The violin could be said to define the orchestra. It may be a little provocative to suggest that everything else is there merely an accompaniment to the violin: the other strings just fill out the lower harmonies, woodwinds provide pleasantly contrasting timbres, the brass is for added power when you need it and the percussion creates crisper edges and the occasional crash, but there would be no orchestra without the violin at its heart. Or would there? Perhaps it was true once, but certainly since the beginning of the 20th century composers have begun to treat the sections of the orchestra as equal partners and distribute the music accordingly. It is also a fact that in the modern professional orchestra all the players are virtuosos and so less reliance need be place on the traditionally more agile violins.
And what of the sound? The rich low notes can be very vocal and can be easily used to ´tug the heart strings´. They can play very fast and also very high, but it is the endless sustain that characterises all string instruments enables the violins in particular, when they all play together, to create a floating effect which is responsible for some of the most sublime moments in music. Indeed it is primarily because people love the effect of massed string sounds that orchestras are so large (the violin is the most numerous of all the strings with as many as 30 being used for a large orchestral work).
The violin is the highest pitched and most agile member of the string family. In a typical orchestra, violins are grouped into Firsts and Seconds. The leader of the First Violins is also the Leader of the Orchestra. Numbers vary, but usually there are sixteen Firsts and fourteen Seconds, seated two to a 'desk'.
Photograph courtesy of Bishop Strings