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