Debate over Placement of Orchestras' String Sections

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on May 5, 2008. Partner content is not updated.

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on May 5, 2008. Partner content is not updated.


Debate over Placement of Orchestras' String Sections

What's the biggest issue facing classical music? It's not what kind of music to play. It's whether your orchestra conductor divides the violins.

Symphony orchestras have two separate violin sections, and there are two ways to seat them: all the violins on the conductor's left, or "divided," with the first violins on the left and second violins on the right. This is becoming a big issue for music fans and critics: after conductor Leonard Slatkin was appointed music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, he wrote a piece for the website classicalsource.com responding to "music journalists" who complain about his refusal to divide the violins, explaining that while he has used the setup elsewhere, forcing the Detroit violinists to sit apart from each other "would remove one of the strongest individual qualities of the group." A simple seating arrangement has become one of the first things conductors think about - because this small choice can have a big effect on music.

Until the mid-20th century, most orchestras were seated with the violin sections on different sides. Most of the classics were written with this arrangement in mind; composers like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mahler composed symphonies where themes bounce between the violin sections, like musical ping-pong. Some pieces, like the finale of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, depend so heavily on these effects - the physical sensation of hearing a theme moving from one part of the room to the other - that they don't make sense when the violins are all on one side. Long before Jimi Hendrix was panning his guitar between speakers, classical composers were doing the same with violins, creating what Anthony Fogg, artistic administrator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, calls "a stereophonic effect between the violins."

The reason this seating almost died out in the mid-'50s was that most violinists didn't enjoy playing that way. Especially the second fiddles - that's where the term comes from - who were not always able to stay in sync with the firsts. Jacques Israelievitch, current concertmaster of the TORONTO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, which mostly keeps the violins together, explains that a large orchestra with divided violins "has difficulties hearing from one violin section to the other, because of the distance, so the ensemble suffers. It is more difficult to play perfectly together, and frustrating to the players." So until recently, most orchestras kept all violins on the left, providing a rich sound but losing the crucial back-and-forth effects in violin-heavy pieces like Wagner's prelude to Tristan Und Isolde.

But with the increasing historical awareness in the music world, it's become harder for conductors to overlook the fact that old music was written with the split-violin set-up in mind. There's not much point in using authentic editions of Beethoven's scores, and then seating the orchestra in a way he wouldn't have recognized. As a result, some conductors are adopting the historically correct seating arrangement and getting their violinists accustomed to it. Kent Nagano used divided violins in his new Beethoven recording with the MONTREAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, which almost never used that seating before he arrived. Bernard Haitink, a star conductor in his seventies, switched to divided violins to record a Beethoven cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra. And James Levine, music director of the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, always keeps the violins apart; Fogg says that while it's sometimes hard for the Boston violin sections to hear each other, there are other advantages: "The violins are closer to the bass line, and you get a greater sense of the harmonic foundation. For some conductors, including Jimmy, it's easier to balance the violins that way."

Even people outside of the classical world have become conscious of the issue. Movie composer Danny Elfman (Batman, Spider-Man) insists on performing his scores with divided violins, creating what his recording engineer Dennis Sands described to mix.com as "a beautiful quality where the violins answer one another." But as orchestras become less resistant to the idea, some conductors worry that there might be pressure on them to use that seating regardless of what they're playing or where. Slatkin told Maclean's that he is determined to keep seating his Detroit players "based on what we feel is right for our players and our hall." Controversy, stereo effects, resistance to peer pressure: a simple matter of seating has made classical music a lot more interesting to watch - and hear.

See also: ORCHESTRAL MUSIC.

Maclean's May 5, 2008