I asked a question on the arrangement of the string parts in Music Fans recently: Question in Music Fans.

I asked there since the question was inspired by a particular performance of a particular piece: Beethoven's Eroica by the CBSO. I received one excellent answer there which included a link to a very interesting paper.

However, the question is larger than just that one piece and it was suggested that I try here as well.

One surprising thing that I have already learned is that what I previously regarded as the normal arrangement, second violins behind the first, is relatively new. So, one of my questions, whether Beethoven specified the antiphonal arrangement is moot: he probably didn't since that was normal practice at the time.

I have seen plenty of information on how the composition of the orchestra has developed but less on its arrangement.

What is known of the development of the arrangement of the orchestra? For example, was it standardised in Mozart's time, subject to the conductor's whim per performance, ...

  • It's not standardized now. Apr 18 '17 at 11:23
  • I may get that impression since most of the concerts that I attend are by the same orchestra: CBSO. They usually sit the same way: Violin 1 to the left of the conductor then in a sweep around him: Violin 2, Viola, and Cello to his right. Basses behind the cellos. So, when they rearranged for one piece, it was very noticeable. What other arrangements are common today?
    – badjohn
    Apr 18 '17 at 11:39
  • Violin 1 left, Violin 2 right, violas left rear, celli right rear (as the conductor faces the orch). Basses far right -- tho' due to space limitations, the amateur orch I play in stuffs them into the far left :-). Apr 18 '17 at 12:25

Beethoven didn't specify it, because that was just "how it was" in his time.

Historically, in the baroque and early classical era (i.e. Haydn, but not so much Mozart), the principal orchestral instruments (in the sense of the most numerous/loudest/usually played the main tune) were often oboes, not violins, and they were arranged in a line across the full width of the orchestra space. For example, Handel conducted performances of his own music with as many as 24 oboes in the orchestra!

When the string section increased in size and replaced the oboes, the "obvious" thing to do was keep the same arrangement. It also makes antiphonal effects between the 1st and 2nd violins obvious, both visually (because of the bowing) and audibly.

Also note that in the baroque era, orchestras often performed with all the players standing, except for instruments like the cello where this was impossible. That has an influence on the amount of physical space required for the performers, and hence on their overall arrangement.

The later arrangement (the current "standard" of the string sections arranged as sectors of an circle from 1st violins on the left to basses on the far right) was presumably devised to avoid the antiphonal effect, and create a homogeneous sound for the complete string section.

Incidentally, the orchestral seating arrangements for theatrical performances have often followed different rules (or no rules at all!) because of the limited space available.

  • Thanks. My recent reading has led me to find some of that. I had forgotten but in one of the proms a few years ago, there was a performance of "authentic" Handel which was very different and interesting. Unfortunately, I forget the name of the ensemble. How the music dictates the layout is what particularly interested me. In the concert that I refer to, it was interesting to see that the conductor felt it worth rearranging the orchestra in the interval. I felt that it worked very well for the Eroica.
    – badjohn
    Apr 18 '17 at 13:50

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