"Re-Positioning"

Abstract: An essay in which the convention of placing the violinist in front of the pianist is discussed.]

In the world of classical music, old traditions often dictate the manner in which music is performed. While many conventions are maintained for appropriate reasons, it is healthy to periodically re-evaluate those to which we adhere. One such tradition concerns sonata duos directly, and has to do with the violinist standing in front of the pianist. In sonatas this seems odd, especially given the fact that usually the pianist has just as important a role to play in the musical dialogue as the violinist. The tradition seems to be a holdover from a time when the violinist was seen as a soloist and the pianist an accompanist. This arrangement not only disregards the element of equal musical partnership, but is also practically awkward. For instance, it obstructs audience’s view of the pianist which reinforces the misconception that the pianist is the accompanist. In addition, this arrangement makes communication between the two instrumentalists cumbersome because the violinist is forced to look over his shoulder. However, this predicament could be remedied if the violinist were to stand behind the pianist. In the way, not only would communication be improved, but the violin’s F-holes (from where the sound issues forth) would face towards rather away from the pianist. Most importantly, this would also allow the pianist to be in full view, thereby emphasizing the equality between the instruments.

There are some practical considerations to take into account when adopting this approach. First, the seemingly inevitable backlash that many will have to an arrangement that “breaks the mold”. Other issues are more pedestrian in nature. For instance, some may feel that once the pianist is able to hear the violinist better, he is likely to play louder to match. However, the sensitive pianist will intuitively match the volume produced by the violinist and will be able to distinguish his tone color and nuances with ease, adding to the expressive potential of the performance. One drawback is that the lid of the piano can obscure a portion of the audience’s view of the violinist especially when playing with full-stick. One solution is to remove the lid of the instrument, as is often the practice in compositions that involve more than one piano, such as Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. The music stand for the violinist, if one is needed, is placed behind the piano rather than being positioned between the performers and audience which will undoubtedly improve the latter’s enjoyment.

The reasons for the current positioning of the violinist seem to have more to do with convention than sensitivity to the balance between the piano and violin in a sonata duo. And while there are no ideal solutions, the benefits of the proposed arrangement seem to outweigh the shortcomings. Thus, it is for musical reasons that American Double places the violinist behind the pianist whenever appropriate.

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