Antiphonal seating

August 29, 2017, 6:18 AM · Do certain orchestral pieces benefit from an antiphonal seating of the violin sections? Does it allow for greater transparency across the string sections? I remember that the Boston Symphony had this seating for a short time under James Levine. I believe orchestras use it in recording certain pieces.

Replies (17)

August 29, 2017, 6:55 AM · I found this text, chapter 14 of the text "The Idiomatic Orchestra".
August 29, 2017, 11:12 AM · The Bach "Double" will benefit from split violin sections!

I have even seen the layout changed during the interval.

August 29, 2017, 2:13 PM · The common modern set-up is convenient for the conductor; it matches what he sees on the score; 1 vln, 2 vln, vla, cello.
For community, low-budget, or student orchestras, the antiphonal set-up has an extra acoustical advantage. Having the 2nd violins to the right of the conductor muffles and mellows their sound, which is what we want. And we can load up the 2nd vln section with extra volunteers, without messing up the balance. Meanwhile, the Viola section is usually small and weak. Putting them next to the 1st violins will increase their apparent volume a little. jq
August 29, 2017, 2:19 PM · It really depends on the composer!
Works in which the seconds do "second" the firsts benefit from proximity, while a truly independent part will be better in "stereo".
August 29, 2017, 9:19 PM · A lot of music was written for that seating--Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler--putting the two violin sections together was a 20th century innovation and had to do with recording technology of the time.

Here's a great explanation by Herbert Blomstedt on the subject of violin seating:

August 30, 2017, 5:54 AM · I had never seen antiphonal orchestra seating until I attended a concert of the Adelaide (AU) symphony in 1987. I thought it seemed to muffle the 2nd violin sound some - but where I was sitting in the 2nd balcony spoiled a lot more sound than that.

I now regularly play in a 30-piece conductor-less chamber orchestra which places the 1st & 2nd violins antiphonally. This is very important for this combo and it allows the principal 2nd violinist direct visual communication with the concertmaster and opens up lines of sight to the cellos (adjacent to the 1sts) and violas as well as the winds.

Also, moving the cellos so their f-holes face the audience improves getting their lower tones to the audience. The violas - I don't know - does anyone ever hear the violas, wherever they sit?

Edited: August 30, 2017, 7:44 AM · That's a good point about the f-holes, Andrew. I like to hear the lower tones some more. Interesting insights and links everybody. I think Elgar's music benefits from an antiphonal arrangement. I'm thinking of his Enigma variations and Violin Concerto - the multi-layered string parts. I would prefer to hear the Bach Double with the first and seconds separated!
August 30, 2017, 8:14 AM · Andrew - adding a viola section is like peeing in your pants: Nobody sees it, nobody hears it , but it gives that nice warm feeling......
August 30, 2017, 8:19 AM · Getting back to the topic: many years ago we used that seating in our local youth orchestra with the cellos and seconds swopping place. Part of that time I was the leader of the seconds and quite liked the setup. But some music is obviously written with a different setup in mind - the melody moving through the orchestra from basses to cellos to violas to seconds to firsts and with that setup it becomes more of a jumping around than a smooth move.
August 30, 2017, 9:26 AM · Bo, I can't stop laughing.
Edited: August 30, 2017, 6:14 PM · Always happy to provide that nice warm feeling. It's like musical friendship, the glue that holds everything together.

Or something else.

September 11, 2017, 4:18 PM · Surely - earlier music was often antiphonal, with seconds answering firsts, whereas later symphonies (Brahms, Tchaikovsky) often have firsts and seconds in octaves. For the latter, it helps the firsts having the seconds next to them.
In practice, it depends on the conductor. Whenever I played for Sir Adrian Boult, I think he always had seconds on the right (his right).
Basically, if you're in an orchestra, you sit where you're put!
September 11, 2017, 6:24 PM · Tchaikovsky symphonies do often have the violin sections in octaves, but Brahms symphonies have quite a bit of antiphonal writing in them--just think of letter B in the first movement of the 2nd symphony.
September 11, 2017, 6:51 PM · Jacob, if you REALLY can't stop laughing, you might end up giving yourself that nice warm feeling ...
September 11, 2017, 7:33 PM · Maybe I'm old-school, but I'm pretty anti-phonal in orchestra. Those millennials are always checking their phones. Funny thing is, they think they can hide it by ducking down behind their stand.
September 12, 2017, 4:45 AM · I've just returned from vacation (blog here ). While in Salzburg we heard the Vienna Philharmonic perform Mahler's 7th. Split strings (1st violins L, 2nd violins R). The antiphonal effects were amazing; particularly in the Scherzo where the melody appeared as a whirlwind blowing across the entire orchestra.

And of course there's the finale of Beethoven's 7th, where the violins pass the melody to one another. Listen to Carlos Kleiber's recording.

I've read (but don't have time to look up where) that divided violins was the traditional setup. Seating 2nd violins next to 1sts began with Leopold Stokowski; when filming Disney's Fantasia, he wanted to be shown in profile while conducting and believed his left was his "good side". As there are antiphonal effects throughout the standard repertoire, I'd have to presume that combining violins to one side is a more recent innovation.

September 12, 2017, 9:52 AM · If you can convince the second violins to play left handed, you get an amazing sound!

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