Quartet - second violin on the right?

July 17, 2019, 4:24 PM · I'm listening to Mozart's dissonance quartet on you tube payed by the Quatuor Mosaïques- the recording with the moving score (using my amazing new headphones).


I have to play this later in the summer so I am particularly listening for the second violin. As this is a stereo recording the first violin is clearly to the left - but so is the cello while the second violin and viola are to the right.

Has anyone come across this particular seating arrangement before? This quartet plays on period instruments but (according to Wiki) is not obsessive about historically authentic performance - though I wondered if that was a clue.

Replies (22)

Edited: July 17, 2019, 4:52 PM · I know there are conventional seatings, but in my opinion the actual seating should be set up for the sound, which depends on the instruments, the players and the venue. Cello low tones come out best straight ahead - that would put the cello in the 2nd or 3rd spot from the audience left. There is a closer relationship between viola and 2nd violin parts than with either of the others - so the seating you mentioned could play a part and the #2 spot is as good for the cello's bass sound as the #3. Violin sound seems to project best to its right and straight ahead - so 1st and 2nd in the usual 1-2 seating is OK. Viola would also do well with that seating, but as my Mormon friends have said about other things, '"Violists' usually suck left hind teat." By seating to the far right they have no advantage at all.

For many years standard orchestra seating was 1.violin-1, 2.violin-2, 3-viola and 4-cello (to the far right). Nowadays there are conductors that have other preferences- and so too, string quartets.

I played that Mozart quartet as part of a "soire" a dozen years ago and we had the microphone in the middle of the quartet where I could handle it from my cello seat. We pretty much sat in a circle, if I recall correctly, probably surrounded by the audience. I believe the 1st & 2nd violins exchanged parts for the 2nd (Haydn) quartet.

Edited: July 17, 2019, 4:55 PM · Andrew is right as far as I know. Most quartets feature the two violins on the left, the cello right back, and the viola right front. At least that is how the Emerson and Shanghai Quartets, which are the ones I see most, do it. But, there is no requirement for that configuration, and various factors may counsel a different one. Ultimately, the key is that the cello be facing the audience for the reason Andrew stated. Once you have that, the placement of the violins and viola probably is not as crucial.

There is a similar issue with an orchestra. Many configure the strings in the same way the quartets do (violins on the left, cellos right rear and violas right front), but when Daniel Barenboim directed the CSO, he put the second violins right front. I am not sure how much it really matters.

July 17, 2019, 5:05 PM · "when Daniel Barenboim directed the CSO, he put the second violins right front. I am not sure how much it really matters."

this seating matters when the composer uses antiphonal techniques, question and answer play between the first and second violins, which actually a lot of classical composers used to do.

July 17, 2019, 5:08 PM · Do a search for the Kolisch Quartet. Kolisch played left handed ahd rearranged the quartet to suit his needs. He had a Stradivari converted to left-handed, 1718 if memory serves correctly.
July 17, 2019, 5:21 PM · Herman - the concert I saw was Schubert ##8 and 9, but I think Barenboim used that seating all the time.
July 17, 2019, 7:39 PM · What headphones did you get? :-)
Edited: July 17, 2019, 9:33 PM · The "standard" orchestral seating isn't actually that old, though. It was first introduced by Leopold Stokowski and Henry Wood in the 1920s, and as late as March 1940, the Chicago Tribune called it a "radical realignment" when the CSO adopted that seating arrangement. It wasn't adopted in continental Europe until the late 1940s. Prior to the 1920s, "standard" orchestral seating always had the second violins on the right side of the stage. Even today, some people refer to VnI-VnII-Vla-Vcl as "American seating" in contrast to the traditional VnI-Vcl-Vla-VnII ("Vienna seating").

Similarly, here's a bit on the history of string quartet seating. It appears that placing the first and second violins opposite one another was standard throughout the 19th century.

