 8, 2013 at 02:20 AM · I like the wonderful discussion of solo and ensemble violin tone. It is very good, but is all "musicological" and qualitative. Can anyone direct me to a discussion or a paper presenting actual electro-acoustical analysis of how partials from ensemble violins interract and what kind of tone is produced, and how the tone compares to solo tone, etc.

Thanks much

Ed Poindexter

October 07, 2013

October 8, 2013 at 10:26 PM · Well, I know that we often hear the bright vs mellow theory but I'm not sure I like this... as a listener.

In my opinion, much of the very beloved soloists of the past and of today are liked because they have a very sweet and mellow sound, yet they are so good that they can make it very powerful to be heard if needed... I can only think of names often related as beautiful sounds like Kreisler, Oistrakh, Perlman, Repin, Gluzman etc.

Perhpas, others have made their trademarks by sounding very bright... and that's ok too.

But whenever it's loud, very bright, very metallic or tinny, I usually close the music because it bothers me (may be just me?). I am of those who think a violin should be played the most possible as a cello lol. We have a very high pitch instrument and it's not easy to have a nice and mellow high register that remains sweet and ear pleasing.

I can just imagine the challenge the soloists face, want to be heard... but at what price?

October 9, 2013 at 10:58 PM · No such thing as solo violin or ensemble violin. The main difference is the violin's ability to excite under and overtones. Undertones will make it sound darker and more austere, overtones brighter and louder (but only to the violinist, not the audience).

Since we are playing for public, the overtones will quickly be absorbed by rugs, clothing, so it comes down to support down under to make the fiddle excite more air.

The sweetens of a sound mentioned by Anne-Marie Proulx is not in the fiddle, but the technique of pulling the sound out, rather than pushing it into the fiddle.

Of course a bad instrument will not sound loud or balanced, but a master player will be able to make it sound just as sweet :)

October 10, 2013 at 12:23 AM · Thanks for the precisions!

Why is it then that I hear a lot of very edgy (metallic) sounds from even good soloists players?

Parhaps it could also be gut strings vs new synthetic high tension ones.

My sister is a clarinettist and she observes the same thing as me with a violin.

The reeds who sound the best are almost never the easier (very flexible )ones to play and I tell the same thing for violins. To have a very nice sounding violin very easy to play is not frequent. And I know a pianist who tells the same... the easiest pianos to play and press keys are not the nicest sounding ones and most expressive. Something there? I can't actually say... Maybe, maybe not...

I was just wondering if today's quest for a very very huge, edgy and powerful sound is not sometimes hindering the search for the beautiful sound. I'll agree with you that great players can play almost any violin well although I still think they would dislike very much a cheap student instrument... It just does not have all of the richness. But would everyone in the audience notice? probably not lol :)


October 11, 2013 at 12:43 AM · Power of a sound comes from flooding the room with your sound. You can beat a violin into a pulp and do it purely with power (if the bow, strings and fiddle will take it). Whatever the violin barfs out, that's your volume.

One can also make the instrument and room reverberate with waves. It's physics, really: standing waves will add the peaks and subtract the dips. Theoretically, you can get 18db boost (that's 6x louder psychoaccoustic).

However. You can not push the sound into the violin. You have to let the wood resonate.

Pluck a G string and listen to the timbre. Then try to achieve that same timbre "arco" with a long slow stroke. When you do hit that magical standing wave point, your fiddle will resonate so much you will think it wants to explode.

It's hard as hell, but it's possible to do on every single stroke.

That's why original french bows had less horse hair and were lightly balanced. Today's bows make it harder to resonate your instrument, because they push the sound, rather than drawing it out and letting the physics of standing waves do the job of filling the room up.

October 12, 2013 at 11:25 PM · It has been demonstrated by detailed electroacoustic analysis that the interference and beating of higher violin partials generates an ensemble tone which is quite different from the solo tone. This mechanism applies regardless of quality of violin, skill or style of performer, location on stage, et al. The tone difference is also strongly influenced by presence or absence of vibrato.

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