Performing Forces Related to Violin in the 19th Century

Orchestras of the 19th Century

The 19th century played an enormous role in the development of the orchestra and the popularity of the violin. At that time, the number of orchestras increased greatly, they became much larger and added new instruments. While in the 18th century they were tightly connected only with the aristocratic life, here they turned into the center of public musical life. During the 19th century, many of them turned into independent commercial organizations that had substantial revenue and focused on financial benefits. Regardless of their location, orchestras resembled one another, and their repertory complexified. Playing music in them became a separate profession, which required special education (Weber 678). Even though they were focused on the classical programs from the very beginning, soon orchestras adopted mixed performances, which were rather innovative for the 19th century. Orchestras of that period mainly existed in two variations. Theatre orchestras were engaged for a season, and concert ones were separate institutions. But soon, other types of the orchestra started to appear. They could be found in salons, cafés, dance clubs, spas, music halls, etc.

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Significant Changes in Orchestra Composition

A lot of changes that affected orchestra composition were also connected with the development of instrument technology. Some replacements were seen among the brass, valved and natural instruments were used during one performance. Still, those orchestras that played classic repertory rejected such alterations as they did not need them. They had five sections of strings, couples of wind brass, and percussion. Piano, which used to be very popular in the 18th century, was eliminated so that the emphasis was made on the string sections that included violins. They were rather expanded and could reach 20 items (Koury 324). Musicians were dressed in costumes from time to time, which allowed them to be a central element in the scene and influence the audience’s thoughts and emotions.

The main innovation observed in the 19th century is the appearance of the baton conductor. At that time, the orchestras became so big and extended that there was a necessity to add a conductor who would direct all musicians. He stood in front of them so that everyone could see him and play just like the others. Still, while some orchestras in France and Germany already had one in the 18th century, Great Britain rejected them until the 1830s. In Italy, the first violinist led the whole orchestra for the next thirty also. Eventually, the decision to add conductors was accepted because they led the musicians by the directive, which provided clear instructions and simplified understanding. The violinist led by example, using no words or gestures. Musicians had to follow his music to find out what is needed. From the very beginning, conductors did not receive much attention. Their role was to serve the orchestra and keep the beat for the musicians to perform better. They provided cues and never considered themselves to be performers. Still, soon such view altered. Berlioz claimed that the members of the orchestra are “like strings, pipes, soundboxes and soundboards of wood or metal – intelligent machines that the conductor plays like an immense piano” (Sadie and Tyrrell 539).

The 19th-century composers did not see use in increasing the number of violins in order to produce a better, more accurate sound for the audience. This change came only during the Romantic music era, but until then, the size of a string section usually followed a specific formula. In The Valkyrie, one of the greatest music dramas written by Wagner and first performed in 1870, he used the formula of 16-16-12-12-8.Each number in that formula corresponded with a particular number of musical instruments, such as violins, violas, cellos, basses, and so on. However, the numbers and formulas saw great variation, as no orchestra had a standard size to it.

Since the abandoning of the rows, the performers were arranged in blocks, usually on the opposite sides, in order to show when their respective parts in the play were crossing in. This is amply shown in the arrangements made for the Six Symphonies, written by Tchaikovsky (Tschaikowsky: 6. Sinfonie 2013). In rare cases, the composer himself specified the arrangements for a particular piece. This was the case with Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, where the arrangements were similar to Tchaikovsky’s piece, with the violins placed opposite to one another, on different ends.

This is very different from modern arrangements, where the violinists are arranged in a semi-circle around the conductor, with basses placed behind, and cellos – to the far right from its position. This could be seen in most recordings of modern re-inactions of classic music. The piece mentioned here, such as the Valkyrie, is commonly played in a modern arrangement (Wagner – Die Walküre 2010).

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Complex Approach

In the 19th century, music-making in the domestic environment was as popular as large-scale music-making in the framework of philharmonics. Composers focused on those instruments that were popular at that time, adding new items. Koury underlined that working on the best orchestral performance practices, they paid enormous attention to standing and sitting arrangements because believed that they could affect the success of the whole event (29). In this framework, it was critical to emphasize both the placement of orchestral forces and their technique, especially posture. Berlioz and Wagner were among those commentators who did their best to help their players and make it easier for them to keep together and find the balance in any concert call or theater they were supposed to play. In order to prepare those places, directors positioned the orchestra in different ways trying to find the most successful approach. Wagner, for example, put it underneath the stage eventually, which appealed even to contemporary directors.

At that time, musicians tried to implement something new to attract the public. They created programs that mixed instrumental and vocal music, which was rather unusual previously. As a result, evening entertainment was extended, and longer pieces were played. For instance, the first concert of London’s Royal Philharmonic Society in 1813 consisted of the overture, a string quartet, a vocal quartet and chorus, a wind serenade, and symphonies, etc. (Lawson and Stowell 93). This program was not as formal as today, which also revealed the difference in the society. At that time, instrumental music was separated already and gained its own place. It was not a servant of opera, as it was in the 18th century, which turned out to be a great innovation and invention.

