A recent trip to a major symphony orchestra to see Beethoven's Missa solemnis led me to wonder. In every performance of this work I've seen, the soloists have been placed at the back of the stage, just in front of, or sometimes as part of, the chorus. By comparison, in many other classical works, such as the Mozart Requiem, Beethoven's Mass in C, and the Verdi Requiem, I've always seen the soloists at the front of the stage, in their "usual" positions.

Are there specific reasons why, in certain works, soloists will be at the back of the stage—particularly in "older" music where the composer may not have thought it necessary to indicate a stage position other than at the front of the platform, by the conductor?


Before I answer your question, this is the BBC orchestra performing the Missa Solemnis with soloists in front.

To answer your question, I will ask another question: Why are there dozens of different wind ensemble setups? Why are there different setups for orchestras and choirs? The answer to this question is that each setup creates a different sound and allows ensemble members to hear the one another different.

Different ensemble setups are also created for different group skill levels. You wouldn't put a middle-school choir in a mixed quartet setup; nor would you have them sing 4-part music for that matter.

Soloists are often put at the front of the stage for clarity of text, projection, and balance - that's why orchestras play in pits for opera. If the soloists are put elsewhere, it could be for dramatic effect or to take better advantage of the space. One great example of this is Benjamin Britten's War Requiem where in the premiere at Coventry Cathedral the two male soloists were placed on one side with the full orchestra and the female soloist was placed with the children's choir and chamber orchestra on the other side.

If space is cramped, there may not be anywhere for the soloists to go except squished by the orchestra unfortunately. If space is not cramped and there is no viable reason for them to be back there, then it is an oversight of the conductor and director as they will be that much harder to understand.

With respect to the Missa Solemnis specifically, Beethoven was well into beginning to lose his hearing, so I doubt it mattered much to him anyway - especially because he never actually heard the entire piece premiered in his lifetime.

I am not aware of any specific historical practice with respect to placement of soloists in front of the choir.

Hope that helps.

  • Thanks for the answer. However, a few points: (1) My middle-school choir did four-part music--quite often, in fact! (2) I think you have the soloist disposition in the War Requiem backwards (remembering the photos I've seen). (3) I've noticed this phenomenon with certain works, and not others, in the same venue with the same forces. For instance, I've seen the BSO do the Verdi and Mozart Requiems and place the soloists out front, but not for the Missa Solemnis!
    – aeismail
    Jan 9 '13 at 12:05
  • To respond to your comment: 1.) That's impressive! I'm envious of your middle school program. 2.) Yes, you are correct! Please excuse me. I wrote a research paper on it and some of the information has gotten a little garbled over time. 3.) The only other thing I can think of would be that it was an old performance practice of simply having vocalists near vocalists - take Haydn for example: [link]youtube.com/watch?v=S03cwGuw43s Jan 11 '13 at 21:06
  • Verdi did live much longer beyond Beethoven's life, but he could have been just using an old technique - or Beethoven could have been trying to break the convention by having the soloists be away from the chorus. After all, the 9th symphony doesn't use the choir or soloists until the last movement, so they have to sit there like ducks the entire time. Jan 11 '13 at 21:07

I always got the feeling this was historical - that having the depth of stage to allow for separation of soloist and choir was relatively uncommon, and certainly less common than it is now with many venues having large stage areas.

It is also sometimes the case that the soloists only step out of the body of the choir for particular pieces, and that seems to be a couple of metres in front of the choir.

Heading right out to the front of the stage has a nice dramatic emphasis, but I'm wondering whether it has come about just as a result of the increased area available, and the increasing fame of soloists over the years.

  • Thanks for the answer, but I think this misses the mark somewhat. I was curious about placement of soloists when there's an orchestra involved. The "couple of metros" argument doesn't normally apply in those circumstances, because the typical stage is packed full of choristers and instrumentalists in such circumstances. My question is then: why do they place soloists with the chorus for some orchestral works, but at the front of the platform for others? Is it a historical tradition for those works, or is something else at work?
    – aeismail
    Mar 1 '12 at 14:33
  • My final paragraph covers my thoughts on that.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Mar 1 '12 at 14:50

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