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David Mellor's Light Music Masters 9pm - 10pm
13 February 2018, 10:34
We’re so used to seeing a symphony orchestra packed with violinists that we don’t even think to question it anymore. But have orchestras always had so many violins? And why do they need them?
Let’s take the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra as an example. Here they are playing Beethoven’s Symphony No.5, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel – and there are probably about twenty violinists onstage.
This is pretty normal, as a symphony orchestra is usually made up of (give or take) around ten first violins and ten second violins, ten violas, eight cellos and six double basses.
So why does an orchestra need twenty-plus violins?
Violins are well-suited to playing melody, making them one of the most important instruments in the orchestra.
Firstly, they are the highest string instrument, so their bright tone rises above the rest of the string section.
Secondly, they are played with a bow, unlike woodwind or brass instrument which rely on air. This means that players are able to perform longer melodic passages – with plenty of fast finger-work.
And why are there fewer woodwind and brass instruments?
Imagine you’re sitting next to a violinist while they're playing, then imagine you’re sitting next to a trumpeter mid-performance. The difference in sound is massive.
In fact, in professional orchestras today there are often perspex screens positioned in front of the brass, woodwind and percussion sections to deflect some of the force of sound coming from them.
So although violins have a high, singing quality, they are not particularly loud. So, just as you need more upper voices to make sure they're heard over the lower voices in a choir, you need at least two violins to get a balance of sound with the woodwind and brass instrument.
But why do orchestras need two violin sections?
While the first violin section normally has the melody or counter-melody, the second violin section tends to play a lower harmony. This works in the same way for the woodwind section – except the numbers are far fewer.
Let’s use the oboe as an example. If you play first oboe, you are normally the only one playing the ‘first oboe’ part, and therefore the only one playing that line of music. But if you play first violin, you are one of ten playing that line.
Simply put, there need to be enough violins to balance out the bright, penetrating sound of the oboe.
It’s also to do with classical music history
Since the Baroque period, violins have pretty much always been included in orchestral scores.
Orchestras specialising in Baroque music tend to be much smaller and more focused on string instruments. In fact, pre-1700s, the leader of the first violin section led the whole orchestra, instead of a modern-day conductor.
However, in Romantic and 20th-century music, composers like Mahler, Wagner and Stravinsky began to write for a wider range of brass, woodwind and percussion instruments.
One result of that was that the orchestras playing Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony or Stravinsky’s The Firebird needed more strings, because the sound of the non-string instruments needed to be balanced out – read more about this on Quora.
But did this all happen by chance? Perhaps if Baroque composers had decided the oboe sounded better on the melody, we might be listening to orchestras with a very different make-up. Or maybe not…
It’s hard to imagine a symphony orchestra without those beautiful sweeping strings…