String Quartet Seating

December 28, 2014 at 05:45 PM · What are the advantages/disadvantages to certain string quartet setups? I'm staring an amateur string quartet at my college with friends. I've been searching the internet and couldn't find any answers to my questions.

Replies (26)

December 28, 2014 at 06:02 PM · A couple of considerations come to mind: the all-important eye contact, and projection.

Two or three years ago I went to a quartet recital by 3rd year students from the RAM (i.e. pretty good!). The two violinists and violist played standing so as to project their tone better, and to improve their playing generally. The cellist was on a podium so as to bring his eye level up to that of his colleagues. It follows that the cellist is on the right, as seen by the audience, facing his colleagues.

It all worked very well, and may be worth considering.

The most common layout for a quartet is V1, V2, Vla, Vc. Other layouts are less common, but may be worth trying. One in particular is a copy of a well-known orchestra layout - V1, Vla, Vc, V2 - which may be appropriate for some pieces.

What is also worth trying is for V1 and V2 to swap parts halfway through the concert. I've seen this done and it resulted in a different (but not worse) overall sound.

December 28, 2014 at 06:11 PM · I've never been a fan of the violist on the outside, with the viola facing away from the audience. Silly concept.

December 28, 2014 at 06:50 PM · There are two situations to consider when orienting string quartet players (actually any chamber ensemble):

1. Communication among the players.

2. Optimizing sound projection to the audience.

For the first situation, optimized communication between the leader and the least experienced player is critical at the beginning stages before there is any consideration of performing. My quartets have always sat in a "cross" orientation for reading sessions.

For the second (performance) situation it is all about projecting the sound the ensemble wants to be heard. In the past the following seating was typical (left to right as seen from the audience): violin I, violin II, viola, cello. Many quartets are now sitting: violin I, violin II, cello, viola. This arrangement optimizes projection of the lowest cello tones to the audience. Quartets I have seen perform in this arrangement really sound marvelous.

Another possible arrangement is: violin I, viola, cello, violin II (reversing viola and cello here would be acoustically similar), as exemplified by orchestral seating in some ensembles (more and more in recent years).

The sound quality of the particular instruments and players should be determinants of the proper arrangement for any group - which probably means that the quartet will have to depend on a 5th person to tell them how they sound best in performance venues.

Personally, I am against the concept of the chin instrument players standing in a string quartet.

1. The added motion they seem to enjoy is distracting.

2. It is really tiring for the players.

3. If it were that good an idea it would not likely be such a novelty.

Andy

December 28, 2014 at 11:09 PM · In general I like the bass in the middle of the group, which is why I prefer from l to r: v1, v2, vc, va. Regardless, the instrument sitting on stage right wouldn't be facing audience directly anyway. In this case viola just needs to learn how to turn out, especially in solos...

I also really like from l to r: v1, vc, va, v2. You have viola and violin 2 together, viola is facing the audience, the lower strings are in the middle, and you have an antiphonal thing going on between first and second violin.

By the way just a historical note, orchestras changed their seating plans to l to r: v1, v2, va, vc, cb at the turn of the century 20th century because it worked better for the mics they had.

December 29, 2014 at 04:33 AM · I agree with Scott. Viola facing inward just seems stupid. You see players trying to project their instruments outward, contorting themselves in the process, when they have an important passage, what does that tell you?

December 29, 2014 at 05:27 AM · "I agree with Scott. Viola facing inward just seems stupid. You see players trying to project their instruments outward, contorting themselves in the process, when they have an important passage, what does that tell you?"

1. Someone has to sit in that spot...

2. Violist can angle his or her chair out so the f holes faces more towards audience

3. I don't think Emerson, Guarneri, Juilliard, Takacs, and practically half the world's quartets are stupid...

Anyway, almost all the great quartet's violists don't face inward, they're flexible and in general position themselves so their scroll is pointing towards audience.

December 29, 2014 at 09:12 AM · My quartet plays with the violist on the outside...and it is what he prefers. The cellist has more dynamic presence in the group on the inside, and our violist has no problem with projection. He doesn't have to contort, he makes a slight rotation from the waist, keeping everything else above in the same spatial relationship.

