FAQs- string numbers

Dear Ken …

I have a question I’m hoping you can answer. I’ve asked this question to several string players, who don’t have an answer. I realized I needed to ask a conductor!

The question is: in contemporary music, why do string sections still follow the conventional sizing? If, say, Violin I and Violin II are equal in importance, why not the same number for each? Or, why not even since Violin II is further away from the audience?

I ask this kind of hastily, because an excerpt of an opera I wrote has been accepted into the …………………festival this year, and they’ve asked me to increase the number of strings of my original version, which was for 2 violins and 2 cellos. The violin parts are equal (no dominant melody), as are the cellos. I am adding contrabass. Do you think would balance well? I realize that was a second question! ….

Best wishes,


Dear Chris

So nice to hear from you.

BIG CONGRATS on your opera breakthrough…

As a matter of fact, I’ve been dealing with this very question for a concert in a few weeks. I’m actually someone who prefers evenly matched violins even in some romantic and classical repertoire. In this case, we’re doing Enigma Variations with the Nottingham Philharmonic. Both Elgar and Mahler wrote with the expectation that the violins would be sat across from each other on the front of the stage, and wrote quite a bit of stereo-effect interplay, which gets totally lost when the seconds sit right behind the firsts. The example in Enigma is the 2nd Variation, where you should really hear the little perpetual motion theme going from ear to ear across the stage. Mahler took the idea much further, and in the 9th Symphony, he really makes the interplay between the 1sts and 2nds a key device, and in much of the piece it is the 2nds who are the prime melodic voice. It’s almost as if he assigns musical personalities to the two violin sections, but both are equally important, and equally strong. Even the beginning last movement of the Pathetique or the introduction to the last movement of Brahms 1 have stereo writing for the violins that would only make sense if the sections are equally strong and sat opposite of each other.

So, we’re actually using 14 15 12 12 6 for the Elgar, with the violins sat antiphonally. We’ve also taken some care to put two very strong players in the last stand of the outside row of the 2nds(when we asked them, the girl sitting on the outside, back corner said “Ah, you want me to sit in the suicide chair!”), since they’re the farthest away from the conductor and the concert master. It sounds silly, and maybe it is, but another consideration that may be important is that in some orchestras, members of the first violin section only play first violin. If the orchestra carries 16 firsts and 14 seconds and you want it the other way around, that means paying two subs to sit in the seconds and paying 2 firsts to sit at home, which may make one unpopular with the management, so it might be worth considering whether it’s better to use 12 and 14, so at least you’re not hiring subs, even though 4 players are still taking the week off. At least you’ll be very popular with the firsts.

Maybe because I’m a cellist, I’ve experimented with a slightly cello-heavy balance of strings in some pieces and in certain halls, and it can work really well. As a ridiculous generality, I find American halls tend to be a little bigger and more bass heavy that European ones, and therefore not so well suited to bigger cello sections and bass sections. I think the “standard” arrangement does have it’s benefits in some halls and some repertoire. I think the key is to think of it as not being a question of more higher voices, but less middle and lower ones. The idea is to have as much transparency of texture in the busiest ranges of the orchestra while still having a well balanced string sound. One is particularly looking to protect the woodwinds, who tend to have most of their material in the same register as the 2nds and violas. Again, if it’s a boomy room, taking away some middle voices might be helpful.

You said you wanted to ask a conductor….. You’ll notice my first instinct was to cite a composer. I think that if you have a concept for violin sections of equal strength, you should go for it, and sounds perfectly plausible to me. I would always avoid 2 player sections whenever I can- 1 or 3 invariably sounds better, whereas 2 players always, no matter how great they are, struggle to match both pitch and sound. Without looking at the score, I can only guess here, but to me 6 violas to 10 violins in each section looks a little thin, but if you want more transparency and aren’t giving them tons of contrapuntally important stuff it might be best. As a baseline, I would have gone, but it really depends on the color of playing you want.

Whatever you decide, good luck with it, and please keep in touch. It would be great to know what you’re writing. …..



 UPDATE- Chris let me know that the expanded orchestration quoted is acutally for 2 violin sections and 2 cello sections! GENIUS! Love it- more work for cellists, and days off for violists. I bet it will be a fantastic sound.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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1 comment on “FAQs- string numbers”

  1. Mikko Utevsky

    What’s the smallest string complement you would advise, specifically for romantic works? How low can you go for Tchaikovsky, or Brahms?

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