Pictured from left to right: Baroque bow made by Ralph Ashmead; Baroque violin (modern violin with Baroque construction); modern violin shown without chinrest; Romantic violin with chinrest (invented by Louis Spohr); electric violin; Tourte bow
Music is exciting because through it we always have a medium in which to experiment and explore new ways of communicating to each other. Music, like other languages, is living. This vibrancy is reflected in many instruments, the violin being no exception. The changes it has undergone reflect an ever present search for greater sound power, responsiveness, and control as can be seen in the sound of the romantic and electric violins. Yet it is also fortunate for us that we have the ability to capture the brilliancy and warmth of the Baroque violin. These diverse yet unified sound pictures open up new worlds when united to the music of various times, histories, and cultures. The following is a brief article on the history of the violin as an instrument.
The violin of the Baroque is the violin we know today, with some important sound changing differences. The basic construction has remained the same since the days of Andrea Amati (c. 1500-1 or no later than 1511 – c. 1579), one of the world’s earliest violin makers. Differences between today’s violin setup and Baroque setup mainly have to do with strings and string tension, which reflect an ever-present search for more sound, control, and power, i.e. a “sound quest”.
A Baroque violin would have been fitted with gut strings made from sheep intestines (for a great website showing the process of making gut strings, visit the article by Daniel Larson on the Gamut Music Inc. website at http://gamutmusic.squarespace.com/making-gut-stings/). Around 1700 silver-wound gut G strings were made. As time went one, people developed new types of strings involving metal. However, many violinists continued to use gut strings to greater or lesser extents. Some players used strings wound with metals alongside all gut strings, and some continued to use gut exclusively. It was not until the 20th century that steel strings wound with silver were developed. The violin article in Grove Music Online states that, “[…] a few performers, most notably Fritz Kreisler, persevered with a gut E string as late as 1950”. This illustrates how, just as earlier instruments were used alongside newer ones, so too were the older types of gut violin strings used along side the newer wound gut or all metal types.
During the Baroque, the fingerboard was shorter and more parallel to the front of the violin. As time went on, violin makers elongated fingerboards to accommodate higher positions. Fingerboards were also tilted back away from the front of the violin, and bridges were made higher. This increased string tension and resulted in the potential for more volume. Fingerboards were almost always changed out on old instruments and there are very few Baroque violins existing today in their unaltered state. Strads and other old violins that have survived show these changes. On these instruments one can see the seam where the new neck was attached to the old scroll.
This comparison between Baroque and current day setup reveals how people have been working with instruments and instrument construction in order to fulfill a sound ideal. The fact that there are very few unaltered Baroque violins demonstrates the widespread impact of the sound quest. By making changes to existing violins and violin construction, people expanded the instrument’s volume ability. These changes affected performance. Or was it that changes in performance affected the instrument? It’s probably both. The quest continues as new innovations emerge in electric violin construction. With the advent of 5 and 6 string electric violins, volume capabilities as well as range is greatly expanded, reaching from the highest soprano notes of the traditional violin to the depths of almost the entire cello range.
Bows from around Bach’s time were varied in construction, but had some overall differences from the bow widely used today, the Tourte bow. The term “Baroque bow” is extremely generalized as it is used in connection with many early bows. Baroque bows were generally shorter and either straight or convex in shape. They had a very pointed, light tip resulting in easily detached and clear articulation. The Baroque-style bow I often use is very much like a bow from c. 1700 housed in the Ashmolean Museum. It is straight and ends in a point.
The “Cramer bow” named after the violinist from Mannheim Wilhelm Cramer (1745 – 99) was used in cities like London and Paris from around 1750 – 85. It is a bit shorter than today’s bow, yet is concave in shape, unlike the Baroque bow. The bow which most modern players today use is the one created in Paris by Francois Tourte around 1785. It is longer, concave, and is heavier in general, especially at the tip. It can take a lot of weight from the right hand and makes it easy to sustain sound.
There are advantages and disadvantages with both bows. The Baroque bow in its many variants naturally makes more space between chords allowing for the easier hiding of finger changes. It is also easy to shape individual notes and to articulate fast passages. Baroque bows’ constructions call for a more arpeggiated manner of playing chords while the Torte bow welcomes breaking the chords. With the modern bow, it is easier to sustain long notes, play legato, and to have a large, carrying sound.
