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In several Barenreiter editions of string quartets, the indication Violino I is used to designate the first violin in the score. This makes perfect sense, as violino is the Italian singular form of violin, and it is to be played by one player.

In the Barenreiter edition of Mozart's symphonies, however, the same term is applied where the part is to be played by an entire section of first violinists in an orchestra. I know this is common in orcehstral scoring, and the composer rarely if ever specifies an exact number of strings. We all sort of know that the first violin part may be in fact 12 people. But it leaves some ambiguity when studying his other work.

For example, in Mozart's Credo mass k257, how does one know how many violins are intended? Mozart scored the work for 2 oboes, 2 trumpets (clarini), violin 1, violin 2, timpani, and basso continuo. The Barenreiter again uses the singular form violino.. Where should I look to learn what number of violinists is reasonable? Nothing is mentioned in the editor's note.

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  • Related: music.stackexchange.com/questions/119105/…
    – PiedPiper
    Mar 27, 2023 at 17:12
  • "Nothing is mentioned in the editor's note": are you looking for information about the performing forces that may have been used in a particular church where the mass may have been performed or for information to help decide how many string players to use for a modern performance?
    – phoog
    Mar 27, 2023 at 18:05
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    For trying to math specific historical performances, The Birth of the Orchestra by Spitzer & Zaslow is a great resource. It doesn't address K257 specifically, but its premier was in Salzburg in 1776. In 1775, a Salzburg Kapelle performance used 10 violins, probably 5 first, 5 seconds (p. 536). On the other hand, a 1774 Paris concert has 26 violins, and a 1775 Dresden Kapelle has 19. But then the same year the Kassel Kappelle has only 8. Mar 27, 2023 at 19:01
  • @AndyBonner ensemble size for liturgical music will generally be limited by available space in the church. Salzburg cathedral has a relatively sizeable organ loft if I recall correctly. I don't think any of the churches in Kassel were particularly large.
    – phoog
    Mar 29, 2023 at 23:39
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    You should think of the term "Violino 1" as "the first violin part", rather than any other inference about singular/plural numbers of players.
    – benwiggy
    Apr 3, 2023 at 8:47

3 Answers 3

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Generally orchestras playing music of the classical era, for example Mozart, use smaller string sections than orchestras playing romantic or later works. Even orchestras that have much larger string sections available will reduce them for Mozart. For the first violins, anything from about three to eight (most likely four or five), and the rest of the string section proportionally. In the case of a choral work like K257, the strings section might be enlarged a bit if the choir is very large.

In the end it's the conductor's decision.

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how does one know how many violins are intended?

One way is to look at the churches where the piece was performed and at the surviving performance materials. The most obvious conclusion is that Mozart expected the string sections to be of a size appropriate to the venue: larger for larger churches, larger for more festive occasions, and (of course) able to fit in the allocated space, for example in the organ loft.

I did not find any evidence of the venues in which Mozart's Salzburg masses were performed. Obviously they would have been performed in the cathedral, but they were probably also performed in other churches in the city, of which some are considerably smaller. I imagine there is research along these lines; I just don't see it in my usual online resources, and I don't have ready access to it in printed form.

Looking at the mass in question, we can see that there is a set of parts held by the Salzburg archdiocese. Twenty-nine of the 40 parts date from Mozart's lifetime, including three parts for each voice of the choir and two parts for each violin section (and trombones, presumably doubling the three lower choral parts). This suggests that there were as many as 8 violinists for at least one performance during his life, though that doesn't of course guarantee that he was involved in such a performance.

There is also a 1776 set of parts held by the diocesan archive of Bressanone, the neighboring diocese to the southwest. This set comprises 20 parts, of which four were copied by a different person; these four include second copies of each violin part (and the only copies of each oboe part).

It's also worth noting that none of this implies that Mozart wouldn't have expected the mass to be performed in a smaller church with smaller forces.

In general, the flexible approach to the forces employed shows that the idea that there is a single canonical version of a piece is flawed. Many composers revise their work for subsequent performances. If Mozart might add winds or trombones to an existing mass, it's surely to be expected that he might omit them in certain circumstances. In the context of such flexibility, we shouldn't expect that Mozart had any number of strings in mind other than "an ensemble of a size appropriate to the venue and the occasion."


It occurred to me that there might be more information in the German Wikipedia article on the mass than in the English, and indeed that is the case. The latter says

The first performance was in Salzburg in November 1776.

The former says

Die Messe wurde am 17. November 1776 im Salzburger Dom uraufgeführt, Anlass war die Weihe des Salzburger Domherren Ignaz von Spaur (1729–1779) durch Erzbischof Hieronymus zum Bischof. Spaur war seit 1755 Domherr zu Salzburg und seit 1763 Kanonikus in Brixen gewesen. 1776 trat er das Amt des Bistumskoadjutors von Brixen ... an.

My translation; I've chosen not to translate Domherr because I can't find a dictionary that includes it:

The mass was first performed on November 17th, 1776, in the Salzburg cathedral for the consecration of Domherr Ignaz von Spaur (1729-1779) as bishop by Archbishop Hieronymus. Spaur had been Domherr of Salzburg since 1755 and since 1763 Canon in Bressanone. In 1776 he assumed the office of coadjutor bishop in Bressanone....

This tells us that the mass was indeed written for a festive performance in the cathedral, suggesting a larger complement of violins. Some questions that remain unanswered include

  • could more than two players perform from each part? (Perhaps more to the point, was the cost of producing a part so high that players might actually be doing that?)

  • could there have been extra (low-quality) parts that players might have used for practice or even in performance that were not kept in the archdiocesan library?

  • are there financial records shedding light on the composition of the performing ensemble?

  • where in the cathedral were the performers stationed? How much room is there?

The German article also notes that Leopold Mozart mentioned this mass in a letter to his wife and son:

Der Erzbischof von Ollmütz ist den 17t geweiht worden. hättest Du in Manheim nicht so viel für andere Leute zu thun gehabt, so hättest Du Deine Messe aus machen und mir schicken können. ... ich machte des Wolfg: Meße mit dem Orgl Solo. Das kyrie aber aus der Spaur Messe; ließ sie schreiben, und bekamm die 6 Duccatten richtig.

My translation:

The archbishop of Ollmütz was consecrated on the 17th. If you hadn't had so much to do for others in Mannheim you could have written out your mass and sent it to me. ... I did the Wolfg: mass with the organ solo, but the Kyrie from the Spaur mass; had it written out, and got the 6 ducats.

It doesn't tell us anything about the number of violins, but it does support the conclusion that these pieces were subject to adaptation as circumstances dictated.

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  • My German-English dictionary translates Domherr as "canon", meaning: "a member of the clergy who is on the staff of a cathedral, especially one who is a member of the chapter". Apr 7, 2023 at 17:06
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    @ElementsinSpace yes, I found that translation too, but since the German original uses the title Domherr for Salzburg and Kanonikus for Brixen I did not want to obscure the distinction by translating both as "Canon."
    – phoog
    Apr 7, 2023 at 20:24
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The number intended was dictated by the number available! Doubtless fewer than the 10-12 First Violin players in a full modern symphony orchestra.

Maybe Mozart would have revelled in the richer sound of more players (12 violins are only marginally louder than 6, but the sound is different). That was the thinking for a long time - 'If you've got them, use them!' The modern trend is to go for 'authenticity' and cut the section down to our best guess at what Mozart had available. Some times we can make a more informed guess than others.

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  • The number available and the space available for them in the choir loft.
    – phoog
    Mar 29, 2023 at 19:45

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