Changing strings: the first violin in the orchestra

The first violin – a lighthouse in the orchestra

"If everyone wants to play the first violin, no orchestra will come together," Robert Schumann already knew back then. The instrument that sets the tone can only shine in conjunction with the orchestra. But what makes musicians who play such an important role tick?? And what is the difference between the first and the second violin?? Time for a string change.

Guitar, drums, bass and vocals – together it’s more than just the sum of the parts. It’s no different in classical music. A violin alone sounds all right, but together with a whole orchestra, it’s not just a bunch of instruments piled on top of each other, it’s something magical that’s hard to put into words.

But there can be no talk of equality in music. In a band z.B. the rhythm section, i.e. bass and percussion, usually played in the background. The singer sets the tone. The bandleader in the orchestra is the first violin. It plays the important, foreground melodies. And it is not alone. Up to 16 first violins are used in a symphony orchestra. But what makes musicians who have such a leading role in the orchestra tick?? I meet someone who has a lot of experience in this field.

A lighthouse in the orchestra

The concertmaster is the boss of the first violins. He sits right next to the conductor and carries quite a lot of responsibility.

He also specifies how something should be played, of course according to the wishes of the conductor. He is a kind of mediator between the conductor and the orchestra and some in the orchestra also consider him a lighthouse. When it comes to cues, many orchestra members look not only to the conductor when playing, but also to the concertmaster.

In the 18th century. In the twentieth century, the orchestra was directed exclusively by the concertmaster. Because there was no conductor then, as musicologist Wolfgang Schreiber tells me.

In baroque music, a band was conducted from the harpsichord or violin. Bach still conducted with the violin in his hand.

"Concertare" – the violins argue?

The violins are so important in the orchestra that there are two groups at once. But what is the difference between the first and second violins?? This already starts with the seating arrangement, which is explained to me by Eleonore Buning, the head of music at the FAZ newspaper.

Eleonore Buning - Music Editor of the FAZ

Music editor of the FAZ

Are the first and second violins then at odds with each other?? And the musicians of the first fiddle have more skills than those of the second fiddle? Karl Suske.

The difference between the first and second violins is not that the first violins play better than the second, but they simply have a different voice. The second violins play something different from the first ones. There are also concertmasters for the second violins.

Karl Suske - former concertmaster at the Gewandhaus

ehem. Concertmaster at the Gewandhaus

No difference in quality between first and second violin

But the first violins at least always play the more important part?

It depends on the piece that is played. It can also be that the second violins are sometimes more important. But what the first violins have to play is usually more difficult. The quality of the players is the same in both cases.

Whether you play first or second violin in the orchestra, by the way, is something you can only choose to a limited extent, says Suske. That depends on whether there is a vacancy. Whoever can then hold his own at the audition and gets the position is part of the largest group in the orchestra. That also means that you can disappear if you lose the thread of the story.

If you don’t play a few notes, it’s not noticeable because others do it. Only the colleague sitting next to you notices this, and it can happen to him as well. Of course, it also depends a bit on the size of the group. There are orchestras that have only six first violins. Something like this is a bit more noticeable.

Parallels to the interpersonal

In addition, it can be quite irritating for the person sitting next to you if it doesn’t sound the way it should sound. So every violinist is committed to the group.

Whether it’s group dynamics, hierarchies, or instruments that set the tone more or less – all of this offers a lot of material for parallels to the interpersonal. The film strings of life z.B. is such an experimental arrangement. The musical relationships of a quartet are here equally a sociogram of the different characters.

And what do you play in this recording? – The second fiddle, as always. This is my part – Always? – Yes, without me they would be a lonely, frustrated trio. But the first and second violin have nothing to do with hierarchy. They just play different roles. – In what way? – Well, sometimes I play the melody and sometimes the lower voice. I combine the first violin, which usually plays the solo passages, with the viola and cello. I connect everything with each other. That is my job. – Sounds pretty important, but don’t you feel the need to play first fiddle from time to time?? – Yes, of course!

It’s tempting to set the tone and be the one that everyone follows. No wonder the first violin is so popular. But even back in the 19. As the nineteenth-century composer Robert Schumann knew:

When everyone wants to play the first violin, no orchestra comes together.

He is right. The first violins can only really shine when the other instruments join in as well. Then what happens in the concert hall is what the Hamburg rock band Kante translates as:

We have guitars, the piano and the bass. We have the drums, the vocals, and all that is more than the sum of its parts for a while in good moments.

String change

In "Saitenwechsel" we go on a journey of discovery into the world of classical music. All episodes at a glance here. Never miss a string change? Then here the Podcast subscribe.

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