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Interesting Look Back At the Development of the Orchestra

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  • Interesting Look Back At the Development of the Orchestra

    Never heard of the Stokowski shift!
    In a recent article, the Jacksonville Symphony music director Courtney Lewis gives the rundown on why the musicians sit where ...
    Myles B. Astor, PhD, Administrator
    Senior Editor,

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  • #2
    Most French Horn players think the trumpets are behind them in order to make them deaf. Tongue in check but in Europe this has been a real issue involvinging the union and use of ear plugs for horn players. In general hearing loss has been an ongoing issue unrelated to musicians aging in symphony orchestras.

    i have played in orchestras where conductors use the German romantic seating of violins on the left and right with violas and celli on the inside. Some conductors prefer the violins all on the left but violas right and on the outside with celli inside of them or celli on the outside with violas inside.

    Brass placement can vary depending on the work. I heard a Chicago/Solti performance of Bruckners 7th with the brass strung out in a single line left to right, trumpets at the center, trombones to the right, horns and Wagner tubas to the left.

    I am not surprised that this article was written by a conductor. The sound of the strings seated in a particular way is easily discerned by the conductor who is just a few feet away from them. Not so easily by the audience who gets a more blended string sound. Brass arrangements are more easily discerned from the distance of the audience. Personally I think these are conductor issues and not audience issues and with exception of who sits in front of the brass players and how close they are to them doesn't mean much to concert goers or even the players. If you play in a pit orchestra for opera or ballet it's all about room since most pits aren't very large. Players get seated where there is room. I have sat uncomfortably close to strings and woodwinds in pits. Use of a chorus and vocal soloists impacts how orchestral seating is made too. It's often about room and less about "sound."
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    • MylesBAstor
      MylesBAstor commented
      Editing a comment
      I've heard that before too! My ex- played the French Horn.

      Thanks for the musician's perspective!

  • #3
    I played in the last stand violas (with another parent) in my daughter's youth orchestra for two years. (There were only 4 violas in the section before we were added - always short of violas). The first year it was fine with the oboes directly behind us, but the second the orchestra was shifted slightly and we ended up directly in front of the trumpets! When I attend orchestral concerts, I see that generally there are transparent screens in front of the brass sections so the strings in the last rows don't get blasted.

    Obviously, composers who wrote during the time that orchestras had split first and second violins would often write contrapuntal effects that took advantage of split violins, and sometimes I will see an orchestral change its seating to better play pieces that are written for that effect.

    Talking about Stokowski's experimentation with seating, he made quite a large number of recordings for Decca toward the end of his career (in his 80's and early 90's) on the Decca Phase 4 series. In researching my Decca book, I discovered that Stokowski wanted to experiment with the seating of the orchestra for his recordings. He wanted to align each set of instruments in the single file stretching radially outward from the conductor - like spokes of different lengths radiating out from the hub of a bicycle - although only 180 degrees. The first violins would start at the conductor's left, and then the second violins, violas, cellos, basses, woodwinds, etc. The Decca engineers and producers vetoed the idea, since they couldn't fit the orchestra into the recording hall.

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    • #4
      Actually, the setup of the orchestra is at the discretion of the conductor.. Sometimes the basses are on the left, sometimes on the right as are the other choirs of the orchestra... sometimes the 2nds are position to the right, sometimes in back of the 1sts.......although there is a "tradition", there are no rules.