When I play viola, I feel the same way. When we do the Brahms Sextets or Tchaikovsky Souvenir, we put both cellists in the center and violists on the right. Unless it's a student group that cannot project their sound, it really is up to player preference...I've heard good performances in either configuration.

Since each group dynamic is different, I'd experiment with different seating arrangements, record each one in repertoire you are comfortable with, and pick the one your group sounds the best with!

December 29, 2014 at 04:19 PM · The first Allegri Quartet had it perfect, because the second violinist, James Barton played southpaw, enabling each of the four instruments to face the audience.

December 29, 2014 at 07:53 PM · Most professional groups sit with the two violins together and the viola on the outside. A few may sit with the cello on the outside, but I can't bring any to mind right now. My personal experience has always been the first arrangement I mentioned, so much so that I would call it "standard".

Every violist deals with it differently, and I know that Michael Tree of the Guarneri took pride in his sudden swings to the left for a big viola solo!

December 29, 2014 at 08:45 PM · Dorian, the way the Tacaks Quartet is pictured in the youtube you posted seems very effective. Just enough curvature for communication. It's when the violist is facing parallel to the front of the stage that I think there are issues. I've never cared for the violist pivoting about when he has a "solo," as I think it is weird for any member of the quartet to "announce" in that way that he's got the important bit just then. Rather as the listener I'd like to hear and decide that for myself. So, even though a lot of heralded quartets do that, it's my prerogative to say that I don't prefer it. The cello is not directed inward when seated in that position (you can still see one of the f-holes from a center orchestra seat) and moreover my perception is that the cello is a great beast of an instrument that requires some restraint anyway.

December 29, 2014 at 10:58 PM · Viola sitting on the right is the only person who need to pivot out because the other three don't need to...I think if it visually bothers you, then just close your eyes...

Takacs sits in the probably the widest arc I've ever seen in any quartet, the distance doesn't seem to bother them when I saw them live, that's great!

December 30, 2014 at 10:16 AM · A quick trawl of readily available pictures of string quartets (courtesy of Google....) suggests that the majority of contemporary/recent quartets favour the lineup illustrated in the above image of the Takacs - ie viola next to the audience. Of course this could just be 'sampling bias'. However my memory bank tends to confirm this - most of the quartets I remember seeing used this formation. Surely they can't all be wrong....

I think I read somewhere that this formation became popular after it was adopted by the Smetana quartet in the 1950's and 60's. However there are pictures of the Busch quartet (probably 1930's)in this formation, so the question seems to go back further than the Smetana.

I also read somewhere that Milan Skampa (Smetana quartet again) would actually turn round to face the audience when declaiming the opening viola solo of Smetana's First Quartet (which he would have played from memory). Not something I ever had the good fortune to witness - must have been quite an experience....

One aspect of this lineup and its popularity has always surprised me slightly - it introduces such a big separation between violin II and viola, when so often they are working together.

My preferred formation when playing quartets was Vln I (me) Cello, Viola, Violin II. I found it much easier to hear clearly what was going on than in either of the more conventional formations, and I like the idea of the antiphonal effect between to two violins. Also preserves proximity for vln II/viola and viola/cello.

The other issue raised is of audibility and how the sound projects. But how much of what the audience hears is direct from the instruments, and how much from reflection and resonance within the hall? Presumably this depends on the acoustic, the building materials etc. It must have a significant influence, as a quartet or small ensemble can sound enormous in some venues. And as others have suggested the problem can at least be mitigated by judicious arrangement of the seats - again the Takacs illustration above shows this very well. I don't recall any problems of balance or audibility with the Takacs, Smetana or Emerson quartets.... or any others I've seen using this formation.

December 30, 2014 at 01:45 PM · Has "pivoting out" always been fashioable? If not, when did it become so?

December 31, 2014 at 10:43 AM · Nathan,I didn't notice your post earlier. From memory British and maybe Western European groups seem to favour the cello outside - eg Lindsays, Alberni, Sorrel, Allegri (post-southpaw), Coull, Edinburgh and a bit further back, the Amadeus. But not universal by any means. I also saw a picture of the Alban Berg in this formation.

December 31, 2014 at 06:21 PM · The best I ever heard was the Kolich (later Pro Arte) quartet. Rudolf Kolich lost a finger tip on his left hand and relearned fingering with his right thus the seating was: II, Vla, Vc, I. I find the Emerson configuration (standing) to sound almost as good. My ideal is to be able to hear every voice with clarity, like a dictation exercise for the mind's ear.

