The Passing of the Alto Clef in the J.S.Q.: An Interview with Samuel Rhodes

After 44 years as distinguished violist of the Juilliard Quartet, Sam Rhodes retires this year, while fortunately continuing as Viola Chair and with his teaching responsibilities.  His last appearance as J.S.Q. violist takes place in Ravinia on July 10th, 2013 with a program of Beethoven op. 135, a quintet of his own composition, and the Mozart D major quartet K. 593.  We think it appropriate for this pedagogy blog to recognize Sam for his many contributions to the viola world, and have asked Heidi Castleman to comment on her years with Sam as a colleague, and on her recent interview with him. A forthcoming blog will include an interview with Sam’s esteemed successor,  Roger Tapping.

Heidi Castleman: Sam Rhodes is a great artist, an intellect, a real “Mensch,” and as Chair of The Juilliard School’s Viola Department, a treasured colleague. Forever the diplomat, Sam is fair-minded to a fault, never lacking a definite opinion, which renders him the quintessential musician-artist and colleague. While on tour last week he kindly took a few moments to answer some of this violist’s questions. His responses, as always, are most illuminating.

HC: If you were to describe the role of the viola in the string quartet, is there a particular personality and/or function that comes to mind?

SR: The viola in the traditional string quartet has several functions. One of the most important is to provide a unique voice that none of the other string instruments has. The viola has a special quality that suggests something very internal. It is very often used in the harmonic structure to provide a note on which the whole harmony turns. Passages like that, especially passages suggesting great depth of feeling or something below the surface, but felt on the inside of the music. That’s one of its most important roles. I think composers exploit that side of it, and also the slightly melancholy tinge in the sound.

As an example, in Mozart’s K575, second movement, there is a passage right after the first phrase, almost as in one of his operas, there is a dialogue among the four voices: the first violin and cello are very happy and contented in the normal tonic and dominant, the second violin turns it just a little bit into a question that something might be wrong, and the viola replies extremely sadly and brings the music into a different direction towards the minor. Then it is up to the first violin and cello to resolve it once again. So, it is that kind of character for which composers have traditionally used the viola. A violist who gets into string quartet seriously has to understand that; it is one of the things we take charge of and enjoy very much.

HC: As a violist and teacher, you both play and encourage your students to study a broad spectrum of the repertoire.  What are some of the pieces you wish were more often played and heard?

SR: The general take on the viola repertoire is that it is very limited. In a way that is true. In another way it isn’t true. Students tend to play the same things over and over again. Along with that, they play arrangements of pieces for other instruments and don’t explore the wonderful repertoire the viola has, and as you know, I have advocated that the Juilliard jury and audition requirements encourage exploration of this wonderful repertoire.

There are other concertos than the Bartok, Walton and Der Schwanendreher! Hindemith himself has two others, very challenging and wonderful works that students should be encouraged to study.

There are more sonatas than the two of Brahms which technically aren’t even for the viola, although they work wonderfully on the viola. They should be learned, but there are other pieces that deserve to be played as well. The Rebecca Clarke Sonata is another work played almost as much as the Brahms Sonatas. However, there are also all kinds of other British works written in the early and middle 20th century; many of these works were commissioned by Tertis and later by Primrose, and inspired by their wonderful playing. I would like to see these works performed as well, allowing us to appreciate Rebecca Clarke within a broader context.

As to transcriptions: as wonderful as arrangements may be, (and in some cases they are indispensable for us, as with the Bach Suites and Brahms Sonatas), there are any number of wonderful pieces written for viola and conceived with the peculiar qualities of the instrument in mind.

[Mr. Rhodes’ response to a viola debut program without one original work for viola reflects his commitment to the viola repertoire: “It would be unheard of for any other instrumentalist to present such a program. Can you imagine a violinist, cellist or clarinetist doing so?!”]

HC: Could you list additional pieces you would like to hear violists play more frequently?


