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I recently attended a performance of Beethoven's Eroica.

Beethoven's Eroica with the CBSO under Jamie Phillips

For the pieces in the first half, the orchestra was arranged in the usual fashion but on returning from the interval, I was surprised to see that it had been rearranged. The first violins were in their usual location but the second violins were where the cellos usually are. This is the first time that I have seen this arrangement live.

Research tells that this arrangement is called "antiphonal" but I did not find as much about it as I hoped.

I found that it was very effective and I enjoyed it immensely. I am now listening to my recordings (4 of them) to determine whether or not this arrangement is used; easy in one case as it is a BluRay, a little harder for the CDs.

How common is this arrangement for the Eroica?

Do we know what Beethoven himself favoured?

For what other pieces (Beethoven or otherwise) is it common? In particular, are there older pieces that use it?

Does the composer ever specify this arrangement?

  • This is a great question. If you don't get suitable answers, you may try music.stackexchange.com ; this would certainly fit under their performance-practice tag. – Richard Apr 17 '17 at 19:15
  • @Richard I considered that but I was unsure where it belonged best. A couple of my questions there had comments suggesting that they should be here. Tetsujin's answer is good and I have just started reading the document he provided. – badjohn Apr 17 '17 at 20:08
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I'd heard something in a TV documentary long ago, that 2nd violins used to be on the right - the documentary was discussing how Tchaikovsky's melodies would have been perceived to a contemporary audience & there was discussion of how building a melody from two independent lines, left- & right-panned would cause a 3rd, independent melody to become apparent to the audience; making a psycho-acoustic, but intentional, addition to what was written.
They demonstrated this using both a historical seating arrangement & also using simple synthesisers to generate similar psycho-acoustic lines.

It took me a while to try find any other reference - for some reason Google was not very forthcoming, but I eventually found this academic pdf, Orchestral Seating in Modern Performance: Origins & Variations, written as the MMus thesis by Jack Smith which would appear to back up that dim & distant recollection from the TV documentary.

Extract:-

Violins
It is one of the few constants in modern orchestral practice that the first violins are seated to the left of the conductor. Almost equally consistent is the seating of the second violins, who are now most often found in a centre-left position behind the first; however this practice was only introduced comparatively recently by Sir Henry Wood (1869-1944) in the early twentieth century. This represents a radical departure from the traditional seating, which placed the second violins on the conductor’s right, opposite the first. Simple as the differences may seem, the question of seating the violins is easily the most controversial in any discussion of orchestral seating. Whilst the arguments will be addressed in due course, it is should here be pointed out that traditional practice was based on a principle of balance: Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) described the first and second violins as being “like a pair of shoulders, and like shoulders they must be strong and equal”. Arguably the perception of the second violins as a subordinate and subsidiary section is a recent invention, which may have arisen as an indirect result of the modern seating.

There is far more than just this simple paragraph, including diagrams of various seating arrangements used across history & different parts of the world.

Also, directly referring to the antiphonal structure available to that seating arrangement.

The Classical and Romantic repertoire abounds with antiphonal violin writing, the effective portrayal of which is surely one of the greatest benefits of traditional seating (but not, it will be recalled, one of the original reasons for it). Although some proponents of modern seating may dismiss these notions, one has to wonder how selective they have been in studying the scores of such works. Boult maintained that almost every piece in the main repertoire contains moments of antiphony, with answering phrases from the second violins becoming “a pale reflection instead of a vigorous rejoinder” when they were placed in the modern position.

Further Googling would indicate that antiphony is not itself in the placing of the violins, but a way to separate the structures they are playing more effectively.

Dictionary definitions are along the lines of
1. the antiphonal singing of a musical composition by two choirs
2. any musical or other sound effect that answers or echoes another

  • Thanks. That is a great answer. So, what I have regarded as "normal" is, in fact, a comparatively recent practice. I just rewatched symphonies 1, 2, and 3 from my BluRay set, in all the antiphonal seating was used: amazon.co.uk/Beethoven-Symphony-Nos-1-3-Blu-ray-Region/dp/…. I am aware that there is more to antiphony than how the violins sit. I get the impression that the name is because the arrangement is attractive when the violin parts are antiphonal. – badjohn Apr 17 '17 at 16:27
  • Check out Giovanni Gabrieli, a composer of an earlier age, who wrote a lot of music which uses this kind of effect. – Angst Apr 18 '17 at 17:52
  • It raises the question of why the new seating has become standard. – Chris Sunami Jul 21 '17 at 14:35
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Observation: In Germany what you call antiphonal arrangement, is simply called Deutsche Sitzordnung (German seating arrangement) as opposed to the Amerikanische Sitzordnung (American ...) and for a regular concert visitor a known variant. (The German wikipedia also explains it, but has no graphics).

Some additions, summarized from Honegger-Massenkeil, an 8 volume music encyclopedia originally in French (1976):

In Baroque the arrangement of musicians was a shallow rectangle, with the harpsichord of the director in the middle, the continuo harpsichord at the left border and the remaining musicians arranged in between and around the harpsichords.

Johann Friedrich Reichhardt, director of music at the court of Frederick the Great, invented the fan-like arrangement, where the first and second violins already opposed each other. Two notable differences:

  • The first violins were at the right hand side of the conductor
  • Viola were separated and symmetrically beneath the violins, with celli and basses in the middle and behind.

Advantage is the better sound balance (some conductors explicitly require it therefore, one is cited comparing the violins with the shoulders of the orchestra, which have to be symmetric and equally strong for the best effect), disadvantage is, that the violinists hear less from the other party which they typically have to complement.

The American arrangement seems to arrive at the start of the 20th century and is now considered as standard except for historically informed performances. The placement of the winds behind the strings (seen from the auditory) is sometimes experimented with, however.

  • Thanks. Austria as well? My bluray discs of the Beethoven symphonies by the Vienna Philharmonic under Thielemann use the seating that you describe. – badjohn Apr 20 '17 at 20:30

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