“Baroque violin” has been with us for so long now that it seems almost
to question its identity. Nevertheless, the understanding of this
identity has changed
somewhat over the years, and it can do no harm to look again at some
details. Before doing so, however, let us briefly set out the principal
features commonly understood to distinguish the Baroque from the modern
is strung in gut,
occasionally using a metal wound G string. The modern violin uses a
materials for its strings, including
various metals, plastics, and
gut-core strings, but the
plain gut string has been banished .
|The bridge took many different forms
during the Baroque era, but in general it was much lower, somewhat
(especially at the top) and more “open” in design.
Baroque (1) and Modern (2) bridge designs.
by George Stoppani.
Baroque neck runs approximately parallel to the table, whereas the
neck is angled downwards. This is of course interdependent on the
|This is much shorter
on the Baroque violin.
||This is generally
smaller in a Baroque violin.
view of (1)
baroque and (2) modern violins, showing
bridge height, neck and fingerboard.
Violin bows: Baroque
Reiners), classical (Richard Wilson),
photo: Oliver Webber
features of the modern bow were first developed by
Tourte in the 1780s. Before this time the bow had taken a number of
forms, all of them shorter and lighter than the modern bow. A typical
the late 17th or early 18th century would be
snakewood (a much stiffer, denser wood than pernambuco, used for later
designs), have perhaps ¾ the length of a modern bow, half the
amount of hair
and a fixed frog. This made for a crisper articulation, increased
agility and a
greater variety of detached bow strokes.
combine to make a clear distinction between the “Baroque” and the
designs. In the early days of experiments with period instruments, this
sufficient to make serious inroads into the use of period instruments
enhance musical understanding. The tonal, technical and expressive
were plenty, and the fruits of these experiments could be seen in the
flourishing of ensembles and recordings in the 70s, 80s and 90s. This
flourishing, however, brought its own problems.
1: the growth of the early
music movement and implications for performers
As the idea of
“authentic” performance caught the public imagination, it was gradually
extended from its core of the high Baroque, backwards to the 17th
century and forwards to the classical and early romantic periods. This
very exciting time in the profession, as new repertoire was discovered
approaches to familiar music inspired sparkling performances. For
this was an especially rewarding phase, as the violin repertoire of the
century proved to be a veritable gold mine. However, this fruitful
history was, unsurprisingly, one in which many changes to the design of
stringed instruments took place, in part inspired by musical
implication of this is of course that the idea of one “Baroque” form of
violin from, say, 1600 to 1760, loses validity, and further
were increasingly expected to cover repertoire from the early 17th
century to the late 18th century and beyond, many were
(finances allowing) to buy (or have made) more than one instrument, and
violins began to be categorized as “Renaissance”, “Baroque” and
in turn brings us to...
2: the limitations of labelling
periods thus labelled are not precisely
demarcated – there
was no general notice published in 1760, say, announcing the beginning
classical era and inviting musicians to update their equipment
(And it would be very hard indeed to find agreement on any date for the
the renaissance and beginning of the baroque.)
On the other
hand, the distinctions have some validity and can be useful: the
between Monteverdi’s and Mozart’s violins are substantial and
is very difficult to play Mozart on a violin set up for Monteverdi, and
it is easier to play Monteverdi on a violin set up for Mozart, it is
(therefore) easy to lose sight of what is lost by doing so!
that we need to study carefully the evolution
of the violin – and to understand it as such. It is vital to recognize
are not dealing with simple “progress” towards modern “perfection 
instead we are looking at an instrument which has at each stage adapted
the prevailing musical style (and which in turn has
style . In some ways
this is very similar to
Darwinian evolution: each species adapts to its environment but also
that environment, creating a stable but flexible ecosystem.
We also need
to recognize, therefore, that the process is neither linear nor
are “blips” on the graph: for example, some Rocca violins from the
of the 19th
century have smaller
bass bars than some 18th century violins. There are also
“horizontal” anomalies between
example, makers of the Allemanische Schule throughout the 17th century
used a totally different method of construction from the
example of the
difference is the central bar carved
out of the belly, instead of the glued-on bass bar used by the
tonal implications of this are yet to be fully explored. There is a
collection of Allemanische Schule instruments at the
instrument museum in Berlin
while the features listed at the outset are no longer sufficient to
baroque violin, the finer classification of renaissance, Baroque and
is also problematic because of the fluid nature of the evolution of the
This has naturally put players in a difficult situation.
It has long been believed that baroque string
tension was lighter than
a modern violin: recently, however, this has been shown to be largely
For a detailed explanation of the principles of baroque stringing as
understood, follow the link to strings.
some 19th century writers did see things in
Louis Spohr, for example, in his Violinschule of 1832, wrote of the
that “the structure of the bow…has been carried to such a degree of
that in its present state, it scarcely seems susceptible of further
For example, we know that the
wound G string became increasingly common
violins towards the middle of the 18th century, and we find
the second half of the 18th century, composers were writing
that could ONLY be played with a wound G string. Similarly, the Tourte
enabled or inspired composers to write in a different way, using slurs
that a baroque bow would be useless.