Piston Concerto

Penderecki Concerto

Penderecki Cadenza

More Romantic:
Reger Suites No.2 and No. 3 Joachim Hebrew Melodies Joachim Variations

Vieuxtemps Sonata (unfinished)

Vieuxtemps Capricieux

Vieuxtemps Elegy
Wieniawski Legende


English Works by: York Bowen

Arthur Benjamin Arnold Bax

Frank Bridge

More contemporary – useful for mastering this style:
Milton Babbitt Composition for Viola and Piano (late 40’s)
Milton Babbitt Play it Again Sam (written for Samuel Rhodes)
Elliot Carter  Figment (written for Samuel Rhodes)

Donald Martino Three Sad Songs (written for Samuel Rhodes)

HC:  Are there particular qualities you hope to find in the students with whom you work?

SR: It’s hard to say.  They are all very different, and I love that.  The main thing I want to have is someone who really loves music and has a tremendous curiosity to find out all they can about the music, in whatever area interests them.  It is also important that the student loves the viola, the sound that it makes, the function it has in music, and that she or he wants to learn how to accomplish that function in the best possible way.  Of course, there are all sorts of personalities which can have these qualities, and most of the time I have been fortunate to have students like that.

HC:  After 44 years of teaching, how have teacher demands changed for you, and for others in the field?

SR: The basic ideals are the same. It’s hard to say because you adapt differently with each student, how you interact with the personality you are involved with at the moment. Of course there are things that are required, that one has to do, but the way you emphasize different things is important. For example, I had a student who was a misfit in the department and people didn’t take him seriously, but I saw he was tremendously talented, and although he broke all the rules, didn’t fit within the box, and did things the way he wanted to do them, not necessarily the way you wanted him to do them. But I saw the tremendous talent he had and tried to encourage him in that direction, and did try to get him to fulfill his requirements, but did encourage his creativity. Now he has a tremendous career and an unusual one as a composer and as a violist with his own band, they do his own music which is based on Russian-Jewish folk music and other more popular genres. He also has a serious classical side as well, has been extremely successful, and I’m very glad he came out that way. So one has to avoid being rigid in the way one teaches, and one has to allow for particular talents to blossom while keeping them within certain bounds.

HC: Has current technology had an influence on the chamber music world, and if so, has it been beneficial or detrimental?

SR: Interesting question. I don’t know how much effect it has on the chamber music world. One way it may have an effect in the future is the idea Nicholas Kitchen of the Borromeo Quartet has wherein everyone in the quartet will play from the score on the computer. Maybe that’s the way it will be for the next generation where everyone will play from the score, and you won’t have to worry about page turns anymore. I imagine halls will be equipped with that kind of technology. I don’t know if I want to try it myself. That’s for the younger generation, the computer generation. Other than that, I can’t think of too much that affects chamber music. Most of the time, unless you are a group like the Kronos Quartet, you don’t need amplification and all the technology that goes with it. We played at one point, quite a few years ago, a commissioned work by Morton Subotnik, which had electronically-transformed sounds. When we made a recording of the work and I listened to it, it was hard for me to hear that a string quartet was playing. I don’t know if I like that. I don’t know about technology in that sense.

Our instruments are very primitive, and the only way that technology has affected our instruments very much is that the quality of strings and the materials used in making strings are very different, a lot more reliable, more powerful and more adaptable than ever before, and that is a big plus.

HC: In your Juilliard Journal article, you mention two future projects:

  1. A contribution to the technical literature for viola, and
  2. An arrangement of a work that would have the possibility of becoming a useful addition to the viola classical and teaching repertoire.

Could you elaborate on what you have in mind?

SR: I want to write out my scale system and have a preface that explains it. Over the years I have found it very useful in practicing it myself and recommend it to every student. It goes over the fundamental qualities of playing the instrument and gets to all the keys, from slow to fast; yet it does this in a way that is not obsessive. If you do it persistently (every day), it does not take a tremendous amount of time, but it sets you up for playing. If you have to do a lot of playing, if you start out with this, I think you will have a lot less physical problems with your arms.

