A Musical Interlude

Not really TV-related though this will include two clips from TV broadcasts, but our print article “Where Should We Put the Violins?” obviously couldn’t include any examples of what an orchestra sounds or looks like with “divided violins,” so I would like to offer some examples here on the blog.

The basic point of the article is that there are two ways to seat the two violin sections in an orchestra, with the violins all together on one side or the violins divided on opposite sides. Until the 1950s, most orchestras were seated with the violins divided, meaning that most composers wrote with that setup in mind, and many of the best-known pieces of music in history have “antiphonal” effects for the violins, with a theme thrown back and forth across the room. Here’s an example from a very famous piece of music, Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute, with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra conducted by James Levine (who is a big proponent of the divided violin seating: he divided the violins at the Met, divides them at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and reportedly tried to get the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to play that way in the ’70s but gave up when they rebelled after one rehearsal). At about 1:35 in this video — unfortunately, just as the camera cuts away to the credits for this broadcast version — the fast section starts, and it is full of antiphonal exchanges for the violins: the second violins have the theme first, then the firsts take it, and the two sections are tossing the theme around for the whole overture. Mozart never imagined that the violins would be on one side, and if they are on one side, you’re hearing all the music but you’re not feeling the effect Mozart was looking for.

There are other reasons, beyond the purely antiphonal effects, why this seating is important to a lot of great music. Gerard Schwarz, longtime music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, explained to Maclean’s that there are several additional reasons why he always seats the violins this way with every orchestra he leads. One is historical authenticity:

Most orchestras, up until as late as the 1950s, were seated this way from the 18th century on. There were still some like the NBC Symphony that Toscanini was the music director of that continued this tradition until the 1950s. If one looks at pictures of orchestras that Mahler conducted, they always had divided violins. Pictures of the New York Philharmonic through the 40s always had divided violins.

As the article explains, this seating nearly died out in the ’50s. Partly because players didn’t like it any more, and partly — and I didn’t have room to mention this — because when early stereo recording came in, recording engineers found it easier to record all the violins in the left speaker and the basses in the right speaker. (So stereo, which could finally do justice to all the cool stereo effects composers wrote into their scores, helped kill off those effects.) There were, however, a few older conductors who insisted on sticking with the old seating. One was Otto Klemperer, the great conductor and father of Werner “Colonel Klink” Klempererer. I don’t have video of him (not in stereo anyway) but here’s a recording of him conducting the finale of a Haydn Symphony, a great piece where much of the musical humour comes from the constant back-and-forth exchanges between the two violin sections. Listen with headphones and you’ll hear the ping-pong effects.

The second reason Gerard Schwarz gives for preferring divided violins is that shifting the strings around the stage — putting the high strings all around the stage and shifting the bass strings to the left and the middle — produces what Schwarz calls:

A deeper sound and a little more of a spread sound of treble and bass especially from the string sections. At times, the conductor’s left side can have a little more weight because cellos, basses and violins one are all on that side. But I balance that by having timpani, trumpets and trombones on my right side, where the violas and seconds occupy the stage.

And third, although violinists in some orchestras have rebelled against being separated, Schwarz finds that it actually improves the playing of the second violins:

They have to act independently. This actually helps the musical ensemble. When the cellos or the violas sit on the right side of the stage, they can often play behind the firsts and create weak ensemble. That is not as noticeable as when the seconds do not play together with the firsts, so in fact by having the seconds there we are forced to have better ensemble, with a more prominent inner voice from the second violins. I find very often that second violin sections seated next to the firsts play more timidly and accompany the firsts rather than play as an independent section. They very often do not play strong enough, and I’m a great believer in that independent voice.

To get a clearer view of what an orchestra looks like when it uses this setup, here is the Vienna Philharmonic playing Bruckner’s 7th Symphony under conductor Christian Thielemann. This movement doesn’t actually have a whole lot of antiphonal effects, but the video is in stereo (YouTube videos aren’t, which is why they’re useless for this kind of demonstration) and the camerawork at least shows the setup: violins on both sides so the melodic line is spread out over the whole stage — because it’s the violins that often carry the bulk of the melody — with the cellos in the middle and the basses at the left, behind the first violins. That’s the “historically correct” seating, but it’s also the seating that allows the audience to get a better mix of sound coming at them, instead of the high stuff from one side and the low stuff from the other.

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