All stringed instruments form a group with a homogeneous overall sound and perform tasks ranging from the subtlest tonal effects to the most eloquent reinforcements of sound and from the greatest possible tonal compactness to the greatest possible diversity. The stringed instruments are the most homogeneous of all groups in the symphony orchestra. Since Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) the strings have been the heart of the orchestra.
String sections in large orchestras are composed as follows:
- 1st violins: 16
- 2nd violins: 14
- Violas: 12
- Cellos: 10
- Double-basses: 8.
In late romantic works – R. Wagner, G. Mahler, R. Strauss – and 20th century pieces the strings are divided into a large number of parts (divisi).
Violin + string orchestra
Violin + Violin
In the orchestra violins are always used in chorus and divided into 1st and 2nd violins. Each group is treated as a separate “part”: the 1st violins generally play the higher part, which is usually the main melody. The 2nd violins often play the part of “lower sisters”: they play an octave below, darkening the overall timbre, and complement the 1st violins in the middle register, often in unison. It is only in recent times that composers have begun liberating the 2nd violins from the shadow of their dominant sisters, in some cases even giving them higher parts to play.
Violin + viola
Produces a mellow and full sound which is dominated by the violins. Octave combinations of the 1st and 2nd violins or double octave playing by both violin groups with violas and cellos produces a broad, expansive and carrying effect. This combination is most effective when the orchestra reaches melodic high points.
Violin + violoncello
The full sound is dominated by the cellos. In octaves an expansive effect is produced for cantilenas in the tenor register.
Violin + double-bass
The violins can sound like a partial of the double-basses. It is particularly important to balance the respective dynamic levels.
Violin + harp
The violins’ pizzicato blends well with the harp.
Violin + woodwinds
There is a great affinity between the strings and the woodwinds; on the one hand they have a very good tonal blend, in which either group can predominate depending on the dynamic level. On the other hand they complement each other to produce new sound mixtures. Strings and woodwinds can also play interesting harmonic successions when the two groups play in contrast.
Generally speaking woodwinds provide the strings with more volume and power, while the strings make the woodwinds more mellow, especially when playing in unison. If the strings are playing with a single woodwind instrument in different registers the latter can assert itself.
Violin + brass wind instruments
The tonal blend with brass instruments is not so good as with the woodwinds and depends on which register the brass instruments are playing in and on which playing technique the strings are using (pizzicato, col legno). The use of the mute on brass instruments makes them sound similar to the strings and improves the blend. If the two groups are joined by the woodwinds, particularly the clarinets, the blend between strings and brass instruments is improved.
Violin + trumpet
Two distinct sounds develop, poor blend.
Violin + horn
The horn achieves the best blend of the brass section with the violins, especially in combination with the cellos.
Violin + trombone, tuba