Attend any orchestra concert and you’ll see the importance of violins. Violinists alone make up about a quarter of the orchestra. Their importance comes from the power and beauty of the instrument itself. In the right hands, a violin’s expressiveness can evoke all the emotions of the human heart, allowing a composer to speak to us from across centuries. Though a first violinist has several functions, the main one is to bring to life the dominant character of a musical composition.
First violins carry the melody in an orchestra as well as in smaller ensembles such as quartets. In an orchestra, the violin section is divided into groups of chairs, classified as first or second violins. Second violins play supportive harmony. Carrying the tune, first violins play the most technically difficult music. Both groups play the treble clef part, which are the highest parts of the performed piece. The first violinist must also perform solos.
In an orchestra, the first chair of the first violins -- the player to the left of the conductor from the audience’s point of view-- is called the concertmaster. The concertmaster holds an important position, not only as a musician, but as a leader. Indeed, in Europe, the concertmaster is known as the leader. As a leader, the concertmaster represents and influences the orchestra’s players. The other first violins often serve as assistants. The concertmaster must know musical scores as well as the conductor, for if there is no associate conductor, the concertmaster fills the conductor spot.
The concertmaster also serves as a liaison between the conductor and the orchestra, rallying the orchestra around the conductor’s musical vision of a piece of music. As far as the violin section goes, the first violin determines the phrasing and bowing that the players will employ. This affects the expression of the music and what the audience feels while listening. It’s easy for concertgoers to see one result of the concertmaster’s activities -- the violinists’ bows move in unison, traveling back and forth in the same direction.
Cueing and Tuning
First violins provide cues. Cueing isn’t merely about letting other players know when to start playing, it also shows them how to come into a piece music. A first violin uses body language to get across tempo, mood and dynamics. In music, dynamics refer to musical characteristics such as loudness or softness. A concertmaster's vehement quick cue, for instance, might signify a loud entrance, an intense mood and a rapid tempo. Before a concert, the first violin also provides the note that all the orchestra instruments use to get in tune.
- Essential Dictionary of Music; L.C. Harnsberger
- Los Angeles Times: The Modern Orchestra Concertmaster: First Among Equals
Sophie Johnson is a freelance writer and editor of both print and film media. A freelancer for more than 20 years, Johnson has had the opportunity to cover topics ranging from construction to music to celebrity interviews.