First Violinists and Second Violinists
Why are violins divided into two sections in the orchestra? Does “playing second” mean the violinist is not good enough to play first violin? Let’s explore their differences.
In symphony orchestras there are two sections of violins. The first violin section is always on the conductor’s left. Seating of second violins may vary in accordance with the conductor’s wishes. They may sit next to the first violins and next to the violas or be placed directly opposite the first violins. The first configuration seats them between the treble and bass sections and supports their role as the “inner” voice of the orchestra. Placing them opposite the first violins makes them visible and supports their importance to the group.
The composer, based on how he or she wants the music to sound, creates the scores for first and second violins. The choice of who plays first and second is the choice of the conductor. Therefore, there is no difference between first violin parts and second violin parts except as dictated by the conductor. All violinists are required to play at a virtuoso level and be prepared to fit into either position. Because second violins play a supportive role harmonically and rhythmically to the first violins, which play the melody and the highest line of the string section, they must know the score front to back and be totally immersed in the music.
As noted by Jennifer Jones, Assistant Concertmaster, Symphony Nova Scotia , “They often have to play rapid intricate rhythms on the lower strings, which is difficult and tiring, and harmonies sometimes create awkward passages. They also have to play syncopated and other very difficult rhythms underneath the soaring melodies of the first violins. Often the second violins have to come out of the musical texture and play the melody themselves or play in unison with the first violins.” (1).
Dr. Daniel Kobialka, President and Artistic Director of Li-Sem Enterprises, a full service-recording studio, served as the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra’s principal second violinist for over 30 years. He is a perfect example of the how the second violin position prepares a musician to develop skills and virtuosity to lead, follow, and create.
Beginning his career in music at age 15 with a concerto debut at Carnegie Hall, he went on that same year to appear as a soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Four years later, he made his critically acclaimed recital debut at Carnegie Hall.
One of his high school friends, and associates with the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, where Kobialka was the founding concertmaster and soloist, was John Adams, now one of America’s foremost contemporary composers. Other important influences on Dr. Kobialka’s musical talents were his “privileged relationships” with such legendary musicians and composers as Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, Vivian Fine, and Henry Brant. Dr. Kobialka served as concertmaster for the premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” which opened the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
Dr. Kobialka is widely sought after internationally as a performer and lecturer, as well as composer. He was also invited by Seiji Ozawa to be a principal violinist in the Nagano Winter Orchestra, comprising of musicians from all parts of world to perform for the Opening Ceremonies of the Nagano Olympic Winter Games in Nagano Japan, February 1998.
The recording of Dr. Kobialka’s “Autumn Beyond”, coupled with Henry Brant’s “Solar Moth”, was included on the New York Times’ list of The Years Best Recordings for 1983, and many of his other recordings have become perennial best-sellers in both the classical and alternative markets. In order to freely pursue his own interpretations of the classics, as well as his profound interest in more avant-garde music, Mr. Kobialka founded his own record label, Li-Sem Enterprises Inc., which has sold well over a million units since its inception in 1981. His website address is http://www.wonderofsound.com.
(1) Jennifer Jones, Assistant CJoncertmaster, Symphony Nova Scotia, The difference between first and second violins: https://symphonynovascotia.ca/faqs/symphony-101/whats-the-difference-between-first-violins-and-second-violins/