Baroque Violin: Not Just Gut Strings

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Classical Violin By: Tutor no longer registered
Subject: Violin » Classical Violin
Last updated: 19/04/2017
Tags: baroque, early music, research, strings, violin

The relatively recent rediscovery of Baroque music and performance practice has enabled most modern violinists to develop an awareness of many of the fundamental principles of performing early music. Whilst this is a positive development in itself, an unfortunate result of the widespread consideration of authentic performance practice is that the evidence has become clouded by misinterpretation or a lack of theoretical understanding.

In my own experience as a modern violinist, there are a number of vague yet deeply rooted assumptions about Baroque string playing, and of historically informed performance in general. To name but a few: the belief that all music composed pre-1750 was performed at A-415, known today as ‘Baroque pitch’, alongside claims that vibrato was entirely absent and shunned during this era, not to mention the widespread assumption that dynamics occurred only in terraced blocks of forte and piano with no variation in between. These are just some of the generalisations that I, like many, took as being facts. That is until I embarked on my year-long project to research this area comprehensively on a widespread level, and present the findings in my recently completed book: Theory and Practice in Baroque Violin Performance. Despite immersing my life into this path of research and covering a vast area of the topic in great detail already, I feel as though I’ve only yet scratched the surface on what is a truly colossal subject area, with new discoveries around every corner and innumerable conclusions to be drawn.

The inherent characteristics of instruments and bows from the Baroque era offer the greatest insight into playing styles, and the sheer amount by which period instruments differ from those we use today would be enough to shock any previously-unfamiliar player. Upon discussing the matter with an experienced luthier, he shared with me his all too familiar experience of this issue: “I remember a player coming into the shop saying he wanted his violin in a baroque set up,” he explained, “but more memorable was his face when he realised that wasn't just a case of a fancy bridge and gut strings. I presented him with a bill which would have bought him a whole violin – he was horrified.”

Even more complex than the issue of recreating period instruments is the selection of an appropriate bow. To say there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to Baroque bows would be a vast understatement. The common modern understanding of the Baroque bow as being simply a short, convex stick couldn’t be further from the truth; the art of bow making was ever-evolving from the earliest days to the masterpieces of François Tourte, the result of an ongoing interaction between the changing demands of composers and players, and the innovation and developmental readiness of instrument makers of the time.

It is not only those interested in recreating historically informed performances that will benefit from the findings of this kind of research. Many modern violinists assume that such an in-depth understanding of the Baroque era, its music, and its instruments, is largely irrelevant. However, throughout my entire time studying at a conservatoire, nothing enhanced my playing and musicianship on a greater level than gaining a thorough insight into the history and workings of my instrument and of music in general. We spend so much time honing our performing skills through hours of practice - isn’t it time we got to know the origins of our instruments and their complex yet fascinating path to their modern form?

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