Violin technique has always been undergoing changes as violinists and composers explore and experiment. This was happening a lot during J. S. Bach’s lifetime. Three treatises on violin playing written by Leopold Mozart, Francesco Geminiani and Giuseppe Tartini between the years 1751 and 1756 show that these violinists had differing as well as similar views on violin technique. These treatises are wonderful primary resources for anyone who is interested in exploring historical performance practice. Their bibliographical information is listed below this article. Here are some techniques and the ideas these men had about them:
Mozart: He advocates avoiding open strings during solos. He says that the violinist should use the 4th finger instead and that the soloist should try to play everything on one string where possible to maintain a cohesive tone color.
Geminiani: Gives exercises for stopping the strings with different fingers (different positions) but does not mention maintaining the same tone color or avoiding open strings.
Tartini: He states, “As regards changing position, it is impossible to give any hard and fast rules. The student should adopt whatever method he finds most comfortable in each case, and therefore he should practice the hand shifts in every possible way so that he is prepared for every situation that may arise”.
Mozart: He states, “[…] one must accustom oneself from the beginning to draw a long, uninterrupted, soft, and flowing stroke. One must not play away at the point of the bow with a certain kind of quick stroke which scarce touches the string, but must always play solidly”. He also mentions basics such as keeping the bow parallel to the bridge and maintaining a good contact point near the bridge away from the fingerboard for good tone. He says, “[…], the stroke must be guided by the whole arm; the shoulder should move but little, the elbow more, but the wrist quite freely and naturally”. Significantly he also says, “The following rule can serve to some extent: Notes at close intervals should usually be slurred, but notes far apart should be played with separate strokes and in particular be arranged to give a pleasant variety”. It should also be noted that Mozart is more specific about bowings that Tartini and labels them with up down bow markings.
Geminiani: He states, “The motion is to proceed from the joints of the wrist and elbow in playing quick notes, and very little or not at all from the joints of the shoulder; but in playing long notes, where the bow is drawn from one end of it to the other, the joint of the shoulder is also a little employed”. He also says, “The bow must always by drawn parallel from the bridge […] and must be pressed upon the strings with the fore-finger only and not with the full weight of the hand”. He advocates using the whole bow when he says, “The best performers are least sparing of their bows and make use of the whole of it, from the point to that part of it under and even beyond their fingers”.
Tartini: His technique reflects an earlier style of playing that the other two violinists mentioned. He does not advocate a rule of starting down bow on down beats, but rather says that passages should be practiced both ways, but that consistency must be maintained within passages. He says that bow weight is to be added only in the middle of the bow and that violinists just, “Always use the middle of the bow, never play at the point or the heel”. The exception is staccato at the tip. Significantly, much like Mozart, he says, that is a melody moves by step it is cantabile and connected and if it moves by leaps it is allegro and detached.
Geminiani, Francesco, The Art of Playing on the Violin, facsimile edition, London: Travis & Emery Music Bookshop, 2009.
Mozart, Leopold, A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing, translated by Editha Knocker in 1948, second edition 1951.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Tartini, Giuseppe, Traité des agréments de la musique, ed. Erwin R. Jacobi, English translation by Cuthbert Girdlestone, with a suppliment of a facsimile of the original Italian text, Celleand, New York: Hermann Moeck Verlag, 1961.
Boyden, David D., The History of Violin Playing from its Origins to 1761 and its Relationship to the Violin and Violin Music, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 19.
 Daniel Larson, “Making Gut Strings”, http://gamutmusic.squarespace.com/making-gut-stings/, part of the the Gamut Music Inc. website, (accessed October 6, 2011).
 Boyden, The History of Violin Playing from its Origins to 1761, 111.
 David D. Boyden, Peter Walls, et al., “Violin”, Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed October 22, 2007).
 David. D. Boyden, Catalogue of The Hill Collection of Musical Instruments in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), 27 – 28, plate 19.
 David. D. Boyden, “The violin bow in the 18th century”, Early Music, April 1980, 206.
 Ibid, 199.