WHAT EXACTLY IS A BAROQUE VIOLIN?

 

 

About 25 years ago, I swore off making violins with a Baroque set up because the attitude amongst Baroque violinists was that the appropriate sound of a Baroque violin should be refined, not so loud as a modern instrument, richer in overtones than a modern violin, and easy to play with a Baroque bow. When I heard the sounds they found acceptable using these above standards, I was completely turned off because what I heard to me sounded insipid, weak, scratchy, and feeble. I did not hear refined, instead I heard sounds that were barely audible at a distance, sound filled with overtones and completely lacking in resonance yielding a scratchy effect when played and wholly lacking in clarity or definition of pitch. That sound filled me with such loathing that I vowed never again to make a Baroque violin.

Since completing my violin acoustical researches in September of 2010, my 30+ year long quest to figure out and understand how the great violin makers from the 18th century managed to make the sounds of their instruments of such a high quality was finally at an end.  Mind you, just because I had all the playing cards in the deck, so to speak, I still was not able to play them in the right order such that I could make a great sounding violin.

In February 2011, I showed some recent violins of my own design during a trip to Europe and violinists were uniformly impressed with the sound of my violin because, as one violinist exclaimed: "it sounds like a violin made in the 17th or 18th century in Italy"! Another said that "though the G and D strings were powerful and impressively rich and resonant, he wasn't sure if the A and E strings were balanced as they felt light to him when playing the instrument", but when he heard the instrument at a distance about 20 rows back in the concert hall, he said: "I take it back, the A and E strings are wanting nothing and are equal, in the hall, to the lower two strings."

During that visit, my brother, Robert Hill, the Director of the Early Music at the Musik Hochschule in Freiburg, Germany after hearing my new violins urged me to reconsider making Baroque violins. When I brought up that old "weak/insipid/feeble/thin attitude" which in the past had so irritated me, he convinced me that because playing Baroque music using period instruments was now so main stream, even Baroque violinists are looking for loud sounding Baroque violins because they are playing in large concert halls and those feeble dinky sounding violins they hankered after back in the 1980s were incapable of sounding credible in large modern concert halls.

Now that I know about enhancing the sound of the violin, I have decided to make Baroque violins again but this time on my terms, confident that players will not turn their noses up at them because they are too loud, too powerful, too singing, and too intense (a complaint similar to what I was used to getting regarding the sounds of my harpsichords). However, there is still a sticking point for me about the current attitude/notion among Baroque violinists that there is only one set up for a violin to be called Baroque. Everything I know about musical instrument making tells me that there is the flavor of nonsense about this attitude/notion. Why? You might ask. The fact is there is no such thing as "A Baroque Set up" for a violin. Because, in the 17th and 18th centuries, every maker in every city had his own idea of what the correct set up for a Baroque violin should be. This means that there are hundreds to ways to set up a violin if you lived in the 18th century. Each city had its own set up peculiarities. The so called Baroque set up, involving a shorter neck, a thicker neck, a short fingerboard, a scant bass bar, and what is now erroneously called a Baroque bridge are all remnants of the Renaissance set up as practiced in Cremona. But how these matters were handled and interpreted in Naples, Bresia, Salo, Genoa, Venice, Mantua, Bologna, Rome, Turin, or Milan depended on specific players in those cities, not on the makers themselves. In turn, makers who became famous were using the set up typical in the city from whence they came as suggested by the best players in that city; and then probably from 50 years earlier. As the "Art of Playing the Violin" developed between 1600 and 1800, the violin went through a multitude of set up permutations. It was only after the mid-19th century when bravura violinists had their say that the so called Modern set up began to come into focus. Even so, national tastes, individual preferences and bravura performance expectations always guided how violins were set up. It was also at that point that violin set up became a craft unto itself and the process of a kind of standardized set up for the violin began to develop.

So when set up is discussed pertaining to Baroque violins, the most important question, I believe, to ask is..."Set up? According to whom?" The set up in Naples was the most advanced, to my knowledge, for bravura playing because the members of the Galiagno family of makers angled the long necks of their violins back in the "modern" manner and to the same degree and used a tall bass bar as similar in the "modern" manner. This was likely done to make playing high up on the fingerboard easier than the excessively thick neck and fingerboard found on extant Cremonese violins from the same period. So is it justified to call that accommodation to the bravura players in 18th century Naples modern? I think not. Rather, I prefer to call the modern practice of angled back necks and tall bass bars a residual practice handed down from the 18th century Naples violin making set up habits. That this habit came down to us today is probably due to the influence that Nicolo Paganini has had on the violin world. Something similar can be said of every modern set up practice except the use of steel or plastic strings, tuning machines, and the longer fingerboard. Issues of using gut to hold the tailpiece to the endpin are irrelevant because makers have been trying since the invention of stringed instruments to make a tailpiece gut that didn't break because that part of the instrument gets damaged by body oils and sweat from the players.

