You may wonder why I change the seating of the strings from time to time. It may appear to be random or arbitrary, but hopefully, if you've been paying attention, you already know the answer.
One thing is a given: of the two groups of violins (every string section has five sections: first and second violins, violas, cellos and basses), the first violins always sit on the left side, downstage, in clear view. Most orchestras have the second violins seated just inside the first violins, with violas and cellos to the right, and basses behind them.
Then why do I sometimes place the second violins opposite the first violins, downstage right?
It wasn't my idea. Berlioz did this in the early 1800s, and Mahler did the same in the early 20th century. First and second violins seated next to each other is a relatively new phenomenon, within the past 75 years or so. Why did it happen? I'm not sure, but I can guess..... perhaps during a recording session, back in the days when recording was still a new venture, some wiseguy producer might have asked, "hey, why are the violins separated? Put them together!" Or maybe a second violinist approached a conductor and respectfully asked, "Maestro, can we please sit next to the first violins? We have so much of the same music, and it would be so much easier for us to play together if we were seated together." The idea caught on, and stuck.
But in the last 10-25 years, more and more orchestras began seating the violins like Berlioz, Mahler and Wagner seated them -- on opposite sides of the stage. And the reason is a decidedly musical one, for which the benefit is mainly yours, not ours: because composers such as Vivaldi, Beethoven and even Bruckner wrote for violins stereophonically. When we did Vivaldi's Four Seasons with Sarah Chang last year, did you notice how the violins often talk with each other? In Bruckner symphonies, the violins often trade a musical idea back and forth. And in the finale of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which you will hear later this season, the first and second violins engage in the musical equivalent of a fencing match, parrying back and forth right up to the movement's climax.
For some composers, writing stereophonically for violins is not a feature of their musical style. So if we do a program of Ravel, Debussy and Poulenc, I'll put the violins together. (Whether the violas or the cellos take the downstage right position is a matter of preference.)
You may ask, then, when violins are opposite each other, "how do you decide where to put the violas and cellos? Who sits inside the first violins, and who sits inside the seconds?
Toscanini liked the cellos inside the first violins, and I think Mahler did this as well. (Indeed, for Mahler symphonies, it makes a lot of sense, as the first violins and cellos often play the same melody together.) For this season, you will often see the violas inside the first violins, because we are in a Beethoven year, and B. loves to group the first violins with violas, and second violins with celli. Indeed, in the 3rd movement of his Symphony no. 3, in the Trio, which features the french horns prominently, both pairs strings seem to be involved in a bit of gamesmanship.
So you know -- most second violinists dislike playing from the downstage right position. They would much prefer being inside the first violins, in their comfort zone. I can understand why. When they share the melody (or an intricate accompaniment) with the first violins, it's easier to keep the ensemble tight and taut when playing side by side. But it's nice for audiences to hear the music the way it was intended to be heard.