Baroque violin

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A Baroque violin is, in common usage, any violin whose neck, fingerboard, bridge, and tailpiece are of the type used during the baroque period. Such an instrument may be an original built during the baroque and never changed to modern form; a modern replica built as a baroque violin; truly rare anachronistic Baroque violins of the 19th century[1] or an older instrument which has been converted (or re-converted) to baroque form. "Baroque cellos" and "baroque violas" have had similar modifications made to their form.

Baroque mounted Jacob Stainer violin from 1658

Following period practices, most baroque violinists use three upper plain gut strings, lending a richer blend of overtones to the sound. Baroque violinists commonly play without a chin-rest or shoulder-rest: the chin-rest was not invented until ca. 1820 by Louis Spohr (as he claims in his ca. 1830 Violinschule) and did not catch on quickly; the shoulder-rest is a mid 20th-century creation. The relaxed and natural baroque violin posture is quite different from the more tense modern violin position.

Playing a "Baroque violin"[edit]

The baroque violin, as played today, is often held more parallel to the floor than the modern violin. Yet in Francesco Geminiani's The Art of Playing on the Violin[2] (London, 1752; fasc. rpt. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1952), and most other treatises, it is suggested to tilt the violin up on the bass side so the lowest string can be reached more easily, not unlike the modern position. Some players do not touch their chin to the instrument at all, using its thicker neck for support rather than chin pressure. Most treatises—e.g., Geminiani 1751 (cited above), Leopold Mozart: Versuch einer grundlichen Violinschule (Augspurg 1756; trans. by Editha Knocker: A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing [London: Oxford University Press, 1937, 1948, etc.])--advocate a preference for a chin-free grip (though L. Mozart offers the alternative of gripping the violin on the treble side of the tailpiece for those who cannot master the chin-free method), as we see in virtually all iconography.

Characteristics of baroque violins[edit]

Other typical differences from the modern violin include a smaller, narrower, shallower bass bar, although there was experimentation with size and even placement (in such French instruments as those by Médard and Louis Laghetto) of the bass bar or in later examples from Mittenwald; a differently shaped bridge with less mass owing to the high placement of its "eyes"—holes on either side—-and greater flexibility in the upper half, yielding a more even overtone blend, richer in upper partials than in later models. The modern bridge is related to transitional styles that began to emerge during the early 18th century, with more mass in the top than the bottom, producing a more fundamental-heavy, darker, less colorful sound. A baseless myth credits this bridge design to Joseph Guarneri del Gesù (1698–1744). In a ca. 1770 painting of Gaetano Pugnani (1731–98), an early champion of del Gesù violins, however, one sees his unusually flat-arched violin, clearly his Guarneri, with the typical earlier bridge one expects (see Dominic Gill, ed.: The Book of the Violin [New York: Rizzoli, 1984, p. 100). Perhaps the erroneous Guarneri attribution stems from the ca. 1820 transitional bridge on Paganini's famous Guarneri violin, the "Cannon," (see Alberto Giordano, "A fitting conclusion," The Strad, Oct. 2004, p. 1048), which some may have mistaken for an original; the caption for the photo of the bridge, reading "labeled by Guarneri del Gesu himself" doesn't help matters. A bridge, in the Paris Conservatoire, is labeled "Guarneri del Gesù," adding to the confusion: the label simply references the violin from which the bridge was removed (in 1880 when the Conservatoire acquired it); not the anonymous, similar Paganini-period maker of the bridge.

The baroque tailpiece is flatter and does not have an upper saddle nor does it have the keyed holes one sees in its modern counterpart. Of course, fine-tuners were unknown and unnecessary until the advent of the wire E-string, ca. 1917. The most noticeable and important difference between the modern and baroque violins is the neck and the tension its placement causes the strings to exert on the bridge. Most old violins have had new necks grafted into their peg-boxes that slant strongly backwards, the strings creating a steeper angle on the bridge than the early neck, where the angle was generally shallower and quite variable. A wedge-shaped, veneered fingerboard completed the proper rise to the bridge. The old neck was also generally glued to the violin's ribs and nailed from the inner top-block through the thicker, more gently sloped neck-heel, while the modern neck is mortised into an opening cut into the ribs and upper edge of the violin. The subject is thoroughly examined in: William L. Monical, Shapes of the Baroque: the Historical Development of Bowed String Instruments (New York: The American Federation of Violin & Bow Makers, 1989). Earlier, less accurate, information appears in: David D. Boyden: The History of Violin Playing from its origins to 1761 (London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1965).