Exactly what does this mean? It means, I suspect, that the shorter neck was constructed so that thicker strings could be used, thus increasing the tension and boosting the amount of volume. The longer fingerboard was used to replace the shorter finger boards when they wore out, much in the same manner that old "short octave" harpsichords were outfitted with the more useful chromatic keyboards when the short octave keyboards no longer made any sense to hang on to, especially if the instrument was a wonderful sounding instrument. People back then did what was expedient according to what they wanted and didn't care one whit what we in the 21st century might think about it. When they wanted to learn pieces that required the higher notes on the E and A strings, they opted to have the longer fingerboards installed. That is a totally Baroque behavior. Similarly, when players were complaining about the lack of focus on the lower strings, such complaints might have stimulated Mr. Stradivari or Mr. Guarneri or Mr. Guadagnini to place taller bass bars into the instruments for those players. Then, liking the effect themselves, they could have kept doing that.

It also means that the degree of arch on the bridge would change for each individual owner of the violin. Bravura players prefer a flatter arch to avoid having to move the bow arm more than a few inches up and down in order to increase the efficiency of their bowing technique. This arch is still the preferred arch among the finest violin players living today. But do we call this a Baroque arch? No. We call it what it is, a concession to the best players of our time. Those who need a higher arch are not superior because they prefer the standard arch of today's standardized set up. And when Baroque violin players today opt for a Baroque bridge with a higher arch, they are not violating the set up practices of the Baroque in doing so.

Likewise, when considering what bridge to use, a modern bridge or a Baroque bridge based on the Renaissance designs, I can say this much. To the best of my knowledge the only existing acoustical justification for the Baroque violin bridge is not actually Baroque rather it is wholly Renaissance and out of step with the then totally "modern" up to date discoveries and ideas about the overtone series. Whereas, there is very clear acoustical justification for what we know of as the Modern violin bridge. Indeed, I wondered for many years how the modern design for violin bridge could have come into being since there were no clear precedents for it. Then, one day I discovered an acoustical principle which explained perfectly how that design came to be. It was then that I realized that since no violin makers after Guarneri del Jesu had the clarity of acoustical understanding to devise such a bridge, Guarneri had to have been the designer of that bridge. Clearly Stradivari did not design it because we have bridges and patterns by his hand that indicate he was still using the Renaissance models of bridges. This left only Guarneri. And since the design is so clearly specific as to every detail, it must have come from the mind of an acoustical genius. No one else had the acoustical understanding and inspiration to invent it. If that is true as I hold it to be, then the modern bridge is not modern at all, it is through and through a true Baroque bridge because it affords the maximum possible artistic expression. It just happens to be a full blown Baroque conception that came at a time when it wasn't in vogue...much like the piano when it was first introduce to the musical public in 1699. Like Cristofori's conception of the fortepiano and Guarneri's violins, the most acoustically advanced Baroque bridge designed by Guarneri only became current some 60-80 years after it was first introduced.

Thinking in terms of standardization is a modern mental habit which has no place in making or playing of Baroque violins. Baroque violin players need to be clear about what they need to have to make their violin the most comfortable for them to play in order to play their very best. If that means having everything "wrong", then they should have the right to that set up, because, after all is said and done, they are the ones responsible for playing the music and it is enough for them to learn to play the violin and the music written for it and be able to communicate the essence of that music for the enjoyment of the listeners. If they wish to use a shoulder rest or chin rest, the most they need to realize is how the sound may suffer from the weight and clamps on their violin, beyond that the decision should be theirs and theirs alone, and they should never be criticized for it.

Dogmatic notions of how Baroque violins should be set up are a 20th century mentality. Dogmatic notions about how players ought to play Baroque music is a 20th century mentality. Dogmatic notions about how Baroque violins ought to sound, unless those qualities are of the highest order of sound and artistic judgment, are a 20th century mentality. Since we now live in the 21st century, it is time to set aside those dogmatic notions and embrace a more spiritual attitude, one that is in harmony with the Spirit of the Baroque. And I for one have no interest in the mentalities of the 20th century. I prefer the freedom of decision, which the Soul needs to be revealed and expressed, in the making of musical instruments and in playing musically on the violin or harpsichord, or any other musical instrument, for that matter. And my Baroque violins will be my conception based on my best acoustical knowledge and not some arbitrary notion based on the odd residual artifact lying around in a museum collecting dust.

