The string section is the largest body of the standard Classical orchestra. It normally consists of the first violins, the second violins, the violas, the cellos, and the double basses (or basses). In discussions of the instrumentation of a musical work, the phrase "the strings" or "and strings" is used to indicate a string section as just defined. An orchestra consisting solely of a string section is called a string orchestra. Smaller string sections are used in jazz, pop and rock music arrangements.
- 1 Seating arrangement and roles
- 2 Stage set-up
- 3 Numbers and assignment of parts
- 4 In other musical genres
- 5 References
Seating arrangement and roles
The most common seating arrangement is with first violins, second violins, violas and cello sections arrayed clockwise around the conductor, with basses behind the cellos on the right. The first violins are led by the concertmaster (leader in the UK); each of the other string sections also has a principal player (principal second violin, principal viola, principal cello and principal bass) who play the orchestral solos for the section, lead entrances and, in some cases, determine the bowings for the section (the concertmaster/leader may set the bowings for all strings, or just for the upper strings). The principal string players sit at the front of their section, closest to the conductor and on the row of performers which is closest to the audience.
Second violin section
The second violin section members play the exact same types of violins as the first violin section members. The difference between the first and second violins is that each section is provided with a separate violin part. The second violin part is usually lower in pitch than first violin part, and second violins may alternate between an accompaniment role and playing a melodic line, which may be a harmony part supporting the first violins' melody. The second violins, along with the violas, are considered the "inner voices" of the string section. The "outer voices" of the string section are the first violins in the high register and the bass/cello in the bass register.
"[U]sually the second violins play a supportive role harmonically and rhythmically to the first violins [,] which often play the melody and the highest line of the string section. Although the two sections play different parts, all [violin] members share in the responsibility of blending seamlessly together as one unit. All violinists in an orchestra have very high skill levels and the only difference between the two sections is the role they play in the orchestra. Members of both sections audition with mainly the same repertoire and have to maintain a very high level of musicianship." There are perceptions that being a member of the second violin section is somehow a lesser role, as attested to by the popular idiom "playing second fiddle" (e.g., a person may say that they felt they "always played second fiddle to a spouse's career").
In the 19th century it was standard to have the first and second violins on opposite sides (violin I, cello, viola, violin II), rendering obvious the crossing of their parts in, for example, the opening of the finale to Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. If space or numbers are limited, cellos and basses can be put in the middle, violins and violas on the left (thus facing the audience) and winds to the right; this is the usual arrangement in orchestra pits. The seating may also be specified by the composer, as in Béla Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, which uses antiphonal string sections, one on each side of the stage.
Double bass section
The double bass section plays the bass line. In symphonic works from the classical music era, especially the Baroque era (1600-1750) and the Classical era (1750-1820), the bass and cello typically play from the same part, labelled "Bassi". However, since the double bass is a transposing instrument, the double bass notes are an octave below those of the cello part. In the Classical era, some composers, such as Haydn and Beethoven started to give the double basses and cellos different parts. While in some cases, such as the Recitative of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, this meant basses were given a more melodic role, in general, the move towards giving basses and cellos different parts in the 19th century meant that basses were given simpler basslines, while more melodic or technically challenging basslines were given to the cellos.
In a typical stage set-up, the violins, violas and cellos are seated with two performers sharing a stand, with members of each section arranged in a column behind the first two performers. A pair of performers sharing a stand is called a 'desk', with the players at the front being called the 'first desk'. Each section leader is usually on the 'outside' of the first desk, that is, closest to the audience.
There are more variations of set-up with the double bass section, depending on the size of the section and the size of the stage. The basses are commonly arranged in an arc behind the cellos, either standing or sitting on high stools, usually with two players sharing a stand; though occasionally, due to the large width of the instrument, it is found easier for each player to have their own stand. There are not usually as many basses as cellos, so they are either in one row, or for a larger section, in two rows, with the second row behind the first.
Numbers and assignment of parts
The size of a string section may be expressed with a formula of the type (for example) 10-10-8-10-6, designating the number of first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, and basses. The numbers can vary widely; thus in a large orchestra they might be 14-14-12-12-10; the band orchestra in Darius Milhaud's La création du monde is 1-1-0-1-1. The numbers are usually even because there are normally a pair of players sharing the music on one stand.
The music for a string section is not necessarily written in five parts; parts can be assigned to more than one instrument, and sometimes certain instruments are omitted. Thus in music of the classical period, the cellos and double basses often play from the same music, their parts usually being notated on a single staff, with the bassist's played notes sounding one octave lower than written.
String section without violins
In Haydn's oratorio The Creation, the music to which God tells the newly created beasts to be fruitful and multiply achieves a rich, dark tone by its setting for divided viola and cello sections with violins omitted. Famous works without violins include the 6th of the Brandenburg Concerti by Bach, Second Serenade of Brahms, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem, and Philip Glass's opera Akhnaten. Fauré's original versions of his Requiem and Cantique de Jean Racine were without violin parts, there being parts for 1st and 2nd viola, and for 1st and 2nd cello; though optional violin parts were added later by publishers.
String section without violas
Handel often wrote works for strings without violas: for example many of his Chandos Anthems. Mozart's masses and offertories written for the Salzburg cathedral routinely dispensed with violas, as did his dances. Leonard Bernstein omitted violas from West Side Story.
String section without violins or violas
Division of instrumental parts in a section
It is also possible for more than one part to be assigned to instruments in a section; this practice is designated with the Italian term divisi (abbreviated div.). Thus when violins are omitted, as in Haydn's oratorio The Creation, and in Fauré's Requiem and Cantique de Jean Racine, the violas and cellos are divided. For the second movement of his Sixth Symphony, Beethoven specifies that the cellos must be divided thus: two players cover a more ornate part while the remainder play the bass part an octave higher. Probably more frequent are cases where a section is divided only for a brief period. Other than in special cases such as the Beethoven movement just mentioned, the normal procedure for divisi passages is that the "outside" player at a music stand (the one closer to the audience) takes the upper part, the "inside" player the lower. This practice is often taken to extremes for special effect, with divisions into more than two parts: for example in the orchestral music of Richard Strauss.
In other musical genres
"String section" is also used to describe a group of bowed string instruments used in rock, pop, jazz and commercial music. In this context the size and composition of the string section is less standardised, and usually smaller, than a classical complement.
- Stanley Sadie's Music Guide, p. 56 (Prentice-Hall 1986). Nicolas Slonimsky described the cellos-on-the-right arrangement as part of a 20th-century "sea change" (Lectionary of Music, p. 342 (McGraw-Hill 1989).
- [author missing] (1948). "Orchestra" in Encyclopedia Americana, OCLC 1653189 ASIN B00M99G7V6[page needed].
- Gassner, "Dirigent und Ripienist" (Karlsruhe 1844). Rousseau's Dictionnaire de musique (1768), however, has a figure showing second violins facing the audience and principals facing the singers, reflecting the concertmaster's former role as conductor.
- Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, online edition, article "Orchestra", section 6.
- Size of the String Section in Popular Music Recordings, F.G.J.Absil, 2010