(Tip no. 81 from 100 MORE Orchestration Tips, to be released in 2020)
Don’t assume that you always need to score double-stops instead of divisi in order to balance strings against other sections.
A common challenge for developing orchestrators is deciding when to score divisi and when to score double stops (“non divisi”). It’s not just a question of what’s workable, as discussed in other tips. It’s also a question of what’s desirable. Will a double stop work better with the flow of a passage? Will the texture weaken too much if the section splits into divisi? To make matters worse, old orchestral scores often lack any divisi or non divisi markings, leaving a beginner at string scoring at a loss how to interpret what’s going on with the players.
Let’s take this problem on by identifying the default for string section players in approaching two or more voices scored on a staff with no markings – and that is to play divisi. There are exceptions, of course: passages where the nature of the scoring invites a double stop approach. These would include intervals scored with conveniently access to open strings, or simple background harmonies that are easy to negotiate, both in finger position and tempo. Also, when you see a sudden accented chord of three or four notes, it’s a given that the composer intends a triple or quadruple stop. But generally speaking, intervals are intended to be played divisi, with the outer member of each desk covering the higher pitch, and the inner member the lower pitch. This is especially true with harmonised melodic scoring, in which the emphasis is on smoothness and melodicity – otherwise, the effect may be less secure in intonation, not to mention more like bluegrass fiddle in flow rather than beautifully legato concert strings. These early concert music defaults suggest a guide for your own general approach.*
There’s a bit of a misconception about strings losing power when marked divisi, from the assumption that when you divide a group of strings across two different pitches instead of uniting them on a single pitch, they become half as strong. This has led to quite a bit of unnecessary non divisi scoring as insurance, with very little score-reading to back it up. The truth is that divisi losing power is rarely an issue unless a. the scoring becomes very loud, and b. the strings are competing without support against other sections. There’s really no big concern about strings losing power in divisi at any dynamic up to and including mezzoforte. From forte and stronger, the strings may still be scored divisi without any danger of dropping out of the texture, so long as they are doubled intelligently by winds. In Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, he scores divisi in three and even four voices at louder dynamics. One such instance occurs in the opening Promenade, in which the phrase comes to an emphatic conclusion with both first and second violins dividing into two and then three voices. The first violins remain perfectly secure in the texture as they are doubled by upper winds, though the second violins may become obscured somewhat by trumpets on the same pitches. Nevertheless, they still contribute to the sound because they work in octaves with the firsts.
Generally speaking, the more important the focus is on minute control of intonation, articulation, expression, and nuance, the better a passage will work as divisi. By the same token, the less of a focus on such concerns, the more apt it might be to score non divisi – though even here there’s often little need. A good rule of thumb is to score the same way across all the strings: all divisi or non divisi, so that no string group is unduly heavy compared to another (though even this is not that great of a concern with experienced players). Yet it’s perfectly fine to score some strings as non divisi where open string combinations present themselves into the harmony, while others play divisi. It’s very common for violas and cellos to play double stops while the violins play divisi.
Divisi tends to come and go within a passage, and in the interests of keeping certain lines consistent in weight, a stand partner may drop out when the voice returns to a single line of notes from a few bars of intervals. So it is really up to the orchestrator to indicate that a unison is intended at the end of a divisi passage. If the scoring goes back and forth between unison and divisi frequently, mark the first instance, followed by “sim.” on the next instance, after which no further markings of any kind are required. Be aware, though, that a score in which the players are constantly alternating between divisi and non divisi intervals is very fussy writing, and the players will prefer divisi throughout (and may well go ahead and play it all divisi unless firmly instructed otherwise).*In very early music scored for tiny string sections, as discussed below in 100MOT Tip 101, double stops may indeed be the intended default for any two simultaneous pitches. This is because dividing two pitches amongst three players might prove impracticable. However, giving every player in a small string orchestra of around eleven players their own individual pitch can produce a beautifully balanced chamber strings effect.