On Air Now
The Full Works Concert with Jane Jones 8pm - 10pm
18 May 2018, 12:22
Violinists can’t help but snap up the limelight in a symphony orchestra: they’re sat right at the front, and there are a heck of a lot of them. But have orchestras always had so many violins? And why do they need them?
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.
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.
Sitting next to a violinist or a trumpeter while they're playing are two very different aural experiences – and over-exposure to the latter can do long-term damage to your ears.
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.
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 per woodwind or brass instrument to achieve a balanced sound.
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.
Take the oboe, for instance: if you play first oboe, you’ll generally be the only one playing that particular 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.
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 even more strings, because the sound of the non-string instruments needed to be balanced out.
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 perhaps not. After all, it’s hard to imagine a symphony orchestra without those beautiful sweeping strings…