No authenticated 16th century "renaissance" violins survive unaltered. One of the earliest violins with a nearly original set-up is the 1613 H&A Amati Amati piccolo violin in the Shrine to Music Museum (Vermillion, South Dakota, USA). But even here, the neck has already been re-angled[3] by two shims, so the wedging of the fingerboard is less than it must have been originally; thus, any information to be gained is compromised. (See: Margaret Downie-Banks, "The violino piccolo and other small violins," Early Music, vol. XVIII no. 4, Nov. 1990, pp. 588–596; and a professional drawing in: Peter Walls, "Mozart and the violin," Early Music, vol. XX no. 1, Feb. 1992, p. 11)


Heads of three violin bows: (upper) transitional (F. Tourte), swan-bill head of a long 18th-century model, pike-head of a 17th-century model

Baroque bows are quite different in construction and use. The modern violin bow contains inward curve, or camber, in the middle to make it usable with the higher, hatchet-shaped head while the "baroque" bow will look straight or bent outwards under playing tension though it is still generally relaxed. Small amounts of "corrective" camber were not infrequently used even on earlier bows and can be discerned when they are completely loose. The old bow, almost always made of the strong, dense snakewood, terminates in a lower, elegant "pike" or "swan-bill" head. The bow was roughly 58–63 cm long until about 1720, and was later called a "short bow" during the 18th century after the advent of "long bows," which are 68–72 cm in length. The screw mechanism for changing hair tension is first mentioned in a French shop inventory of 1747; it was not universally accepted for over a decade as players were perfectly happy with "clip-in" models: a removable frog held in place by hair tension in a mortise carved into the stick, its tension adjusted by shims between hair and frog surface. Transitional bows, with higher heads and inward curve, usually made of the less dense, more elastic pernambuco, appear ca. 1765; in essence, the early modern bow created by François Tourte, ca. 1780, ultimately the universally accepted version, was simply one among these experiments. The earlier snakewood bows are intended for natural articulation and color, while the transitional/modern bows seem to have been invented because the inward curve permits a bounced stroke that captivated musicians in the mid-late 18th century, but ironically, with which they became disenchanted by ca. 1820. The so-called "Bach-bow," invented by Emil Telmányi, with a bizarre, exaggerated arched shape where the tension was controlled by a trigger mechanism in the frog (nut) is a fantasy concocted by musicologists Arnold Schering and Albert Schweitzer in the 1930s: the "Vega bow". All involved should have known better: strongly out-arched bows shown in iconography had fixed (clip-in) frogs and were, as described, probably quite flexible. The most relevant information about the early bow is: Robert E. Seletsky, "New light on the old bow," Early Music, Vol. XXII, May 2004, pp. 286–301 [Pt. 1] and XXIII, August 2004, pp. 415–426. A revised reprint appears in Baroque Music, ed. Peter Walls in the series The Library of Essays on Music Performance Practice (UK: Ashgate, 2011), pp. 81–106.

Baroque violins today[edit]

Baroque violins are part of the expanding interest in authentic performance that began in the 1950s and increased during the 1970s and '80s. Their use reflects an attempt to rediscover the style of violin playing best suited to music of their period. Many luthiers today are able to offer violin-family instruments in early set-up, though much is still unknown, given the relative scarcity of unaltered original instruments for study. Typically, period instrument players attempt to learn the style and aesthetic appropriate to the music and instruments in period treatises and facsimile editions. This practice is referred to as HIP, or Historically Informed Performance.

Baroque violin concertmasters, soloists or professors[edit]