July 17, 2019, 9:41 PM · When I was a kid, I was taught to sit violin 1 - violin 2 - viola - cello for quartet, just like the typical orchestral seating.
July 17, 2019, 10:12 PM · Yes, The Eybler quartet sits like that. If I remember correctly their justification is that this particular layout was indeed common during Beethoven era:
July 17, 2019, 10:21 PM · The Chamber Orchestra I've been playing in the past 8 years has been sitting violin 1, cello, viola, violin 2. We have no conductor so all of us (and the winds and percussion and harp when we have them) need sightlines to follow the concertmaster. We tried the old "American" violin 1, 2, viola, cello for a few weeks but it's not as good for us. Previously I'd always played that seating in conducted orchestras (62 years). I first saw the an orchestra with the 2nd violins opposite the firsts at a concert in Adelaide, Australia 32 years ago.
July 17, 2019, 10:36 PM · I have seen a photo of the NBC orch. with Toscannini using that not-so-old seating with the second violins on the right side. For low-budget community orchestras it works well because you can load up the second violin section with lots of volunteers without affecting the balance. Putting the Violas next to the 1st violins gives that usually depleted section a boost. You want the basses to be more towards the middle of the orchestra, right behind the cellos.
July 18, 2019, 10:35 AM · Lydia asked (glad someone did :D ) : "What headphones did you get? :-) "

Hifiman Sundara. Kinda simple in concept, no battery, no noise cancellation - but the detail. Really for sitting in a quiet room - not on an airplane!

July 18, 2019, 11:07 AM · I saw them a year or two ago, and I can't remember any weird seating, but I don't remember much from that aside from not liking the performance.

I must have seen some different seating arrangements before, but I can't think of an example for the life of me. I've seen it more commonly with orchestras.

July 18, 2019, 11:24 AM · I too learned as a kid (in the U.S.) the "standard" way of violin 1, violin 2, viola, cello. A conductor that I work with uses violin 1, cello, viola, violin 2 for a small college orchestra and a younger youth orchestra - says that it's good for developing independence of the 2nd violins (overall caliber of players not being competitively high). The group I run is short on cellos so we have the violins on both sides.
July 18, 2019, 12:01 PM · Elise, interesting, I've never seen those before, very cool.

I recently bought a pair of Audio-Technical ATH-MSR7s that are decent but which I don't love -- lots of detail, a little too bright for my tastes. (The sound is decidedly not as good as the Phonak Audeo PFE-232 IEMs that I had previously.)

July 18, 2019, 2:52 PM · As first violinist I'd rather sit next to the cello than V2 - easier to hear the root of the quartet..
Edited: July 18, 2019, 3:14 PM · In addition to Toscanini, Klemperer used to put the seconds on his right. Very obvious in his stereo EMI recordings. He may have been the last before the early-music crowd revived it. Clarifies textures a lot, which not everyone prefers for Strauss or Debussy.

If you look at old BSO photos, Koussevitzky had basses at the back. I heard a broadcast of Norrington doing that, and while the orchestra apparently didn’t care for him, it sounded pretty neat.

I have a (non-Strad) once owned by Kolisch. If I read it correctly, the pegbox has been redrilled to accommodate his left-handed ness.

July 18, 2019, 6:23 PM · Lydia - I bought the earphones on a whim - so I think I'm pretty lucky to come out unscathed. Would love to see the field, as it were, though.
July 28, 2019, 2:55 PM · Surely it's like an orchestra?
Depends how the second violin's written.
In baroque days, the second part answered the first.
So opposite sides sound good.
Romantic composers, like Brahms and Tchaikovsky, often have the violins in octaves, so the second NEEDS to be next to the first.
July 28, 2019, 3:12 PM · The question is not where the 2nds sit (either quartet or orchestra), but rather who is willing to put up with proximity to the viola.
July 28, 2019, 3:13 PM · "Surely it's like an orchestra"

...and stop calling me Surely.

You can call me surly, though. I'm sure many would agree with that one. Especially violists.

Edited: July 28, 2019, 3:15 PM · :) :)

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