December 31, 2014 at 07:06 PM · Viola on the outside is kind of an American default seating and cello outside more of a European tradition. Both have their pros and cons.

Viola turning out in big solos and play by memory like in Smetana from my life is a pretty common thing.

December 31, 2014 at 08:45 PM · When playing quartets with my favourite 'cellist I preferred the V1, V2, Vla, 'Cello configuration because eye-contact with him was every bit as important as being able to hear him - and being able to watch him tapping his foot helped (seated, notwithstanding).

December 31, 2014 at 08:48 PM · Greetings,

the european, American distinction is interesting. The eye contact thing is a bit over rated. what does looking into someone's eyes tell you unless you are Dubya and Putin?. I think the great quartets watched each other's left hands a lot. Cellusts are helpful in this regard.

Cheers,

buri

January 1, 2015 at 02:05 AM · Yes, my experience has been mostly playing (and attending) concerts in the US. Although not always with American players! And I agree with the eyes watching the left hand. Guarneri cellist David Soyer was always insistent on that point. I'll get his words wrong, but something like "the right hand plays tricks, but the fingers never lie".

January 1, 2015 at 11:06 AM · If I could see by eye contact that my 'cellist was paying attention, I'd know whether or not to risk an impromptu ritardando, accelerando, cut-off or whatever !

I'd agree about watching fingers. So many leaders have, by wagging their scroll or waving their bow, indicated a tempo only to adopt a completely different one.

January 1, 2015 at 07:02 PM · As 1st violin you would have a good view of cello sitting inside or outside either way, and usually it's second violin that 1st vn folks complain are hardest to visually connect.

Echoing Buri, a vivid coaching advice from childhood was to look at my friends' contact point of fingers instead of their eyes. When you see great quartets, how often do you actually see them stare into each other's eyeballs? If you want to throw a curve ball and bend time, just lead and do it, your friends will quickly catch on and have their antenllae up.

January 2, 2015 at 12:49 AM · Greetings,

although this discussion reminded me the Gingold masterclass in which he encouraged a violinist and piano player to turn back to back and start the work exactly together. If I recall correctly it didnt quite happen but it@s an interesting ideal of communication. Can the great quartets closes their eyes or whatever and start/play a work from beginning to end with their eyes closes?

I would bet yes....

Cheers,

buri

Of course if it was a bet and they failed I could simply claim they were never really one of the great quartets because blah blah blah.

January 2, 2015 at 09:07 AM · Stephen, there's a DVD of the Petersen quartet which includes a Schumann scherzo with the players seated back-to-back - ie in a circle facing outwards. No eye contact or visibility of left hands..... Ensemble is perfect. Of course it's a recording, so they could cheat, retake etc. But I'm sure you're right - the best quartets have a 'togetherness' which at times appears (and sounds) to be almost supernatural.

January 2, 2015 at 04:14 PM · As a young violist, my experience with quartet playing is not that extensive. However, I don't like the standard seating with the viola on the outside. It's always annoyed me when coaches insist on this seating, only to later also insist that I must turn around for a viola solo. Although, it seems that it's easier for this to work if the quartet sits fairly spaced apart from each other, like the Takacs above. That makes more sense to me, but usually the groups I've been in always want to sit very close for some reason.

January 3, 2015 at 05:51 AM · A really useful rehearsal technique is to sit in reverse with backs facing each other, spread out into the four corners of the room. I've a lot of memories rehearsing Bartok 4 that way...and then you can make things more exciting by turning of the light and play by memory...

When I play viola sitting outside, I have to include playing turning out in my practice. If you do it the first time in a coaching or performance, then you'll be adding extraordinary amount of tension to a probably tense situation already.

January 3, 2015 at 04:05 PM · Of course the viola player in the Takacs (Geraldine Walther) has a huge sound which helps. AND she is playing on my old teachers Guadanini viola. I had great pleasure in mentioning to her that I had seen that instrument a long time before she did! (around 1963, which would have made her a very young kid). The three chin resters all play on Guadaninis. I played briefly on Edwards fiddle, and it was wonderful.

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