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So far, I have found and read a number of articles about the role and duties of an orchestra concertmaster, or first violinist. There is also this possibly related question which discusses the spatial arrangement of an orchestra, with the concertmaster in the most prominent position of the first violins.

But I am wondering how the role of the concertmaster has evolved over the centuries, and why this role is nowadays inextricably linked to the first violinist. I assume that there may be a historical or musical explanation why exactly the violinists fill that role, and not any other instrument section. Of course, this is not meant to start a fight about which section is more important or whatever. I'm just curious. So how did this tradition come about?

  • Just a guess but I wonder if your question has a clue to the answer. If the violins are always placed up front, and the first violinist is always seated in the chair closest to the conductor, then that is a reason to make that person the lieutenant to the conductor. – Todd Wilcox Jun 9 '17 at 20:53
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In the early history of the orchestra there was no regular "conductor." The ensemble was directed by one of the players, except on special occasions where large forces, or several groups of players and singers at different locations in a large building, were used.

In the Baroque period the musical director was usually the keyboard continuo player, who could give hand gestures to the rest of the performers as required. That practice continued into the early classical period. For example Haydn conducted his own symphonies from the keyboard, and in one of those that he wrote for his "celebrity tour" of England in 1791-95 (No 98), he even included a little keyboard solo for himself just before the end.

When the practise of including a keyboard player in the orchestra died out, the director's role was taken over by the principal violinist, for the practical reason that the rest of the orchestra could see and coordinate with his bow movements. At critical points in the music he could play standing up, for greater visibility.

In fact this coordination with leader's bowing still happens to some degree in modern orchestras, even though the conductor is the nominally the person directing the performance.

Orchestral conductors in the modern sense began to become common in the early 19th century, but the special status of the "leader" or "concert-master" has never been abolished.

In other ensembles, the role of "leader" has moved to the analogous position of the principal player of whatever instrument usually "carries the tune". For example, in concert wind bands it is usually the leader of the clarinet section, and in brass bands it is the principal cornet or trumpet.

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The string section is the musical backbone of the symphony orchestra, the other instruments add colour. The principal first violinist leads the string section. But there's more to it than that. The 'leader' or 'concertmaster' of a symphony orchestra has a role beyond that of the principal cornet in a brass band or the principal clarinettist in a wind band. He can act as a subsidary conductor. The conductor provides the impetus, the orchestra actually follows the concertmaster. This can lead to the observed phenomenon of a symphony orchestra playing considerably 'after the beat'. Different orchestras do this to different extents. It can be effective in classical repertoire. It can cause chaos in intricate modern works, and most orchestras realise it is inappropriate in these.

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A lot of the melodic content is played by the violins. Other instruments tend to play supporting harmonies, bass, or double parts for orchestral color. This is a generalization, but overall the violins take the main melodic part. It makes sense then the concertmaster role would go to a violinist.

  • Is this a supposition or is there any documentation behind it? If we're making educated guesses, it seems just as likely that regardless of what instrument is carrying the melody, the violin section is always going to be in the orchestra, so making the third or even first trombone the concertmaster (for example) makes no sense because the trombones might not even have to show up! – Todd Wilcox Jun 9 '17 at 20:52
  • Piston, Orchestration, chapter 1, first paragraph regarding strings as primary and winds and brass as accessory. – Michael Curtis Jun 10 '17 at 2:21
  • I'm not going to disagree with Piston, but the strings were only "primary" for a limited period in the classical era. In the baroque orchestra, the principal instrument (by numbers, and by melodic importance) was often the oboe. As early as Beethoven, the main function of the woodwind was often to play important solos, accompanied by the strings, rather than their earlier role of filling up the harmonic texture, which was their main function in the early classical period when the "wind and brass sections" were often only two oboes and two horns, plus a bassoon doubling the bass line. – user19146 Jun 12 '17 at 9:27
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    @alephzero, that's very interesting about the oboe. So, where does all this information come from originally, period letters and court records? – Michael Curtis Jun 12 '17 at 13:31

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