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A question came up recently about the practice of specifying the performing forces for a score using a string of numbers (e.g. 2-2-1-1, etc), and I expressed surprise that it bothered to also make a specific request for the numbers of strings (3-3-2-2-1, meaning three first violins, three seconds, two violas, two cellos, and one bass). An earlier question mentioned the much odder 2-1-2-1-1 (only one second violin, but two violas).

I'm not used to seeing string forces mentioned so explicitly—normally it's assumed that there is a section each for first, seconds, violas, cellos, and basses, and the exact numbers are up to the conductor to determine an appropriate balance, as well as the budget and availability. I assume that these pieces are not making unusual and highly specific requirements about the exact size of the ensemble, like Histoire du Soldat or the chamber-orchestra version of Appalachian Spring. I've seen this numeral code used in information sent out to players, but not on scores. But on the other hand, not being a conductor, I don't spend a lot of time looking at scores. Is this a more common practice than I thought? Is it, perhaps, meant only to indicate the minimum number on each part (i.e. "2-1-2-1-1" means that first violins and violas have 2-way divisi so you must have at least two of each, but of course could also have two seconds and two cellos if you wanted? Is this practice, perhaps, more common in materials aimed at school orchestras?

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  • I can't say I know for certain, but I think that your suggestion that the number is indicative of divisi in the section is the most likely. I can't see any likely circumstance in which you would have the same number of basses as second violins, and in 20 years of playing from high school to college to pro I've never come across that scenario! Dec 15, 2021 at 14:23
  • OTOH, while "3-3-2-2-1" for divisi purposes is not inconceivable, it's pretty dense! Dec 15, 2021 at 14:25
  • Might want to get an entire Mahler chord just from the upper strings :) Dec 15, 2021 at 14:29
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    ... In the youth orchestra catalog, Detlev Ganert's Drei Tänze says "strings(min.6.5.4.3.2)", and the blurb does mention "abundant, colourful orchestration" (lol—that's one way to put it!). Meanwhile, though, Elena Kats-Chernin's Retonica makes the amazing request for "strings(12.10.8.8.6)," and although the sample pages show two-way divisi, nothing to suggest 12! And other promotional materials mention only "strings." Dec 15, 2021 at 14:42
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    So I'm guessing those three examples show a mix of "specifying performing forces out of the ordinary," "indicating minimums needed for divisi situations" (looks like maybe the Glanert is a youth-orchestra arrangement of a work originally using "two orchestras," one having simply "strings" and the other having an extra violin and bass?), and "misguidedly asking for what the composer considers a nice size and balance." Dec 15, 2021 at 14:47

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It's unusual to specify the exact number of string players, except for cases where the strings are explicitly soloists (e.g. Richard Strauss "Metamorphosen" for 23 solo strings). Often the minimum number is obvious from the score: if there is a 8-way divisi written, then you need at least that many players on a part. But there are certain composers who did specify the number of players. Richard Strauss did this often:

  • "Also sprach Zarathustra": 16.16.12.12.8
  • "Der Rosenkavalier": 16.16.12.10.8
  • "Don Quixote": 16.16.12.10.8
  • "Sinfonia Domestica": 16.16.12.10.8
  • "Elektra" specifies 24 violins in three sections (I, II, III), 18 vla, 12 vcl, 8 b

Edgard Varése "Arcana" calls for 16.16.14.12.10

Wagner's "die Walküre" calls for at least 16 each of violin I and II.

Schoenberg in his "Gurre-Lieder" specifies that the violins are each 10-way divisi, but with multiple players on each part (i.e. at least 20).

Berlioz "Symphonie fantastique": at least 15.15.10.11.9

Havergal Brian "Gothic" Symphony: 20.20.16.14.12

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  • And looks like, in Zarathustra, once the divisis get going, he makes quite specific demands even about which chair is on which line: see p 18! Note for others: This first edition doesn't use the string-of-numerals notation, but says, e.g., "Saiteninstrumente: 16 erste, 16 zweite Violinen," etc. Thanks for some examples prior to the 20th-century youth-orchestra industry! Dec 15, 2021 at 20:43
  • @AndyBonner The string of numerals is probably a fairly recent invention.
    – PiedPiper
    Dec 15, 2021 at 22:07
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    If Wikipedia is to be believed, Berlioz specifies at least 15.15.10.11.9 for the Symphonie fantastique. Dec 16, 2021 at 13:25
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    Elektra poses a unique problem. Twice in the opera the six Viola I players are asked to double on the Violin, and in those sections of the full score Strauss changes from three to four violin parts and from three to two viola parts (in fact, the part is labeled "Viola I e Violino IV." Whether or not the players are supposed to change instruments has been debated--there are rests in their part before the changeovers.
    – DjinTonic
    Feb 16, 2023 at 17:56
  • @DjinTonic It seems obvious that the players are supposed to change instruments. Outside of classical orchestras it's common for a player to double on both violin and viola.
    – PiedPiper
    Feb 20, 2023 at 16:04
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No, typically this short summary is not in the score, but I have a book, which lists the required players for many pieces on several hundred pages. (David Daniels, Orchestral Music - no affiliation to author or publisher.)

For some pieces the durations of movements and available editions are listed, too. For an idea I include an example here: exceprt Beehoven The title page of a full orchestral score will nearly always list all the instruments appearing later, even if they have nothing to play on that page, for a quite similar reason.

From my point of, the focus is not on the numbers in the strings (they can always adjusted proportionally; you will notice, that in the picture above no separation of strings is done anyway, they are just str), but what else is required. Smaller, non-professional orchestras may need to know, which of Haydn's symphonies they can manage to perform without hiring external musicians.

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No, it's not very common to specify number of string players in orchestral pieces.

An orchestra might decide to use reduced forces in an early Classical symphony or concerto, in the interests of authenticity (and perhaps balance). But Mozart didn't ASK for limited numbers. We just infer that that was all he had!

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  • Hehe, and "performing forces dictated by availability" is its own interesting topic, from Bach to Histoire to Quartet for the End of Time... Dec 15, 2021 at 16:01
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In some cases there might be a different explanation. When renting material the numbers will probably show number of copies included for each string part, say 4 first violine.

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    Thanks! My question wasn't about what the notation meant, though, so much as how common it is to specify the proportions of strings at all. Dec 15, 2021 at 20:45

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