quartet puzzles

This is the first of an occasional series of posts that I’d like to write which concern the torture of playing the viola in a string quartet. Don’t get me wrong: playing the viola in a string quartet is just about the best thing a human being can do! But, because the viola is one of the inner voices, and often has a bit more of an active role in the inner voices than the second violin, there are often places in any string quartet that just make our lives miserable. We violists are often faced with puzzles, especially involving the left hand (that which stops notes on the strings), and I’d like to illustrate a few of the classics that I’ve run across thus far.

My first example comes from the second movement of Beethoven’s last complete string quartet, the Op. 135 in F major. It’s a scherzo in everything but name, a bustling movement in 3/4 time (but with only one relatively quick beat to the bar – “in one” as we musicians say). Near the end of the first page of the movement, there comes a two line segment that illustrates the torture of being a violist perfectly. Here it is:

musical example

The first problem is the last three measures of the first line:

musical example

The second note of the first measure above is a C-sharp. It’s the lowest note you can finger on the viola (any lower and you’re playing the open (or unstopped) C-string. Normally, the first note, a D, would be played with the first finger. But since there is a note a half-step lower (like between directly adjacent keys on the piano) and the notes are so fast, it becomes necessary to play the D with the 2nd finger, thus ending up in every string player’s least favorite position: half-position. [For a visual representation of where the fingers fall on the fingerboard on the viola – take a look at this chart.] Now, the second note of the second measure is a G-sharp. Which can be played by either the first finger on the G string or a high fourth finger on the C string, when in first position. Because of the speed of the passage, first position just isn’t really an option, because it either requires one to be comfortable with an very quick back and forth fourth finger extension, plus a string crossing – or it requires an extremely awkward half-position fingering with three string crossings. Blech! But that’s not all! You also get the first note of the third measure, which gives us the most awkward first-position double stop you could possibly ask for: G-sharp to B. It’s worth noting at this point that, if this movement were in the key of C major or G major, this passage would be a walk in the park: straight first position all the way, easy-peasy. But the A major key signature requires that two of the strings not be played open: the C and G strings, because C and G are sharp in this key. Not so easy anymore.

So, here’s the fingering that I’d worked out early on in my practice for this movement, and I’m afraid to say it did involve a cheat…

musical example

So, the first measure begins in half-position, with the first finger sliding up between the C-sharp and D, getting us into first position proper. That doesn’t last long, however, since on the second beat of the second bar, we shift up to third position for the G-sharp (second finger) to eliminate any string crossings (these become very awkward at speed). With this fingering, the first two bars are all on the C string, which makes for greater facility. The crux is the first beat of the third bar. If I were to stay in third position (which I would very much like to do, at least up to the first beat of the third bar), then I would land on the B (the upper note of the double stop) with the fourth finger. However, I’d still be on the C string, which makes it impossible to play the double-stop, since there is no lower string on which to play the G-sharp (the lower note of the double stop). The cheat would be to in fact do just that – the red fingering: stay in third position and leave out the G-sharp. But that’s unacceptable, since the G-sharp is the third of the chord the quartet is playing, and it is not doubled by any other voice. This is a voicing that the violist is often faced with in quartet playing. The B is doubled in another voice, but not in the same octave, and besides, I hate leaving out notes. So I get around the issue of the awkward 2-4 fingering on the double stop by slipping quickly into second position, playing that minor third interval with the 1-3 fingering. The most elegant solution, however, would be this:

musical example

Moving from half, to first, then to second position until after the downbeat of the third measure. It is not the most intuitive fingering, but it can be played quickly with good intonation and clarity.

golijov’s tenebrae

Osvaldo Golijov is writing some of the most original and strikingly beautiful music to be found on the concert stage these days. On the Arnica Quartet’s upcoming March 23 concert (click here for more info and tickets), we’re playing Golijov’s dark and evocative piece Tenebrae, in its version for string quartet, which was originally written for the Kronos Quartet in 2003. The brilliant, young chamber orchestra (which plays un-conducted) A Far Cry, made their own arrangement for string orchestra of the work, and it’s a great introduction to the piece. Included in the video is a conversation with the composer and two of the members of the orchestra: its concertmaster and principal violist. Enjoy.

wtf? david finckel to leave emerson quartet

This is truly an end of an era. After 34 years (since 1979) with the Emerson Quartet, cellist David Finckel has announced that he is leaving the group at the close of the 2012-1013 season to pursue other artistic endeavors, reports the New York Times. His replacement has been named, British Welsh cellist/conductor Paul Watkins.

UPDATE: Finckel writes on his blog:

During the past year, after much soul-searching, I came to the realization that it would be sensible to make the 2012-13 season my last in the Emerson Quartet.  My colleagues of 33 years have been extremely understanding of my desire to pursue, with greater energy, my increasing number of performing, educational and presenting commitments that are independent of the quartet. My heart is warmed by the knowledge that Paul Watkins’ enormous gifts as a cellist and musician will fuel the Emerson’s onward journey with vibrant energy and fresh perspectives. I could not be happier to see him take my chair, nor can I wait to hear how marvelous the quartet will sound in its new incarnation. While I will forever treasure the rich network of friendships and experiences I have enjoyed as a member of the Emerson Quartet, I am equally excited for the opportunities which await me in the next chapter of my artistic and professional life.

I owe the bulk of my musical education to the Emerson Quartet, not only through the experience of learning so many great works, but also from the quartet’s rigorous pursuit of fidelity to each composer’s style. The Emerson’s unflagging commitment to a 100% effort for every performance, from big cities to small, remains for me the definitive example of being true to one’s art. Each individual in the quartet has always sought a higher level from himself in each successive performance, an expectation which is palpable to audiences and, I believe, has created for the Emerson that sense of perpetual quest which has enticed presenters the world over to bring the quartet back again and again.

The Emerson’s idea to perpetuate itself – a decision that was made by Philip, Eugene and Larry –I think is logical and tremendously exciting.  It makes sense to view the work we have done over the last three decades as having significance and purpose larger than any of us as individuals.  The Emerson’s accomplishments can not only be celebrated, but built upon. With the help of new personnel equally committed to the ideals that has built the quartet’s reputation, the quartet can be sustained and continue its artistic development.

The principles of performance practice which we inherited from our mentors are responsible for the Emerson’s successes across a wide range of music.  I believe our adherence to those artistic values account for the quartet’s appeal to the vast majority of listeners worldwide.  Pursuing innovation while remaining faithful to the composer, and holding ourselves to the instrumental standards set by the greatest players of all time, constitutes the Emerson’s artistic journey. It is a musical path with no end in sight.