Antiphonal Violins

There has been discussion on Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony and Richard Hickox’s original full length version. Hickox invariably used antiphonal violins and I love the sound he achieved. Other conductors such as Rattle, Mackerras and Haitink have also used antiphonal violins at least occasionally.
Of course the standard orchestra layout where going from left to right (for the listener) are violins, second violins, violas, cellos and on the far right double basses. This layout appeared, apparently, just after VW’s London Symphony. Some ascribe the layout to Stokowski, others to Sir Henry Wood. Certainly, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven would generally have used antiphonal violins. The justification for putting the violins together was so that the second violins could more easily follow the lead of the first violins but losing the ability to have an interplay between the violins and other strings across the width of the symphony hall. The conventional layout doesn’t make sense to me. It is like an artist having all the lighter colours on the left and the darker on the right. If you are a hifi buff but cannot hear higher pitches in your left ear you might want to switch your speaker cables round!!

Carlos Kleiber’s DGG Beethoven Fifth and Seventh Symphony recordings have the Vienna PO first and second violin sections opposite each other on the far left and right of the orchestra, and can be clearly heard tossing phrases back and forth to each other to thrilling effect in the Finale of the Fifth.

I think that Kleiber always had his violin sections divided in this way. He certainly had the London Symphony Orchestra set like that in the Royal Festival Hall on the only time that I was lucky enough to attend one of his concerts.

Most modern conductors seem to prefer having all the violins massed on the left of the stage, making a nonsense of what Beethoven wrote in the Fifth.

Perhaps the effect of the divided violins will be clearer still when the new editions of a few of Kleiber’s Deutsche Grammophon LPs are rereleased soon. I certainly hope so.


Yes Graham I have that recording on CD. Could it be as well as some conductors preferring the violins together could it be that some orchestra leaders (principal violin) like all their team together and not letting the second violins getting ideas above their station!!

Yes, that could be the case. A friend of mine from University days - a very talented musician who read Classics at Oxford - was appointed leader of the Second Violins of the London Symphony Orchestra some years ago. I shall ask him, if I ever meet him at a College Reunion.

PS: I have just checked the LSO website. He (David Alberman) is still Principal Second Violin. His entry on the website makes no reference to his time at Oxford.

In Handel’s day the principal instrument was the oboe, not the violin, with up to 24 oboes spread across the stage in a line. I bet it sounded wonderful. Handel knew how to put on a performance.


RWC (and others), if you want spectacular wind band sounds, try to find the Handel ‘Royal Fireworks’ music that Charles Mackerras edited and recorded early in his career, now available on a Testament CD. (I can’t find it on LP at the moment.)

Mackerras put together a wind band ensemble made up of principal players from all the London orchestras. Because they were doing their day jobs with their own orchestras, the players could only come together overnight for the recording sessions - I suppose that you could call it 'moonlighting!

Spectacular and clear early stereo sound, recorded in a Cricklewood church in April 1950. A lovely, exuberant performance and a great recording.

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Thanks Graham. Yes I certainly will. Although I have several copies of the Water Music I don’t think I have any recording of the Fireworks Music.

Far right double basses? Richard will be along shortly :open_mouth: :open_mouth:
interesting topic though, cheers


… typically along with trombonists.

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Doesn’t want to be reminded of the riff raff he had to associate with??

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I remember him with some affection, but have no idea whether he remembers me (or any of the other riffraff who were milling about) at all!

Hope you didn’t mind my little joke at your expense Graham.

On a serious note, I enjoyed the thread you started on RVW’s London Symphony. I have always struggled to enjoy classical music & my appreciation was limited to the snippets used in TV adverts & the short excerpts found on myriad compilation albums.

I heard a piece of classical music I really enjoyed in the early 1970’s & eventually found that this was called ‘The Lark Ascending’. I tracked down a recording of it which contained the equally magnificent ‘Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis’. Fired up by this I then purchased a recording of ‘The London Symphony’, again liking it immensely. Being born in Maidstone in the mid 1950’s, I found the music very evocative of the London of that time, as well as the London portrayed in numerous films made much nearer the time work was actually written. I have been a RVW fan ever since & have much of his work, most of which I enjoy.

Since retiring in 2015 I have made a determined effort to listen to try & understand classical music. Alas, whilst expanding my classical collection & enjoying some of it, I still don’t really ‘get it’. I have complete sets of Beethoven’s & Mozart’s symphonies which leave me cold. They don’t say anything to me, unlike RVW’s work which does, as well as painting pictures in my mind with much of it.

I feel bad about my Beethoven & Mozart comments as, to me, it’s akin to those that say they don’t like the Beatles, Floyd, Clapton etc.!

You do not have to ‘get it’ - neither do you have to like Pink Floyd. I do like V-Williams and have all his Symphonies, plus ‘Lark’ and ‘Tallis’. You don’t say which other composers you have tried…? How about Stravinsky, or Dvorak, or Bach…? In the English group, try Holst or Elgar, maybe…?

Hello, Canary Fan.

