So you think the first violinist is running the show in a string quartet? Guess again
by James Reel

For more than a century after Joseph Haydn established the string quartet as one of music’s most sophisticated art forms, the first violinist in a quartet was the star of the ensemble. Initially, that’s because the music was often written to showcase the first violin part; Haydn and Mozart, more often than not, gave it the leading voice, and such secondary early-Romantic composers as Viotti and Spohr specialized in the quatuor brillant, essentially a flashy chamber concerto for violin with three-piece backup.

Even after Beethoven led the way in creating more-equal four-voice textures, first violinists managed to dominate their fellow players. Many 19th-century quartets were named for their first violinists, who were otherwise famous as soloists—Jules Armingaud, Joseph Joachim, and Eugène Ysae are prime examples. Some touring virtuosos would assemble a different quartet with local players at each stop on the itinerary, and occasionally the celebrity first violinist would play standing on the stage alone, relegating his fellows to the pit.

Behind the scenes, the first violinist would often impose his interpretive will on the other players and make most of the repertoire and touring decisions. The first violinist was first in all things.

Not so anymore.

With some old-school exceptions, mainly in Eastern Europe, the first violinist is now essentially one player among equals, sharing matters of interpretation and organization with his or her fellow musicians.

Says Paul Katz, former cellist of the Cleveland Quartet who now heads the professional string-quartet training program at the New England Conservatory, “What I always teach my kids is that a string quartet is a social conversation between four people. The strength of the conversation is a mutually interdependent thing. You can have a charismatic first violinist, but if the three people playing with him are boring, it doesn’t make for a great quartet. It limits the charismatic guy, too, because he needs responsiveness and understanding and interest and motivation coming from the other voices.”

Mark Steinberg, first violinist of the Brentano String Quartet, says, “The extent to which the first violinist leads the group changes constantly throughout a piece. It shifts through a single phrase, or in even smaller units as you play. And roles change from day to day, depending on how passionately someone feels about the piece at the moment, or even what we’ve eaten for breakfast and how much sleep we’ve gotten.”

Geoff Nuttall of the St. Lawrence Quartet is an especially intense violinist, and in concert he certainly looks like the driving force of his ensemble. Not so, he maintains. “At any given time, any member of the group can be in command in terms of gesture and timing and emotional content,” he says, “and the rest of the group has to make quick adjustments.”

Even so, one of the most noticeable things in a performance by any quartet is the first violinist’s habit of launching a phrase by leaning forward and pushing the other players along. These cues, however, aren’t as straightforward as they look.

“Giving a cue is not as simple as the first violinist indicates and the others follow,” Nuttall says. “After that gesture happens, everyone’s involved, and you end up following as much as leading. Great quartet players have to switch gears from giving a confident gesture to making adjustments in midair to what the others are doing so the group will be together.”

Says Katz, “When somebody gives a cue, that person at the same time needs to be watching and listening to the others and reacting to their feedback. The person receiving the cue has to give visual feedback so the person who gave it knows when he’s going to play—that person mirrors the cue with a physical motion.”

Whoever makes that first motion, merely lurching forward isn’t good enough, Katz adds. “What I teach is that every cue must show three elements: the tempo, the mood or character, and the dynamic,” he says. “A very small motion indicates a piano or pianissimo; a larger motion indicates a forte or fortissimo. A round, soft cue indicates a more lyrical character than a dramatic, abrupt motion, which would indicate a more military character. That’s all part of the responsibility of the cue itself.”

Steinberg adds, “The standard vertical cue shows when something is coming, but part of the rehearsal process is working on the quality of the cue, what direction it goes, how big it is, when it comes, whether there are single cues or multiple cues for an event. We’re working on a Haydn quartet, and there’s a spot where you’d think the first violin would give the cue because the melody is in the first violin. But we found that while I was playing with the lyrical character I thought the melody needed, I couldn’t physically give a cue that was sharp enough for how the other people needed to come in. So we switched the cue to the cellist, so she could give the sharp cue the others needed and I could have the freedom to play with the character I needed to.”

In an orchestra, the concertmaster—in effect, the ultimate first violinist—has several administrative duties, including putting a stamp of approval on the bowings for all the string sections. But in a string quartet, there’s no way a first violinist could get away with imposing bowings and fingerings on the other players.

“For most groups, that would be disastrous,” Katz warns. He then goes on to address a larger but related issue: “A healthy rehearsal atmosphere is an exchange of ideas, not an edict from above. The most complicated psychological relationship in a quartet is between the first and second violinists. To me, the great quartets have first violinists who respect the person playing second and ask their opinions and value their input. If you start to negate that, you can really interfere with the dynamic of a successful group. The logical extension of what I’m talking about is the more recent trend of the first and second violin sharing and switching roles.”

Among leading quartets, the Emerson String Quartet is most famous for splitting the first-violin duties equally between its two fiddlers, Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer. More recently, the St. Lawrence Quartet—which is celebrating its 20th anniversary—has been experimenting with this practice, but not yet to the point where Nuttall shares his seat exactly half the time with Scott St. John. Nuttall had occasionally slipped into the second-violin position from the early days of the quartet, but that didn’t become a common St. Lawrence practice until a few years ago, when the group had to play five taxing late-Beethoven quartets in two days. “We thought we’d get better performances if we split the first violin part,” says Nuttall. “Each of us had fewer licks to learn, and we had a great time.”

Switching back and forth may be easier for Nuttall and St. John than for other violinists because they’ve played together since they were children studying with the same teacher in Ontario, and over time they’ve developed a near unanimity of musical instinct. “It’s kind of freaky playing with Scott; it’s like he’s my slightly more-talented brother,” says Nuttall. “We’re almost interchangeable. So many times, I’ve gotten ready to play a phrase and, oh crap, Scott just played it the identical way I was going to, same speed, same gesture, without even talking about it.”

The Brentano Quartet’s Steinberg is less enthusiastic about interchangeable violinists. “It’s a little bit harder to get a real strong personality and sound for the group when you switch,” he says. “The Emerson Quartet sounds different depending on who’s playing first. It can make it two groups instead of one, in certain ways. There are a lot of adjustments to be made. The way you play underneath the first violin is different depending on the personality of the person playing that line—you become a different player to accommodate that.

“There’s a grave danger of falling into habits with the same people in the same positions all the time, and things can become mannered, but with a single configuration there’s more opportunity for a certain depth in the way you interact. How I support this person here, how I float my line on top of everything there—these things become more finely tuned and sensitive when you have more time to practice playing that one position.”

Even in the other aspects of operating a string quartet, the first violinist is not necessarily the person in charge. The player who talks to the audience is usually whoever is the most extroverted. The one who handles business and travel arrangements is the one who’s most organized. The one who serves as liaison with the school where the members teach is whichever person has the most patience for educational bureaucracy.

Having the dominant voice in a Haydn quartet is one thing—that’s what the score demands. But in all other respects, an effective first violinist is one who is not overbearing.

“You want everyone to be happy, because you all sound better when you’re happy,” Steinberg says. “So it’s not good for one person to start bossing the others around. I have firm opinions about certain things, but over time I learned that you can’t insist that there’s only one way to do something. You have to give a little, and let the performance work itself out in the moment.

“What should triumph is not your ‘pure idea,’ it’s the music.”

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