Friday, September 16, 2011

The Transition from Baroque to Modern Violins - Bigger, Faster, Louder

Written by Stefan Aune

The baroque period lasted from approximately 1600 to 1750, and is famous for names such as Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi. These world-renowned composers were defined in part by the venues in which their music was played. Musical performance during the baroque period occurred primarily at court in front of royalty, or in churches. As a result, the auditory demands placed on baroque instruments were lesser than they are today - instruments didn't need to be as loud, or project as far as they do now. During the mid to late 1700's, as western music transitioned from the baroque to the classical period, public musical performance outside of the church or court was on the rise. Public orchestras were becoming popular, and the spaces in which music was performed proliferated and grew larger, both in terms of audience as well as sheer physical size. As a result, the technical specifications of musical instruments went through an adjustment period, and it was this transition that gave rise to the modern stringed instruments we use today.

Bach played the organ in church most Sundays

Modern violinists needed to play louder, as the venues in which they performed were growing larger and getting packed with audiences. Thanks to the development of the modern bow by Francois Tourte and others, string players were able to use their bows to greater effect, but violin makers needed to match these improved bows with louder, more playable violins. Additionally, the steady inflation of concert pitch, which rose gradually through the baroque and classical periods, necessitated modifications to stringed instruments that could accommodate the higher string tensions.

Italian violinist Giovanni Batista Viotti deserves a great deal of credit for the change to modern instruments. He played, quite successfully, on a Stradivarius with many of the following modifications, helping spur the change to modern instrument construction.



The "Viotti" Stradivarius on Display

The neck of modern stringed instruments is longer than those of baroque instruments by about a 1/4 inch. This extension allowed for a more elegant design with a more playable fingerboard shaped into a wedge, so that the fingerboard was closer to the strings in higher positions, allowing players to play loud and skillfully higher in the register. These longer necks proved particularly useful for soloists who wanted to play above the orchestra all over the string.

On modern violins, the bass bar, a thin strip of wood which rests inside of a stringed instrument, had to be replaced with a longer and heavier piece of wood. The new bass bars improved the sound of stringed instruments and caused them to project further and play louder. They also helped accommodate higher levels of string pressure brought about by another change, the higher and more arched modern bridge. These modern bridges reduced the chances that a performer would accidentally hit the wrong string, allowing performers to play loudly and aggressively. They also allowed performers to bow vigorously, with more pressure.

Bass Bar

These changes may seem simple, but they revolutionized the sound of the violin, and are largely intact today. The transition from the baroque to the classical period paralleled some profound cultural changes in governance, economics, and the social order, and music was swept up in these changes. Perhaps the best outcome was the rise of secular, "popular" music that could be enjoyed by more people than just royalty, and could be listened to in more venues than a church on Sunday. We should be thankful that violin makers and bow makers were able to rise to the challenge of constructing instruments that could project into the farthest corners of crowded concert halls.

No comments:

Post a Comment