The following is the formation of the string quartet and the number of players required in present day orchestras, either in the theatre or concert-room:
In larger orchestras, the number of first violins may amount to 20 and even 24, the other strings being increased proportionately. But such a great quantity of strings over-powers the customary wood-wind section, and entails re-enforcing the latter. Sometimes orchestras contain less than 8 first violins; this is a mistake, as the balance between strings and wind is completely destroyed. In writing for the orchestra it is advisable to rely on a medium-sized body of strings. Played by a larger orchestra a work will be heard to greater advantage; played by a smaller one, the harm done will be minimized.
Suggestion Position of Strings in the Orchestra
[Editors Note: Some Orchestras have 1st & 2nd violins on either side of the stage] (positions may vary depending on the work,the venue the orchestra and other factors)
Video of Violins Playing in an Orchestra
Video of Cellos Playing in an Orchestra
Video of Double Basses Playing in an Orchestra
Whenever a group of strings is written for more than five parts-without taking double notes or chords into consideration-these parts may be increased by dividing each one into two, three and four sections, or even more (divisi). Generally, one or more of the principal parts is split up, the first or second violins, violas or violincellos. The players are then divided by desks, numbers 1, 3, 5 etc. playing the upper part, and 2, 4, 6 etc., the lower; or else the musician on the right-hand of each desk plays the top line, the one on the left the bottom line. Dividing by threes is less easy, as the number of players in one group is not always divisible by three, and hence the difficulty of obtaining proper balance.
Professor Belkin Comments: Using Divisi and Double Stops – While Rimsky explains various ways to divide the strings, he does not specify WHEN it is better to divide them, and when to use double stops. Apart from the obvious limits on the playability of double stops, the governing principle is as follows:
– use double stops for strong ACCENT
– use divisi for thinning down the sound
Playing more than 2 notes at a time on a string instrument always involves a slight rhythmic bump: 3 and 4 note chords need a short moment of preparation. Also they are never played completely simultaneously. Therefore, while they cannot be inserted seamlessly into a very quick or very legato line, IF the music requires a strong accent, they add lots of punch. IN cases where classical composers have written them into quick lines, conductors may divide a 4 note chord into 2 x 2.
Nevertheless there are cases where the composer should not hesitate to employ this method of dividing the strings, leaving it to the conductor to ensure equality of tone. It is always as well to mark how the passage is to be divided in the score; Vlns I, 1, 2, 3 desks, 6 ‘Cellos div. A 3, and so on Division into four and more parts is rare, but may be used in piano passages, as it greatly reduces volume of tone in the group of strings.
String parts may be divided thus:
Note: It is evident that the tone quality in b and e will be similar. Still b is preferable since the number of Vns II (14-10-6) and Violas (12-8-4) is practically the same, the respective roles of the two groups are more closely allied, and from the fact that second violins generally sit nearer to the violas than the first, thereby guaranteeing greater unity in power and execution.
The reader will find all manner of divisions in the musical examples given in Vol. II. Where necessary, some explanation as to the method of dividing strings will follow in due course. I dwell on the subject here in order to show how the usual composition of the string quartet may be altered.
Stringed instruments possess more ways of producing sound than any other orchestral group. They can pass, better than other instruments from one shade of expression to another, the varieties being of an infinite number. Species of bowing such as legato, detached, staccato, spiccato, portamento, martellato, light staccato, saltando, attack at the nut and at the point, and V V V(down bow and up bow), in every degree of tone, fortissimo, pianissimo, crescendo, diminuendo, sforzando, morendo-all this belongs to the natural realm of the string quartet.
Professor Belkin Comments: The “Quartet” – RK (and various other writers on orchestration) often refer to the string section as “the quartet”, despite the fact that it has five sections. This is because the normal role for the double basses in classical orchestration is to double and solidify the cellos with the same bass line an octave lower, leaving only four real parts. This is the “normal” sound of the string orchestra. Another reason for this terminology is that many of the basic ways of arranging the string orchestra derive in large part from the (solo) string quartet. N.B.: When RK uses this term he does NOT refer to a quartet of soloists within the orchestra!
The fact that these instruments are capable of playing double notes and full chords across three and four strings-to say nothing of sub-division of parts-renders them not only melodic but also harmonic in character.
Note: To give a list of easy three and four-note chords or to explain the different methods of bowing does not come within the scope of the present book.
From the point of view of activity and flexibility the violin takes pride of place among stringed instruments, then, in order, come the viola, ‘cello and double bass. In practice the notes of extreme limit in the string quartet should be fixed as follows:
Higher notes given in Table A, should only be used with caution, that is to say when they are of long value, in tremolando, slow, flowing melodies, in not too rapid sequence of scales, and in passages of repeated notes. Skips should always be avoided.
