This is how it happened…
The structure of the traditional string quartet can be somewhat regimented, paralleling the four human voices – soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. And it is traditionally the first violinist (they like to be called ‘the leader‘) who shoulders the burden of artistic responsibility, and therefore tends not to be a democracy. The parts are rarely equal. Indeed, the 2nd violin and viola parts can often be extremely dull, being thus relegated to the role of inside harmony – important, sure, but dull. And the scope for dialogue on equal terms tends to be be dictated by the limited common range and timbre of the instruments. And thus there are numerous issues that can become intensely frustrating, both artistically and emotionally – tell me about it, already!
The viola quartet is different. It came about almost by accident, while creating repertoire, that the interaction between parts was potentially very exciting in a way that a conventional quartet could not be. The range being more limited than a string quartet is mitigated by the potential for melodic dialogue and complex counterpoint. It was most beguiling, and also visually exciting. So we perform standing. It may not seem a big deal but we feel it makes for greater freedom, more soloistic, and a less cluttered stage. Neither are we doomed to always play the same part, as it is fun to swap or, as we frequently do, shuffle and deal the parts out like cards. And we have no leader!
Four violas (or viole, if you want to sound posh) work in a way that four violins or cellos (ditto, celli) cannot. Violins go no lower than G which is limiting, and a cello foursome, although it has the range, encounters difficulties with facility.
However violas, most importantly, have an astonishing breadth of expressive qualities, and a clef that many other musicians struggle to read – which is a good thing, right? Particularly where conductors are involved. Call me cynical, but it’s quite possible that certain composers will keep the viola line simple for the very same reason. Although Beethoven, having been a violist himself, and particularly in his late works, would occasionally have the cello soaring (or, on occasions, sawing) in its vocal upper register while the viola plays the bass line in its dark lower range, thus creating a wonderful and subtle timbre.
- A conventional string quartet is a marriage. Each player has to know their role, and the instruments must compliment each other.
- The viola quartet are siblings and work as a family.
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