The other project is inspired by the fact that, although there are many classical concerti written for viola, we don’t have anything classical other than Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante that is of the quality of someone like Mozart. Stamitz is ok, the Hoffmeister is maybe not ok, and the work I prefer from this group, the Rolla Concerto in E-flat, which is wonderful in its way, but of course it’s not Mozart. After talking out against arrangements, nevertheless I’d like to take a particular work (which I won’t identify yet!), and use it more as a teaching tool, to have the technical demands of the Classical period and the precision of intonation and moving around the instrument, something musically really worthwhile.

HC: Might the future find you returning to composition beyond these projects?

It’s certainly possible. I haven’t really tried it for a long time. Although this one work, in my humble opinion, is a very good work,he Quintet, which I wrote as an MM student at Princeton. When I look at it more objectively, because so much time has passed, I see an awful lot there, it encourages me to consider starting again. It’s hard to say, because composition, at least for me, takes all of your time and energy. I feel all the great composers looking over my shoulder, and I get very self-conscious about myself. I know I was self-conscious when I wrote the Quintet, and now when I look at it, I realize I had nothing to be self-conscious about. With that confidence, maybe I can break through that barrier.

HC: In a household of active musicians, how will your family responsibilities change, now that your professional schedule will have you more at home?

At the moment my two children are grown up, so I have grandchildren. It is just my wife and I in the house. I will be spending more time with her and with my family, and also taking care of more domestic things to do with the house. We will try to sell the house and move into a smaller, more manageable place. Hopefully I will have a little more time to think about that type of thing. Right now, I can’t with the quartet schedule and the teaching schedule combined; so those are the ways that will impact me and my family.

HC: My last question, of what achievements of the last 44 years are you most proud?

SR: It is hard to point to any one of them. You’ll hear one of them on the February 26 concert, my String Quintet; whatever else anyone might think of it, I think as a work of chamber music, most people would agree it is planned very well. Every instrument has interesting things to do; the dialogues in it are set up in a way, traditional in the sense that you can follow the progress of the music, and each instrument makes a specific contribution, and at times, especially in the third movement, you can hear the different characters of the instruments exploited.

Also with the quartet, there are so many highlights, hard to pick out any one, but always the Beethoven cycles, one of the pinnacles of the quartet repertoire, which we’ve played many places, but especially the one we played in Carnegie Hall and one in Tokyo in honor of Robert Mann’s impending retirement where I was asked to comment on the pieces before each program (which I did part of in Japanese!). A cycle in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, and in many places. Our European career, playing in Berlin, playing in Frankfurt, Paris, London, places in Italy, as well as in Japan, Taiwan, China and a little bit in Korea.  I particularly am proud of the many world premieres of important works such as the Third Quartet and the Clarinet Quintet of Elliott Carter, the Fourth Quartet and the Clarinet Quintet of Milton Babbitt, the Third Quartet of Alberto Ginastera with Benita Valente, soprano, three quartets of Richard Wernick including one with Benita Valente, soprano, the Fourth Quartet of Donald Martino.

I’m also very proud of leaving at a time when I can pass the Quartet and its traditions on to the next person in its most healthy state. That was very important; I didn’t want to leave until that was set and really secured. As much as humanly possible I believe that it is now, and I can feel good about stepping back feeling good about the future of the quartet and think about my own future. I’ve loved it,I’ve enjoyed it, and I’m going to miss it terribly, but this is the time to do it, and I’m passing it on its most healthy, wonderful state, and it will go on, hopefully forever, at least to its 75th anniversary, and I hope to be at that! Not so far away, maybe another 8-10 years.

For further information about Mr. Rhodes plans, please see “Regret and Anticipation” an article by him about his thoughts and perspectives as he approaches the Juilliard String Quartet’s Feburary 26 Alice Tully Hall concert heralding his farewell and Roger Tapping’s welcome. (http://www.juilliard.edu/journal/2012-2013/1302/articles/jsq.php)


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