The string section is the largest body of the standard orchestra. It normally consists of the first violins, the second violins, the violas, the cellos, and the double basses (or basses). In discussions of the instrumentation of a musical work, the phrase "and strings" is used to indicate a string section as just defined.
An orchestra consisting solely of a string section is called a string orchestra.
The most common seating arrangement is with first violins, second violins, violas and cellos clockwise around the conductor, with basses behind the cellos on the right. In the 19th century it was standard to have the first and second violins on opposite sides (violin I, cello, viola, violin II), rendering obvious the crossing of their parts in, for example, the opening of the finale to Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony.
If space or numbers are limited, cellos and basses can be put in the middle, violins and violas on the left (thus facing the audience) and winds to the right; this is the usual arrangement in orchestra pits. The seating may also be specified by the composer, as in Béla Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, which uses antiphonal string sections, one on each side of the stage.
Numbers and assignment of parts
The size of a string section may be expressed with a formula of the type (for example) 10-10-8-10-6, designating the number of first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, and basses. The numbers can vary widely; thus in a large orchestra they might be 14-14-12-12-10; the band orchestra in Darius Milhaud's La création du monde is 1-1-0-1-1. The numbers are usually even because there are normally a pair of players sharing the music on one stand.
The music for a string section is not necessarily written in five parts; parts can be assigned to more than one instrument, and sometimes certain instruments are omitted. Thus in music of the classical period, the cellos and double basses often play from the same music, their parts usually being notated on a single staff, with the bassist's written notes sounding one octave lower than written.
String section without violins
In Haydn's oratorio The Creation, the music to which God tells the newly created beasts to be fruitful and multiply achieves a rich, dark tone by its setting for divided viola and cello sections with violins omitted. Famous works without violins include the Second Serenade of Brahms, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem, and Philip Glass's opera Akhnaten. Fauré's original versions of his Requiem and Cantique de Jean Racine were without violin parts, there being parts for 1st and 2nd viola, and for 1st and 2nd cello; though optional violin parts were added later by publishers.
String section without violas
Handel often wrote works for strings without violas: for example many of his Chandos Anthems. Mozart's masses and offertories written for the Salzburg cathedral routinely dispensed with violas, as did his dances. Leonard Bernstein omitted violas from West Side Story.
String section without violins or violas
Division of instrumental parts in a section
It is also possible for more than one part to be assigned to instruments in a section; this practice is designated with the Italian term divisi (abbreviated div.). Thus when violins are omitted, as in Haydn's oratorio The Creation, and in Fauré's Requiem and Cantique de Jean Racine, the violas and cellos are divided. For the second movement of his Sixth Symphony, Beethoven specifies that the cellos must be divided thus: two players cover a more ornate part while the remainder play the bass part an octave higher. Probably more frequent are cases where a section is divided only for a brief period. Other than in special cases such as the Beethoven movement just mentioned, the normal procedure for divisi passages is that the "outside" player at a music stand (the one closer to the audience) takes the upper part, the "inside" player the lower. This practice is often taken to extremes for special effect, with divisions into more than two parts: for example in the orchestral music of Richard Strauss.
In other musical genres
"String section" is also used to describe a group of bowed string instruments used in rock, pop, jazz and commercial music. In this context the size and composition of the string section is less standardised, and usually smaller, than a classical complement.
- Stanley Sadie's Music Guide, p. 56 (Prentice-Hall 1986). Nicolas Slonimsky described the cellos-on-the-right arrangement as part of a 20th century "sea change" (Lectionary of Music, p. 342 (McGraw-Hill 1989).
- [author missing] (1948). "Orchestra" in Encyclopedia Americana,[page needed]. [ISBN missing].
- Gassner, "Dirigent und Ripienist" (Karlsruhe 1844). Rousseau's Dictionnaire de musique (1768), however, has a figure showing second violins facing the audience and firsts facing the singers, reflecting the concertmaster's former role as conductor.
- Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, online edition, article "Orchestra", section 6.
- Size of the String Section in Popular Music Recordings, F.G.J.Absil, 2010