Musical Chairs: Why Orchestras Sit the Way They Do

Courtney Lewis, Conducting ElectricityLeave a Comment

One of the questions I’m asked most often is why the string sections of the Jacksonville Symphony sometimes change where they sit between pieces in a concert. Loyal symphony goers will remember that when I arrived in Jacksonville, we adopted two new positions for the string instruments. Your previous music director, Fabio Mechetti, preferred the common arrangement of first violins, second violins, violas, cellos and basses fanning from the left to right of the stage. Now we have two seatings: the first only slightly different from Fabio’s, with the violas on the outside (where the cellos previously sat) which I like for 20th-century repertoire. I’m told this was how the orchestra sat during Roger Nierenberg’s time. The second seating is completely different: the first and second violins sit facing each other on my left and right, with the cellos and basses beside the first violins, and the violas beside the seconds. You’d be surprised at how strong musicians’ and audience members’ opinions are on this matter, so let’s delve into a little musical history to explain how we’ve arrived where we are today.

There have been “orchestras” since ancient times, but the earliest we can go to understand our present is the classical period of Mozart and Beethoven, and especially Haydn. Ensembles before that (even in Bach’s day) were too sporadic to help in our quest. During his long tenure as composer in residence at the Esterhazy court in Austria, Joseph Haydn employed an orchestra of around 40. Much classical music involves antiphony, which we could describe as a conversational style of writing in which the first and second violins trade phrases with each other — an 18th-century stereo effect. Haydn organizes his orchestra with the first and second violins opposite each other so that these phrases could be heard coming from opposite sides of the stage. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, the position of almost every instrument on stage changed, except that of the first and second violins, which were nearly always on the left and right. When one looks at the score of a Beethoven symphony, it’s clear this is what he had in mind. The two violin parts trade off each other constantly.

Like just about everything, the orchestra grew exponentially during the 19th century. Large cities began to have permanent orchestras in which musicians enjoyed regular employment. The size of a symphony orchestra grew to around 100 musicians, which is pretty much what it is in big cities today. The stage plans of ensembles such as the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Berlin and New York Philharmonics, the Halle in Manchester and the Philadelphia Orchestra all show antiphonal violins sitting opposite. Even Tchaikovsky, writing his Sixth Symphony in 1893, expected such a seating, as is clear from the violin writing in the finale. So what happened?

Well, during the 19th century a new figure emerged in classical music — the conductor. Cue an eye-roll from all orchestral musicians. Until the time of Berlioz and Mendelssohn, orchestras had been led by either the concertmaster or the composer, who sat at a piano or harpsichord. The idea of a conductor with a baton who rehearsed the orchestra without playing an instrument only arose in the first decades of the 19th century as a necessity because of the growing size of orchestras. It’s relatively easy for an orchestra of 20 to play together without a conductor; it’s practically impossible for a group of 60 to a 100. As conductors grew in importance, they began to experiment with how the orchestra sat. Two figures played a pivotal role in the organization of the modern orchestra: Henry Wood, an Englishman who founded the London Promenade concerts that continue to this day, and Leopold Stokowski, also English (although he affected a peculiar central European accent) who conducted many American orchestras, notably the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Stokowski was a great experimenter, and he tried seating the orchestra in every imaginable way, always trying to find the ideal blend of sounds. On one occasion he horrified Philadelphians by placing the winds and brass in front of the strings. The board was outraged, arguing that the winds “weren’t busy enough to put on a good show.” But in the 1920s he made one change that stuck: he arranged the strings from high to low, left to right, arguing that placing all the violins together helped the musicians to hear one another better. The “Stokowski Shift,” as it became known, was adopted by orchestras all over America. In England, Henry Wood favored the same arrangement, leading to its adoption across the UK. Germany and Austria remained unimpressed.

So when we refer to violins together and cellos on the right as a “traditional” layout, we’re actually wrong. This layout is barely 100 years old, and would be anathema to any composer writing before the turn of the century. Even Mahler and Elgar, both composers who also conducted their own music with great orchestras, continued to write for antiphonal violins well into the 20th century. While it’s undeniable that having the violins together makes ensemble easier, the sacrifice of losing the conversation between the first and second violins is enormous.

As the Stokowski Shift became more common, we see composers adjusting the way they wrote for the orchestra. In his Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich divides the violins into three parts. This is only possible if the first and seconds are sitting together. As the century progressed, the classical style of conversational writing between the first and second violins tended to shift to a preference for both sections playing melodies together, with the seconds often supporting the firsts an octave lower. It makes little sense to play Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky or Copland with the first and second violins split.

My own feeling is that we should seat the orchestra as the composer imagined. Now, there are many anachronistic flaws in this argument since there is so much we don’t know about exactly how each orchestra sat in a particular time and place. But for me, two things matter. First, when the violins are all grouped together in classical repertoire I really miss the sound of them talking to each other. I want to hear the conversation, and I want to hear melody in both ears, not all crammed into my left. You can only do this in an excellent concert hall. In many venues, even good ones, the violins can’t hear each other well enough across the stage to achieve good ensemble when they’re split, and one has to compromise. During my time at the Minnesota Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, both orchestras abandoned split violins. But in Jacoby Hall the violins can hear well, and with a little patience we can achieve good ensemble. Secondly, when we play 20th century repertoire, I want the strength of sound that comes from all the violins grouped together. If this means we have to move around a little during a concert, it’s a price worth paying.

But, I hear you say, when the violins are together, why are the violas on the right? We miss seeing the cellos! This seating became common in Germany and Austria during the 20th century as a kind of compromise. It’s still used by the Berlin Philharmonic, and on this side of the pond by the Cleveland Orchestra among others. In classical times, orchestras had the bass instruments in the center since they were the foundation on which everything was built. When the cellos and basses sit on the outside, I miss them – they aren’t in the middle of the sound any more. Having them in the middle gives us the best of both worlds: good violin sound and strong bass.

So there we are. Orchestra seating. Not exactly a topic for your typical weekend read, but one that has provoked countless arguments and passions from conductors and orchestral musicians alike. Come to Jacoby Hall and listen to hear the difference!


Reprinted with kind permission of The Florida-Times Union.

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