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While listening to Brahms Symphony no. 1, I noticed that there is an interesting stereo effect, alternating left and right, (to my untrained ear) between the violins and the cellos/double basses, at 31:00 of the following recording, especially present at 31:06.

It made me wonder if this is an intentional use of the locations of the players for effect, or just an artifact of a stereo recording? Would this be noticeable in a live performance (even if only from a close center position)? Is this a common technique in orchestral music?

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    Now you've got me wanting to see an orchestra where each instrument is seated in a random position. That'd be really interesting to hear. – BruceWayne Jan 12 '18 at 6:25
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    We absolutely do, though it depends on the Composer. We call it “spatialization”. – jjmusicnotes Jan 12 '18 at 12:29
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    A little bit of a non-sequitur; as others have noted, composers have long used standard seating positions to great effect. Some more modern classical music will deliberately place some musicians in other places (e.g. under the stage, down a hallway, on a balcony) to provide a spacial effect which couldn't be done with standard seating positions. – AJFaraday Jan 12 '18 at 13:51
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    @BruceWayne I had a director in high school who occasionally made us do exactly that to force us to listen around the room instead of just our stand partner. It's a strange experience to be sure. – bendl Jan 12 '18 at 16:46
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Absolutely! Especially in the Classical period, where the 1st & 2nd violins were seated on opposite sides of the stage.

This allowed for antiphonal effects like this easily heard one in the coda of the 4th movement of Beethoven 7 (about 50 secs before the end): Betthoven 7 - 4th mvt - coda The effect of the 1st & 2nd violins tossing the enter image description here motif back and forth would be audible in performances where the conductor uses antiphonal seating (1sts on the left, 2nds on the right). I went back to an old Klemperer recording & found that yes, the 1sts very clearly come out left speaker & the 2nds out of the right.

You will also find it in the orchestral & chamber music of other composers in the Classical period as a matter of style. Indeed, earlier musical periods also saw composers consciously use the placement of musicians for spatial effect: e.g. Gabrielli. And also in later periods composers were conscious of the spatial effect of performers, for example:

  • Berlioz: Grand Messe des Morts - 4 brass bands placed around the hall
  • Mahler: Symphony No. 8 - Solo soprano singing from the organ loft.

In your specific example, i think the effect that was more in Brahms' mind was the registeral contrast between the upper & lower strings. I would suggest that the throwing of the motif between left & right is an artefact of this recording in that Bernstein is using the modern string seating (v1, v2, va, vc, db). Had the seating been antiphonal (v1, db, vc, va, v2), the stereo effect would be gone, but (perhaps) the registeral difference emphasised.

  • Fascinating! Thank you very much for the detailed explanation, examples and the theory about my specific recording. – Eli Iser Jan 12 '18 at 2:17
  • Thanks, @EliIser. Don't forget to accept my answer if you think it sufficiently answers your question. – Dean Ransevycz Jan 12 '18 at 4:46
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    The choir in Neptune in Holst's The Planets is another famous example. (Yes, I know, one could come up with an unending and ever more obscure list -- the off-stage horn coda in Britten's Serenade, ... -- but The Planets is particularly well known.) – David Richerby Jan 12 '18 at 16:12
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    @DavidRicherby - as long as someone remembers not to close the door... – Tim Jan 12 '18 at 17:13
  • Mahler exploited spatial effects nearly as well as Berlioz. His earliest major work, Das klagende Lied, calls for an offstage band, as does his 2nd symphony. Other works relying on spatialization include Britten’s War Requiem, Dutilleux’s Second Symphony, and Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia. (The last is especially exceptional because it calls for parts to be played specifically by the last desks in each string section!) – aeismail Jan 13 '18 at 4:19
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For an extreme example, take a look at Vaclav Nehlybel's "Antiphonale" , in which a bunch of brass are placed at the rear of the auditorium. In this case the composer specified instrument placement.

I have not seen, personally, any orchestra which changed its seating pattern (e.g. from all violins stage right over to seconds on stage left, etc) from one piece to another or even one performance to another, so the thought that composers wrote to take advantage of section placement seems unlikely to me.

  • I've seen at least one performance with the second violins stage left, but it was a long while ago so I can't even recall which orchestra it was, let alone whether they usually seat the seconds next to the firsts or if they changed the seating at the interval (I doubt they would have done that). – David Richerby Jan 12 '18 at 16:17
  • Antiphonale is indeed an interesting listen with the back and forth between the two sets of brass. Thank you! – Eli Iser Jan 12 '18 at 18:03
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    @EliIser For the ultimate in antiphonal brass choirs spread around the four cardinal points of the cathedral, listen to a good rendition of Berlioz's Requiem. – Michael C Jan 13 '18 at 2:47
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Some composers make specific use of this effect. An often-quoted example is Giovanni Gabrieli's music designed to be performed in St. Mark's Church, Venice, with its multiple possible locations for musicians.

But I wouldn't read too much spatial intent when a classical composer throws a tune between 1st and 2nd violins, even when they might be seated at opposite sides of the conductor. We have become used to a very detailed style of stereo recording, with a clearly defined sound stage. It's just not like that in most concert halls!

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