Note: In quick passages for stringed instruments long chromatic figures are never suitable; they are difficult to play and sound indistinct and muddled. Such passages are better allotted to the wood-wind.
A limit should be set to the use of a high note on any one of the three lower strings on violins, violas and ‘cellos. This note should be the one in the fourth position, either the octave note or the ninth of the open string.
Nobility, warmth, and equality of tone from one end of the scale to the other are qualities common to all stringed instruments, and render them essentially superior to instruments of other groups. Further, each string has a distinctive character of its own, difficult to define in words. The top string on the violin (E) is brilliant in character, that of the viola (A) is more biting in quality and slightly nasal; the highest string on the ‘cello (A) is bright and possesses a ‘chest-voice” timbre. The A and Dstrings on the violin and the D string on the violas and ‘cellos are somewhat sweeter and weaker in tone than the others. Covered strings (G), on the violin (G and C), on the viola and ‘cello are rather harsh. Speaking generally, the double bass is equally resonant throughout, slightly duller on the two lower strings (E and A), and more penetrating on the upper ones (D and G).
The rare ability to connect sounds, or a series of sounds, the vibration of stopped strings combined with their above-named qualities-warmth and nobility of tone-renders this group of instruments far and away the best orchestral medium of melodic expression. At the same time, that portion of their range situated beyond the limits of the human voice, e. g. notes on the violin higher than the extreme top note of the soprano voice, from
upwards, and notes on the double bass below the range of the bass voice, descending from
lose in expression and warmth of tone. Open strings are clearer and more powerful but less expressive than stopped strings.
Comparing the range of each stringed instrument with that of the human voice, we may assign: to the violin, the soprano and contralto voice plus a much higher range; to the viola, the contra alto and tenor voice plus a much higher register; to the ‘cello, the tenor and bass voices plus a higher register; to the double bass, the bass voice plus a lower range.
The use of harmonics, the mute, and some special devices in bowing produce great difference in the resonance and tone quality of all these instruments.
Professor Welter Comments: Harmonics – the loudest possible dynamic with harmonics is mp.
Harmonics, frequently used to day, alter the timbre of a stringed instrument to a very appreciable extent. Cold and transparent in soft passages, cold and brilliant in loud ones, and offering but little chance for expression, they form no fundamental part of orchestral writing, and are used simply for ornament. Owing to their lack of resonant power they should be used sparingly, and, when employed, should never be overpowered by other instruments. As a rule harmonics are employed on sustained notes, tremolando, or here and there for brilliant effects; they are rarely used in extremely simple melodies. Owing to a certain tonal affinity with the flute they may be said to form a kind of link between string and wood-wind instruments.
Another radical change is effected by the use of mutes. When muted, the clear, singing tone of the strings becomes dull in soft passages, turns to a slight hiss or whistle in loud ones, and the volume of tone is always greatly reduced.
Professor Brick Comments: Read this paragraph again! “Con Sordino” does not necessarily mean a passage will be “soft” it means the passage will be “softer” “Con Sordino” is a relative term. Folks new to the art of orchestration are always shy to write above mf “con sordino” You shouldn’t be shy. “Con Sordino in loud passages becomes a great coloration. This will also be of great importance when discussing the very cool little brass mutes and the very special types of woodwind mutes.
The position of the bow on the string will affect the resonance of an instrument. Playing with the bow close to the bridge (sul ponticello), chiefly used tremolando, produces a metallic sound; playing on the finger-board (sul tasto, flautando) creates a dull, veiled effect.
Note: Another absolutely different sound results from playing with the back or wood of the bow (col legno). This produces a sound like a xylophone or a hollow pizzicato. It is discussed under the heading of instruments of little sustaining power.
The five sets of strings with number of players given above produce a fairly even balance of tone. If there is any surplus of strength it must be on the side of the first violins, as they must be heard distinctly on account of the important part they play in the harmonic scheme. Besides this, an extra desk of first violins is usual in all orchestras, and as a general rule they possess a more powerful tone than second violins. The latter, with the violas, play a secondary part, and do not stand out so prominently. The ‘cellos and double basses are heard more distinctly, and in the majority of cases form the bass in octaves.
In conclusion, it may be said that the group of strings, as a melodic element, is able to perform all manner of passages, rapid and interrupted phrases of every description, diatonic or chromatic in character. Capable of sustaining notes without difficulty, of playing chords of three and four notes; adapted to the infinite variety of shades of expression, and easily divisible into numerous sundry parts, the string group in an orchestra may be considered as a harmonic element particularly rich in resource.