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Balancing Orchestral Strings


Aiwendil
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I'm looking for some tips or guidance on the issue of balance among the violins, violas, celli, and double basses in orchestration.

 

For instance, I'm orchestrating a passage consisting of a lyrical melody, mp, in the high register, an accompanying triplet figure, and a mostly-stepwise bass line.  Clearly, the natural thing is for the melody to go in the first violins, the triplet accompaniment in the violas, and the bass line in the cellos.  But I'm not completely sure what considerations are the most important in deciding:

 

- Should the melody be given to the second violins as well, or should they remain silent?

- Should the basses double the cellos?  If so, should they double at the standard octave down, or at the unison?

 

To be clear, I'm not asking for specific advice on this example, but rather for general advice on how to approach these questions.

 

Thanks for any thoughts!

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I'm not sure there is a general answer to your question.  It all depends on what sort of texture you want at any given moment, and these are things you can play with during repetitions of the theme to keep it feeling different and developing each time.  It's not uncommon for a conductor to listen to a piece in rehearsal, and then ask for an instrument that isn't currently playing to double another part because a certain musical line is not sounding enough to stand out from the overall texture for the acoustics of the room, or because of the conductor's own sense of musical taste, or because the budget means they don't have quite the forces dictated by the composer.  It's also not unusual for a conductor to hear a piece in rehearsal and then ask only the first chair bass to play a certain passage, or just the first violins, although first and seconds were supposed to be playing together.  Instruments and players have individual tone qualities and playing nuances that mean every performance is different, so balancing the players and their instruments to the room and the music is part of the conductor's job.  

 

That said, look at some scores of pieces you like and see what the composers did to achieve the balance you are enjoying.  See what different arrangements they use throughout a piece to get the most interest out of repeated musical material!  (:

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Pater has given some really good advice. It all depends on the texture/mood you're going for. Though you didn't ask for specific advice, I'll give you certain scenarios on what I might do with the passage above:

 

1. Have the melody in the 1sts, the triplet figure in the 2nds and violas (harmonized of course), with the bass line in the celli/bass. Rarely do basses and cellos do octave unison because it tends to overpower the bass line. You could do arco in cello and pizz. in bass if you don't want the bottom line to be too heavy, or just don't have the basses play.

 

2. Have the melody in 1sts and 2nds in octaves, though this would be better suited if you wanted mf or f in the melodic line. OR you can even give the melody to the 1sts and violas in octaves, with the 2nds doing the triplets. 

 

3. Have the melody in the 1sts and celli in octaves, with the accompaniment in the 2nds and violas, and the bass line in the bass. 

 

Overall, there are no general rules. You just have to experiment with different ranges and timbres.It would also be an advantage to know how many players are in the string section you are writing for. LOOK AT SCORES!!!! (Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Elgar wrote serenades for string orchestras). 

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Random other tip I've been given on this that I will now share with you:

Giving the basses a simplified version of the cello part. Combining that with Danish's tip, you could have them play a simpler version of the bass line but have them play it pizzicato so that they bring out certain notes without playing the whole line. Keeps them from overpowering the others, like Danish said. Not that I'd know from experience. This is just what I was told by someone who actually does know.

 

It's not necessarily always the way to go, I guess. Just one more little thought out of many possibilities. And yeah what Danish and pate said. Though I don't do much orchestral score reading (gives me a headache, man) it's pretty useful to read other people's music and listen to it at the same time. Helps you see what they were going for and how they achieved it.

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Thanks to everyone for your thoughts.

 

I'm not sure there is a general answer to your question.  It all depends on what sort of texture you want at any given moment, and these are things you can play with during repetitions of the theme to keep it feeling different and developing each time.

 

Agreed, certainly there are different textures one can achieve through different combinations.  What I'm concerned with at the moment though is simply the question of the relative loudness and 'presence' of the different groups of strings - and I think that this question has a bit more of an objective answer.  For instance, suppose that I'm writing for divided violas.  If I give a melody to the first violins and an accompaniment figure to the first violas, is the melody liable to completely overpower the accompaniment?  What if I don't divide the violas, and it's 1st violins vs. violas?  What if I assign the melody to 1st and 2nd violins in unison, against the violas?  I'm not necessarily looking for answers to these specific questions, but rather for some guidance on how to answer such questions for myself.

 

It might be that the only reasonable and succinct answer is "look at orchestral scores (while listening)".  Which I do, though perhaps not often enough. 

 

Thanks again!

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I agree with the previous comments regarding doubling of the bass with the cello an octave above. This way the cello reinforces the first harmonic of the bass, not the fundamental pitch. It's like a glue that doesn't call attention to itself. Regarding relative loudness in strings … string players are incredibly malleable and 1st+2nd together can achieve the same pianissimo as 1st or 2nd separate. The texture may or may not be the same, but it's all doable. Your example was vague and could be orchestrated many ways. It would be helpful to have the actual music. One basic suggestion is to keep the intervals in the lower strings wide and open, and in the upper strings, tighter.

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One more thought...  You might consider comparing different orchestrations of the same piece.  For instance, Vaughan Williams' "Dona Nobis Pacem" was written for SATB choir, solos, and orchestra, but because the budget is always an issue, and many small choirs can't project over that much orchestra, he also wrote a reduction of the piece for small choirs using just strings and piano that is frequently performed.  Take a look at some reductions of this type and compare how the composer resolves balance issues for the exact same musical material using different numbers and combinations of instruments.  Could be an informative study!  Youtube can be a handy tool for this sort of thing, since many people post videos with the score rolling by in real time for classical music.  (Maybe not the "Dona Nobis Pacem," though.  I'm pretty sure that's still under copyright most places in the world.)  If you can't get scores that way, you can probably get them through inter-library loan.  Librarians LOVE that sort of assignment!  

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One more thought...  You might consider comparing different orchestrations of the same piece.  For instance, Vaughan Williams' "Dona Nobis Pacem" was written for SATB choir, solos, and orchestra, but because the budget is always an issue, and many small choirs can't project over that much orchestra, he also wrote a reduction of the piece for small choirs using just strings and piano that is frequently performed.  Take a look at some reductions of this type and compare how the composer resolves balance issues for the exact same musical material using different numbers and combinations of instruments.  Could be an informative study!  Youtube can be a handy tool for this sort of thing, since many people post videos with the score rolling by in real time for classical music.  (Maybe not the "Dona Nobis Pacem," though.  I'm pretty sure that's still under copyright most places in the world.)  If you can't get scores that way, you can probably get them through inter-library loan.  Librarians LOVE that sort of assignment!  

 

Good idea. Rolling scores on youtube are great if you can't get to a music library. I love music libraries! Another approach is to stick to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. We can learn an awful lot about the orchestra from those guys. It's a linear progression in style and orchestration with no curve balls to distract you (modernism). You are comparing apples to apples. By the time you get to a Beethoven-sized orchestra you can clearly appreciate what he's doubling and why. 

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