 

THE SUBJECT IS ANTIQUE'ING'

 

BY KEITH HILL © 2014

 

 

Study this first photo above.  What you see here are the actual signs of wear caused by playing an antiqued violin, from the early 19th century, without a shoulder pad or without keeping the violin in a well padded case.  These signs of wear indicate how the varnish has worn off by contact with the shoulder of the players, how the unpadded case chips away at the back in just that location causing pock marks, and how the hands of the players have worn the back where they contact the violin when playing and when holding the violin on the knee while waiting for the next entry to be cued by the conductor of the orchestra.  The top often sports a wear mark on either side of the tail piece where the beard of the violinist wore away the varnish, and a little wear on the upper bout where the hand reaches down the fingerboard to the reach highest notes.  Such wear is also evident on the great Italian violins.  What is not evident is the connection between physical wear and the extensive removal of varnish on many of the greatest violins both on the tops and on the backs.  Such removal has been historically explained away as wear...but that is 100% wrong.  The kind of removal I am referring to is what can be seen on this next photo of an actual Guarneri violin.

Violin by Guarneri, Giuseppe ‘del Gesu’  (Cremona, 1732)

Violin by Guarneri, Giuseppe ‘del Gesu’  (Cremona, 1732)

In this particular violin, you can see, even from this very poor quality photo the typical wear patterns and the kind of varnish removal I am referring to.  It is very clear.  Guarneri has removed varnish from the upper and lower bout areas extending far into the center of those areas...much farther than can be attributed to casual wear or years of cleaning.  Where the varnish is dark, there is more material.  Where the varnish appears lighter, there is less material.  On the 18th century Italian violins the varnishes were layered purposely to abide by the tried and true principle of painting or varnishing, that is, FAT OVER LEAN. 

A fat over lean application of varnish will yield the most durable and most acoustically manageable varnish.  Where the great makers needed to violate this principle, one can witness craquelure on their instruments.  Where varnish has not suffered craquelure on the same instrument, the varnish is generally lighter and thinner.

Interestingly, ultraviolet photographs show different colors of flourescence in the lighter areas indicating that varnish was either never applied there or it was removed.  I am claiming that there is an excellent reason for doing this.  But, for the effects to be sensed, the violin must be made using the same acoustical approach as the great Italian violin makers used in making the instruments originally.  Merely removing varnish on a typical violin made today would not produce an appreciable improvement in the sound of such an instrument.  And certainly, antiqueing would also make no appreciable different.  Because antiqueing, no matter how skillfully executed is essentially a visual feature on modern made violins...having nothing what so ever to do with the sound...rather, the point being to give the new owner the delusion of playing on an important violin, the sound of which is largely nothing at all like the great original of which it is a copy.

I purposely do not to make my instruments look like antique instruments. I thought for many years about this issue because Ruggerio Ricci asked me years ago when I showed him one of my instruments, which he said impressed him, why I did not antique my instruments as most of the better makers today are accustomed to doing? I told him, then, that I will do nothing false and to me antiqueing was pandering to a trade which preferred the delusion of antiquity to anything that sounded good. He immediately agreed but added that if I did not antique my instruments I would not sell any of my violins. I retorted that if that was the price for not doing anything false, then I would stop building violins. He hoped I would reconsider. I stopped building violins for almost 10 years because of that. And nothing has changed my mind. I still do not antique my instruments.

But, you say, your instruments look to me as though they have been antiqued? My answer is: think what you like, but they are not antiqued. After much experimentation I discovered that if I varnished in multiple coats and then removed very selectively one, two, three, and sometimes four layers of varnish, I could control the pitch or frequency of the varnish by its thickness. This had such a profound effect on the playability of the instrument and improved the sound to such an amazing degree that now I am perfectly convinced that the so called "wear" on the varnish of the great antiques is in fact not wear but intentional careful removal of varnish by the original makers for the same reason I discovered...to improve the playability and sound of the instrument. I call this process "micro-tuning".

Antiqueing is an extremely time consuming business if you are going to do it to the degree that the instrument looks like an antique. Frankly, I have better things to do with my time than waste it making fake antiques.   Micro-tuning, by comparison, for me at least, is relatively direct and efficient business as long as you know exactly what you are after and know how to get it with dispatch. The result appears almost identical to the appearance that you may observe on the antique violins by Stradivari and Guarneri, but the acoustical effects are totally different to the usual antiqued violin.  Antiqueing has no appreciable influence on the sound. However, since antiquers are not interested in the acoustical effects of what they are doing, it is irrelevant that the outcomes are wholly different. Micro-tuning produces the same appearance of the antiques without even trying, assuming you know what you are doing.

