Saturday, April 6, 2013

Why f Holes?

f holes, The 'Harrison' Stradivarius circa 1693

By Andy Fein, Violin Maker & Owner, Fein Violins, Ltd.

It's pretty hard to miss the very distinctive feature of the violin family's sound holes. The f hole. They are almost like a violin maker's fingerprints. Very distinctive and a true sign of a maker's skill.

Stradivarius f holes, Royal Palace of Madrid Stradivarius circa 1700

But why f holes? There are many other sound hole patterns that would probably work as well.




First, the shocker. When violin family instruments were evolving, the letter that we know today as a small italic 'f'' was actually a long, descending or medial s. That type of 's' was used in the beginning and middle of words in print and in cursive in Latin, Italian and other formal scripts.
Medial "s" in the word 'Congress' in the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights

Label of the Brescian master Gasparo da Salo, viola da gamba circa 1570, "Gasparo da  Salo, In Brescia" showing the medial "s"



The word for 'sound' in Latin is 'sonas'. In Italian it is 'suono'. In French it is 'son'. In Spanish it is 'sonido'. At the time that the violin family was evolving, Latin was the formal written language. This is seen by the use of Latin versions of the names of the maker and city on the label of the instrument. I will make a not too stretched conjecture and say that the early violin makers were putting 's' holes, or 'sonas' holes in their instruments. As the letters changed form, our name for the sound holes changed with them.
Viol by Jakob Stainer circa 1671 with sound holes that are not f holes
Sound hole on a Viola da Gamba (Viol family)  by Boller Bugger, Mantua circa 1630

Whether you believe my conjecture or not, f holes are a defining feature of violin family instruments, differentiating them from the older viol family of instruments. F holes. Violins have them, viols don't.

The f holes of the 'King' cello by Andrea Amati, circa 1538

The earliest examples of f holes are on the earliest violin family instruments by Andrea Amati (mid 1500s) and Gasparo da Salo, and Pietro Zanetto ( both from Brescia, mid to late 1500s). These makers used fairly wide f holes, with the Brescians' being very long as well.
f hole, Pietro Zanetto viola, circa 1564

f holes, Andrea Amati violin circa 1560
f holes, The 'King Henry IV' violin by Antonio & Girolamo Amati, circa 1595

Girolamo Amati f holes, circa 1604
f holes, Gasparo da Salo viola circa 1609

If you look at the f holes of the generations of the Amati family there is a general trend towards a narrower and more elegant f hole. Stradivarius learned his trade in the workshop of Nicola Amati. By the time Stradivarius was working in the Amati shop, the Amati f holes had become very round, flowing and reflective of the curves of the instrument. They had become an integral part of the artistic presentation of the instrument.
f holes, Nicolo Amati Violin, circa 1628

f holes, Andrea Guarneri viola circa 1664
Over the generations, violin makers have experimented with various lengths and widths of f holes, and the positioning of the f holes on the top. Of course, there are limitations. Some of the limitations you would expect, others are more subtle. If the f holes are placed too wide apart, the sound tends to become rough. Too close together and the vibrating part of the top becomes too narrow with a resulting "pinched" sound.  Too wide of an f hole (more than 8mm at the notches for violins) and the violin loses projection. Too narrow (6mm or less for violins) and a luthier might have trouble getting the soundpost in to the instrument. The treble f hole gets banged up quite a bit if the width is too narrow.


Think the f holes don't make much difference? Sing a scale in to the f hole. Feel a certain note vibrate? Now cover up one of the f holes with a soft cloth and repeat the scale singing. Feel and hear a difference? Yes, f holes matter.  

Air is flowing back and forth through the f holes as you play your instrument. How that air flows, how smoothly it flows, and how fast it flows are all characteristics of your instrument's tone.

f holes, The 'Harrison' Stradivarius, 1693

Stradivarius f holes

The most perfect f hole? The 'Messiah' Stradivarius,  circa 1716
The 'Wieniawski' Guarnerius del Gesu Violin, circa 1742


f holes, Maggini violin, Brescia circa 1615
Wondering what the little triangular notches are on the inside and outside of each f hole are for? The inside notches denote an imaginary line across the top that designates the 'stop' or 'stop line'. The bridge usually is placed on the stop line and centered on the instrument. For violins, the distance from the edge to the stop has been standardized at 195mm. However(!), many great instruments have shorter or longer stops. This doesn't make them "wrong". Just different. A good violin maker/repairer with a good set of ears can help you determine the best place for the bridge if the stop is not 195mm.

And the outside notches? Umm, I dunno! Artistic balance?
Cellist Julia Bruskin, Vuillaume Cello, circa 1849
The 'Wieniawski' Guarnerius del Gesu Violin, circa 1


f holes, Nicola Bergonzi viola, Cremona circa 1781





A cello by Matteo Goffriller, circa 1730
Need even more f hole trivia? You can often tell whether a maker was right handed or left handed by the cut of the f holes. The bass f hole is usually neater with a right handed maker, the treble f hole is neater with a left handed maker. An excellent example of this comes to us from brothers Matteo Goffriller (probably right handed) and Francesco Goffriller (probably left handed). I once saw a viola they made together and I'm almost certain each brother cut one f hole. Their better one.
Francesco Goffiller violin, circa 1726
www.FineViolins.com

4 comments:

  1. This is a wonderful article. Thank you for the information!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I love these articles! Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  3. >There are many other sound hole patterns that would probably work as well.

    I wonder if there has ever been a scientific study about the optimal shape for an F-hole. I suppose they have to be catered to the instrument, as well.

    ReplyDelete