I have grown up with Classical music, ever since listening to things such as Beethoven Symphonies and Mozart Piano Concertos, which my late father used to play on a distinctly average ‘stereo’ - Pioneer TT, Sansui receiver, etc.

I would be happy to throw some suggestions in your direction, if that would help to get you started. As you have also mentioned Mozart and Beethoven, would they be good for starters?

Painting pictures in the mind is the effect that VW’s music has for me, especially the Fifth Symphony which I listened to earlier today. Perhaps his collection and knowledge of English folk music helped create his musical landscapes which could be the English countryside or a battlefield on the Somme. I have visited his childhood home at Leith Hill Place. The expansive view from the back of the house is quite beautiful and such a contrast from the gloomy front of the house and it did remind me of his 3rd and 5th symphonies. Just as his living in London effected his 2nd Symphony?

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& @graham55

Perhaps ‘Get it’ wasn’t the best phrase to use. I suppose I meant that what originally attracted me to the music I have liked all my life is one or other, & even better if all three combined, of guitars (acoustic & electric), harmonious vocals &, to my ear, an attractive melody.

Much classical material, again to my ear, lacks an equivalent. Obviously vocals & guitars are largely absent so that just leaves melody which is a large component of the classics I like & features strongly in the compilation albums & TV adverts I referred to in my previous post. I supposed as my late dad would have put it, ‘it lacks a good tune’.

The Beethoven & Mozart I referenced earlier is, & I stress to my ears, bland & each work sounds similar to the rest. I do appreciate that this is frequently applied to the type of music I prefer. That it all sounds the same. Again, I hear my dad saying as much when he was forced to listen to my ‘rock’ favorite’s time & time again. The point being that, to me, they didn’t, & still don’t sound the same.

I hope I don’t sound as if I am rambling but a case in point is a boxed CD set of 16 discs I bought a couple of years ago titled ‘The British Line’. This contains works by several British composers I already have music of & others whose names I knew but had none of their music.

Obviously I enjoyed the RVW & quite a lot of the Elgar. However bar ‘the greatest hits’ of Britten & Holst, the rest, including works by Britten & Tippett etc. left me cold. None of it was ‘awful’. I just found most of it to be bland & left me cold to the extent that after a couple of listens I won’t be rushing to give much of the material a further listen.

I’m sure that there is nothing wrong with the music. It is simply that for whatever reason, it doesn’t resonate with me in the same way as Floyd, Clapton etc. do. I understand people not liking Floyd & Clapton but I do object to those that say they are rubbish. I accept that most of the ‘big’ classical names are clearly good at what they do, evidenced by the large number of classical fans. It’s just simply that the feelings engendered by the music for those people are largely absent in me.

I hope this makes some kind of sense to you as, reading it back, I am not sure I have been able to express in the written word what I feel I could in conversation.

I’ve not given up on classical music but am not confident of any great expansion in my library!

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Hello, again, Canary Fan, may I make a small suggestion?

Go online and order ANYTHING conducted by the late, great Carlos Kleiber. He left notoriously few recordings, but he had a real Midas Touch.

He recorded mainly for Deutsche Grammophon.

Four symphony records - Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh symphonies (two separate LPs), Schubert’s Third and Eighth (‘Unfinished’) on a single LP, and Brahms’s Fourth - all with the great Vienna Philharmonic, and well recorded.

Four operas - Weber’s ‘Der Freischūtz’, (Dresden Staatskapelle) Johann Strauss’s ‘Die Fledermaus’,(Bavarian State Orchestra) Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ (Bavarian SO again), and Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ (Dresden Staatskapelle).

He conducted two New Year’s Day concerts in Vienna in 1979 and 1982, and recordings of both were issued on CD by CBS/Sony.

He also, very quirkily, recorded Dvorak’s Piano Concerto (which most people didn’t even know existed) with Sviatoslav Richter and the Bavarian State Orchestra in Munich for EMI.

I’ve given music issued on CDs - most, but not all, are also available on LP.

There are lots of bootlegs around, but most are pretty lo-fi, and aren’t worth seeking out.

Good luck, if you decide to try any of these!

Just some suggestions to see how/if they grab/or not you!

Bartók - Piano Concertos. Lively! Concerto For Orchestra (he may be too, um, modern)

Sibelius - try the Third Symphony (it’s accessible and short)

If you like VW’s Tallis try Spem In Alium by…Thomas Tallis. Choral. Beautiful

One last:
Bach Cello Suites (Tortelier is my favourite, but there’s plenty)

BUT - nothing wrong with not getting Classical. I don’t ‘get’ Clapton post Cream, apart from D&TD…the rest…not.

You don’t need to appreciate all the finer technical points and structure of classical music to enjoy it. I got in to classical music firstly by listening to Johann Strauss and graduated on from there. Perhaps try Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Cello Concerto. If you haven’t been to one, do try to go to a live orchestral concert - a good concert can stay with you for days afterwards. Also, try listening to some classical music on good headphones - it can really enhance your enjoyment and perhaps appreciation too.

Have you tried the Stravinsky ballets? The Rite of Spring is amazing music and certainly not bland.