How can you be sure, you might ask? That question is fair.  In my subsequent investigations, I have now determined exactly what constitutes actual "wear" on the varnish of a new violin. It can be seen on the instruments made in France, Italy, and Germany in the 19th century (I refer you to the first of the two photos above). Some of these instruments have been well used and none of their wear patterns are remotely like what you see on the great antique violins by Stradivarius or Guarnerius. Clearly, some instruments did not need the micro-tuning at all. On those instruments the varnish is more or less uniform in shade and thickness. While other instruments had almost all their varnish removed and then replaced, then removed again, then varnished all over again without regard to how it would appear.

Why do I say that? Because the result is anything but pristine and anything which is pristine has had its pristineness very highly regarded. And, in the 17th and 18th centuries in Italy, especially, the workmen were aware of the concept of  Sprezzatura. In this concept, unevenness and irregularity are essential to creating a highly expressive and unselfconscious quality in anything. That spirit of self possession and confidence is crucial to creating something wonderful to behold. If you could produce extremely precise work in a totally offhand manner, so much the better, but if you couldn't, you should at least create something highly expressive and do it in a manner that is wholly unconcerned with the opinions of others. That is at the heart of  Sprezzatura. Perfect work that doesn't express this idea is both weak and insipid. To be bold is an essential virtue. That is how I work and micro-tuning is my technical means of arriving at that quality of  Sprezzatura.

That is why I believe that Stradivarius and Guarnerius both micro-tuned their varnish. They did it in order to enhance the sound and playability of their instruments. What resulted as to the appearance is about what we can see today on those instruments...Sprezzatura. Sure there is some wear, but that wear is almost the same as what you can observe on the 19th century instruments which have not been shaded in order to antique them.

I also gave years and years of thought to what the effects of age would appear like and what the effect would be on the instrument. Well, the visual effects on the sound of the instrument is negligible. Meaning, there is also no significant effect on the sound from the dings and dirt that an instrument acquires with age. However, I have observed that there is a profound effect on the souls of those who play an instrument which is "dirty" and obviously "used". That effect is what I call "amicis utiorum" or user friendliness. The impulse to touch an object that appears like someone else has already used and appreciated the object is both immediate and invited. That is, players feel like the instrument is inviting them to touch and play the instrument. Instruments which are pristine in every way send the clear and opposite message: Noli me Tangere! or don't touch me. Perfection of appearance declares an object is off limits. THIS is what Ruggerio Ricci was clearly alluding to many years earlier. He just didn't make that clear to me.

I am also reminded of the time that I carted around a harpsichord I had made in order to show it to players in different areas of the country.  The instrument was as perfect looking as I could tolerate making.  Curiously, when I took the instrument around to conservatories and various schools of music where harpsichord was taught, the teachers and the students flocked to look at the instrument and almost no one dared to play it...so I was forced to do so to let them hear the instrument.  Only then did the ice break but still the players were reluctant to play the instrument.  Years later, as an experiment, I deliberately made the instrument I was working on as dirty as possible using glazes, not to make the instrument look antique, but to learn about how the dirt would affect the players.  As soon as the harpsichord was set up the players flocked around the instrument waiting to play it, touching it, getting up close and "dirty" so to speak.  That brought to mind how little kids love playing in dirt.  This has brought me to the conclusion that the Soul likes dirt, not filth, but dirt because it never feels rejected by that which is dirty.  Most children learn to dislike dirt, a tendency of overbearing parenting.

Now that I understand the effect on the souls of players, which creating a judicious impression of invitation by carefully controlling the appearance to lure the soul to play the instrument, by making the instrument as user friendly as possible, I feel that there is nothing false in so doing. It is an active artistic decision. It is imperative. For nothing is worse in Art than to be scolded for being interested in it...the net effect of anything that is pristine.

 But I in no way consider what I am doing to be antiqueing because I have no particular interest in faking something to appear like it is old and worn.  I am only interested in the acoustical effects of micro-tuning, Sprezzatura, and rendering an instrument to be an open invitation to being played and enjoyed.  I still reject the idea of pandering to the delusion, however desired that may be, of having a genuine antique when the instrument is actually brand new.  I still reject fakery and fraud.