About a Violin

The Old Italian Violin, Musical Chameleon

A Story of Rare and Beautiful Violins

Stradivari violin

Just two fiddles in a case. That's how an old friend described the rare Cremonese violins he had just seen on their way from one recital to another. Together they are worth in the low 8 figures, so I can't help wondering what their maker, Guarnari, del Gesu, a solitary, ailing man whose produced relatively few instruments, would have made of the market's enthusiasm for his work. It seems to me he might well have been astonished that his violins survived at all, through the changes of musical taste and circumstances of the centuries, and mortified that he did not live to reap the financial reward.

Many old violins, violas and violoncellos did perish in accidents or were neglected. Many more survived, and are, centuries later, still working for a living (Many more survive than could have been made then, but that is another story.) On the other hand, the more lightly constructed guitars, lutes, recorders, and flutes made by Guarnari's contemporaries, that were all around him and made in the thousand, survived in smaller numbers and today are far more likely to see seen in a museum than heard in the hands of a star player. The plucked and blown instruments of the baroque make their way into the concert hall frequently enough, but only by way of modern copies, while in the chamber orchestra I play in, Tafelmusik, there are only two modern copies of baroque instruments among the 14 string players, the rest of the players use instruments hundreds of years old, which thanks to modern restoration techniques have been re-built to what seems to us, at least, like a persuasive version of their baroque form.

The seasoning of time does not do for guitars what it does for violins, violas 'cellos, and basses. Some say a guitar is becomes less loud and less responsive after 80 years of use, while the violins of Guarnari, Stradivari, and Amati, and those of other Italian makers, are especially sought by players, and have been for more than 300 years. While some of the guitars of Stradivari have come down to us, we know their sound only from modern copies. I have not been able to find a cogent explanation why motions of a string put in motion by a rosined bow should be kinder to the wood of an instrument than the plectra, or finger nails of a guitarist. Or why recorder players find their favorite recorder, ancient or modern copy is 'played out' after twenty years or so. There are those that suggest the 400 years may be a limit for bowed stringed instruments, so that we are only now beginning to experience the decline of the first members of the violin family, represented by Maggini and Andrea Amati.

The 17th and 18th century Luthiers - yes, violin makers were and are still called lute makers- made the bowed string instruments out of materials in the world directly around them. The sounding boards were uniformly made of spruce, backs and ribs from locally grown maple of various kinds. The pieces were held together with hide glue This cousin of Jell-O, made of rendered animal parts, is still used by makers today. Hide glue has virtues which have kept it from being superseded by modern glues.

A join made with such glue is reversible, while the user, depending on the application, can make up the glue itself in varying strengths. This is important, because for all the genius of the Luthier of the Baroque Era, the construction of the stringed instruments of that time routinely breaks a basic rule of woodworking, that of avoiding cross-grain construction. Perhaps in the days before central heating the cross-grain joins in these instruments were less tried by changes to humidity and temperature than they are today. In any case, keeping the strength of the glue low helps ensure that if the wood needs to move in response to changes in humidity, the glue in the join rather than the wood gives way.

Sometimes larvae of the beetle Anobium species lived in the bodies of stringed instruments, creating worm galleries in instruments that were stored for long times in damp places. The close cousins to the violin family, the violas da gamba, and violas d'amore suffered damage from these larvae much more often than did the violin family.

Once the instrument's body was made, it needed varnish for protection. So little of the original varnish remains on the old instruments I know myself that the interest in it seems to me to rest on a very small foundation, but much ink has been spilled over the issue. So mundane is the source of most of the other ingredients of the bowed string instrument that I wonder if the varnish might not have been bought from the local pharmacy. Whatever the source, people have wondered for ages what the ingredients were and what contribution vanish makes to the overall tone of the instrument.

Once the body of the instrument was done, strings, made of the twisted inner intestines of sheep, were stretched over them. Wire strings, brass and steel, might have been used, and in some cases gut strings were wound, or over-spun, with very fine wire. But, despite the drawbacks to gut, chiefly its instability due to humidity, listeners appreciated the warmth of its tone. To set the strings vibrating the player uses a bow, one of the few wooden parts that came from the New World rather than from local forests. Different kinds of bows have been made and used over the centuries. A number of woods were tried, among them ebony (also used for parts getting the most wear, like pegs, fingerboards, and tailpieces,) snakewood, (which was also used for walking sticks,) bannia, and finally Pernambuco. This yellow to reddish-purple wood has been the standard for pre-modern and modern bows for 200 years.

Originally used for making dye (shavings make a deep purple color) Pernambuco was found to have the right balance of weight and stiffness. Though really fine Pernambuco is rare today, the best for bows is extremely strong with a weight/density just slightly greater than water...it sinks. Whatever the kind of wood and the model of the bow its function is to hold and to tension the horsehair, which is drawn over the string. Boiled down pinesap, called rosin, was rubbed on horsehair, which was held taut by the stick of the bow. Without rosin on the horsehair, no sound comes out of the finest violin, but in 25 years I have hardly heard two words said, or read anything, about rosin. Essential, but not subject to any kind of substantial change.

I mention all the bits and pieces that go into using a violin to make musical sound, because every elements changes the musical equation, some a great deal, some very little. For example, when one of my colleagues is trying a new bow, and I walk into the rehearsal area where he is warming up, I recognize who is playing, but know immediately something is different.

The violins of the famous Italian makers, Stradidivari, Amati, and Guarnari, are as famous as the Mona Lisa, War and Peace, the Marriage of Figaro. Made of simple common ingredients, wood, hair, gut, and sap, they continue to thrive in a world of computers and biotechnology. The secret of their longevity may be in their very simplicity, and adaptability. They can be many different things to different players, while the lutes and recorders could not. With gut strings and a low-tension set-up the Cremonese violins excel in the chamber music of the 18th century. With a Tourte bow, modern synthetic strings and a player to match, they provide the basis for the lush Hollywood film score.

Violins have made their way into Egyptian and Indian music, in redesigned forms they are in all kinds of commercial music. In most of these cases there are modern additions to the musical equation, the kind of bow, the kind of string, and certainly the musical imagination of the player can be a very new invention. But the body of the violin remains largely unchanged, even if the maker would have been hard pressed to recognize its sound. In short, the Old Italian violin is a musical chameleon.

By Thomas Georgi owner of the web site Viola d' amore