The placement of forces in 19th-century orchestras abandoned long parallel rows. They would sit in pairs facing the center and have an opportunity to observe the conductor. Instruments were arranged by their type but not function. At first, the strings and the wind were placed on different sides but then the first violins were separated from the second ones. In the same way, the woodwind and the brass were divided. Placement was discussed in many treatises. As a rule, they put the violins on the opposite sides so that they looked at one another. They would seat in the front of the orchestra, which revealed their leading role (Koury 218). Considering the necessity to perform lots of different music pieces, the orchestra composition and placement also altered but there was no sense in any extreme changes in comparison to the 18th century. Temperley explained that through the idea of placement being only a marginal consideration (171). He stated that even though the position of musicians affects the sound, it is not the only variable. The acoustics of the concert hall and the position of the audience tend to be even more influential. The original placement of instruments could be taken into consideration if the members of the orchestra perform in one building all the time with the same furniture and wall coverings. Still, as the place changes, it becomes not so critical.

History of Violin Technique

People started playing violin in the 16th century already. Still, at that time, it was used for entertaining purposes as well as the majority of other instruments. Violin had a simple role that was understood and applied by the representatives of the general public. They would use it to accompany dances or just to create a pleasant background. It could also meet the needs of ordinary people accompanying choral music from time to time. Initially, people considered this instrument to be appropriate only for the lower classes, which meant that nobles had never used it and their children received no education related to violin playing (Hann 1).

However, as time passed, more and more people got interested in the violin. As a result, it eventually entered the lives of the upper classes by the 17th century. Violin reached the world of the orchestra, which allowed it to become widely recognized. As a result, soon the major focus of music shifted to this prominent orchestral instrument. At that time, and even now, composers rarely mentioned which instruments should be used to perform their pieces. They identified notes and provided musicians with the opportunity to use anything available at the moment. Thus, there were no critical issues connected with the necessity to create new pieces for violin. In this way, people could easily resort to this instrument when playing any music they liked. Still, the rapid expansion of violin use revealed the main issue that was faced by the musicians and prevented them from mastering the instrument. The way the majority of them played differed greatly, especially in the framework of physical parameters, such as posture, the placement of the chin, etc. As a result, both educators and professionals realized and emphasized the necessity to develop a standardized violin technique. It was underlined that virtuoso violinists who were able to cope with the most difficult compositions achieved success due to their technique (Hann 3). Thus, outstanding teachers of violin play created their treatises for the other educators and their students to fill in existing gaps and make this instrument even more popular.

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Violin Treatises

The way violinists play depends on their technique in playing the violin emerged on the basis of historical treatises. They were written by various professionals who wanted their students to develop a solid technique that could be good enough for achieving a virtuosic level of playing. First professional violinists, who focused on their technique and tried to improve it, started playing only in the 18th century (Deverich 11). From the very beginning, the treatise of Francesco Geminiani attracted enormous attention due to its focus on playing positions, fingering, and other peculiarities but with the course of time, it shifted to the representatives of the 19th century, including Pierre Marie François de Sales Baillot (Jackson 161).

The authors of the treatises emphasized the fact that not all music teachers paid enough attention to their student’s technique, which affected their performance adversely and entailed new issues. Educators underlined that it was much more difficult to implement required corrections than to teach a person from the very beginning.

At the end of the 18th century, Paris’s Conservatoire de Musique commissioned three professionals to reconsider the violin technique. Two of them, Rodolphe Kreutzer, and Pierre Rode, composed etudes that could be used by students who were willing to enhance their skills and demonstrate virtuous play, as a result. Their books started to be widely used in the 19th century but turned out to be popular even nowadays. The third professional, Baillot focused on the very method of playing. It took him thirty years to complete his work, but he managed to prepare a treatise that described in detail the way a player should stand, hold the instrument, move hands and fingers, etc. In his “L’Art du Violon”, the author paid attention to every peculiarity and even added a range of pictures with explanations so that everyone could understand his instructions (Baillot et al. 10). Based on this work, the Franco-Belgian method of play was developed. In Baillot’s view, it could benefit a violinist enormously because of the provided opportunity to improve technique.

Baillot’s position of the violin and posture
Picture. 1. Baillot’s position of the violin and posture (Brown par. 18).

Baillot discussed the proper method of holding the instrument, violinist’s posture and other peculiarities, which can be seen on Pic. 1. Still, his book turned out to be rather special because it also underlined the ideal posture that should be maintained during the performance. To ensure that all students were able to follow the example he provided, Baillot prepared a list of criteria that should be checked by a student who requires assistance. For example, from the very beginning, the professional underlined that the players could benefit if they stand in a particular way. He pointed out eleven steps that should be taken into consideration by a student.

Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as the Epitome of the Changes Observed In the 19th Century

Those changes in the music industry that were discussed previously could be observed when focusing on Ludwig van Beethoven’s 9th symphony. This piece was initially composed classically but then was re-orchestrated by Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler, who also represented the 19th century. They believed that their interpretations revealed the way the 9th symphony would sound if being composed by Beethoven after the 1860s.

Wagner focused on woodwind parts. He doubled them and put singers behind the orchestra while previously they linked it with the audience. The composer tried to ensure a flexible beat. He performed fluctuating tempos as well. Dynamics were gradations due to the skillful implementation of his technique. Still, Mahler believed that Wagner set many limits to this piece. As a result, he doubled “the piccolos, flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, and (in the first movement only) timpani. Mahler added a tuba as reinforcement to the lower-voiced instruments. Mahler also expanded the number of strings typical in Beethoven’s time” (Baxter 1). Some peculiarities can be seen on Pic. 2. The composer thought that he followed Beethoven’s ideas and improved even the least significant details. He expanded the number of string instruments used by Wagner to meet original characteristics. As a result, the enlarged string section obtained a leading role in the orchestra, which was typical of the 19th century.

Mahler's interpretation of Beethoven's 9th Symphony
Picture. 2. Mahler’s interpretation of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (Pickett par. 3)


In this way, it can be said that the constitution and placement of forces, direction, and expansion of performing forces related to the violin in the 19th century were based on those ideas developed by educators, professional violinists, and composers. Orchestra and violin became more popular than previously and started to be indissolubly tied to each other. More orchestras appeared, and they became larger due to the new instruments, which allowed them to become the center of public musical life. They turned into independent commercial organizations and adopted mixed performances. The appearance of theater and concert orchestras was followed by salons, cafés, dance clubs, spas, music halls, etc. The baton conductor who stood in front of the musicians substituted the first violinist who led the whole orchestra by example. Professional violinists paid enormous attention to standing and sitting arrangements because believed that they could affect the success of the whole event, so they developed treatises that described the placement of forces and musician’s technique. The violins were placed on the opposite sides and faced the center. They had the leading role. Still, some professionals underlined that there was no necessity to change orchestra placement as it was just a marginal variable that affected performance. In addition to that, according to the treatises, students should start getting familiar with the instrument in childhood and should not only practice playing but also obtain lots of theoretical information. They underlined that a standardized technique should be generated based on the best practices so that the possibility to master the instrument increase. Focusing on it from the very beginning, the player can have an opportunity to improve one’s skills constantly while those who played as they wanted for a long time had to work on corrections, which affected their motivation adversely and was rather complicated because of the habit that had already formed. However, the authors of treatises also stated that a stagnant technique should not be considered from the conservative position. They believed that with time virtuosic players could alter it with better approaches. In general, it can be even claimed that the treatises were created to keep students motivated and enthusiastic regarding their future and the future of the whole violin play, as they pointed out how one can improve personal performance, mentioning how to stand and hold the instrument.

Works Cited

Baillot, Pierre, et al. Violon: Baillot: L’art du Violon. Editions J.M. Fuzeau, 2001.

Baxter, Jeffrey. “Beethoven vs. Mahler a Brief Musing on Mahler’s “Retouches” to Beethoven’s Ninth.” Asochorus, 2011. Web.

Brown, Clive. “Physical Parameters of 19th and Early 20th-Century Violin Playing.” Leeds, 2016. Web.

Deverich, Robin. “How Did They Learn? An Overview of Violin Pedagogy with an Emphasis on Amateur Violinists.” violinonline, 2006.

Hann, Hanna. “The Influence of Historic Violin Treatises on Modern Teaching and Performance Practices.” Ursidae: The Undergraduate Research Journal at the University of Northern Colorado, vol. 4, no. 3, 2015, pp. 1-10.

Jackson, Roland. Performance Practice: A Dictionary-guide for Musicians. Routledge, 2005.

Koury, Daniel. Orchestral Performance Practices in the Nineteenth Century: Size, Proportions, and Seating. University of Rochester Press, 2010.

Lawson, Colin, and Robin Stowell. The Historical Performance of Music: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Pickett, David. “Mahler’s “Version” of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.” Davidpickett, 2009.

Sadie, Stanley, and John Tyrrell. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2001.

“Tschaikowsky: 6. Sinfonie (»Pathétique«) ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Lionel Bringuier.” YouTube, uploaded by hr-Sinfonieorchester – Frankfurt Radio Symphony. 2013. Web.

Temperley, Nicholas. “Orchestral Performance Practices in the Nineteenth Century: Size, Proportions, and Seating, by Daniel J. Koury.” Performance Practice Review, vol. 2, no. 2, 1989, pp. 170-172.

“Wagner – Die Walküre – Prelude 1º Act. Scala, Barenboim. 2010.” YouTube, uploaded by Francisco Martin. Web.

Weber, William. “Did People Listen in the 18th Century?” Early Music, vol. 25, no. 4, 1997, pp. 678-691.

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