Sunday, June 28, 2015

Your (Violin) Neck Used To Be Shorter

By Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins
 and Martha McDermott

Have you ever experienced this phenomena?- You or an orchestra friend gets some new string that's just hit the market, or a shoulder rest, or some other doodad AND it makes that violin sound GREAT! Next thing you know, every violinist in the orchestra has one! In the early nineteenth century there were huge changes going on in the violin world. First Paganini made some changes and it made his violin sound GREAT! Then next thing you knew, EVERYONE needed those changes.

It's hard to imagine an instrument as staid as the violin going through any evolutionary changes. Most of our modern violins are so standardized that if the string length is off by just a couple of millimeters, an experienced player will notice it. But early violins were not made to such standardized measurements. And one huge change that happened in the early 1800s is that the length of neck (and thus the string length) became longer! Almost no violins made before about 1830 retain their original necks. That includes Stradivaris, Guarneris, and Amatis.

Violino Piccolo in its Original Set Up by Girolamo Amati, Cremona, 1613 at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota

"If it's baroque, you've gotta fix it!"  We're pretty sure Vuillaume said that. In French, of course.

Jean Baptiste Villaume  circa1860

Many 19th century soloists were unhappy with the design of 17th and 18th century violins which were a bit short in the neck and just didn't project over an orchestra the way they wanted.  The most important of these soloists was violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini. 

Portrait of Paganini by Kersting der Geiger

Paganini had a close working relationship with French luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume and often had him do small repairs on his instrument while in Paris.  It is likely that he exchanged (via a neck graft) the old neck on Paganini's instrument for a new one that was around 5-10mm longer.

A violin by Nicola Amati, Cremona 1669, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
with a re-Baroqued (and shorter) neck. *
This new neck was angled slightly creating a sharper string angle.  This not only made it easier to play in high positions, but also increased the loudness and projection of the instrument. Exactly what players of that time wanted. 

Eventually, the standard neck length (measured from the edge of the top to the point where the nut and fingerboard meet) became 130 mm. 

Neck Length Measurement

The lengthening of the neck was not the only major change to the violin at this time. Compositions were changing too- high  passages on the G and E strings were increasingly used. Many changes were made to the instrument at this time to facilitate shifting above third position. The fingerboard was lengthened which expanded the upper range of the instrument to match the expanded range of the repertory of the time. And the bass bar inside the violin was changed to a longer one to support the increased string tension. The chin rest was added by Louis Spohr around this time as well.  This allowed the player to grip the instrument with the chin and shift more frequently.  Before this, violinists held the instrument up with their arm and only gripped with their chin when they shifted.  If you thought playing without a shoulder rest was hard, imagine what it would be like playing without a chin rest as well! 

Tenor Viola in its original setup by Andrea Guarneri, Cremona, made circa 1664, at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota
There are various ways to measure the neck angle, but (as pictured below) a common way to measure it is by measuring the distance from the top (at the "stop" line, i.e. where the bridge will be placed) to a straightedge that projects off the fingerboard. That measurement eventually became standardized to about 27 to 29 mm.

Neck Angle Measurement
A few decades prior to these changes, the bow received a major upgrade courtesy of Viotti and Tourte.  The earlier bow was convex and made of snakewood.  This new Tourte style bow is much like today's bow, made of pernambuco with a concave shape. You can read more about these changes in our blog post Francois Tourte and the Making of the Modern Bow

Tenor Viola "Medici'  in its original setup by Stradivari 1690. Accademia Gallery, Florence, Italy  

Not only were musicians trying to achieve a brighter and more powerful sound by making structural changes to the instrument, but also  by changing the pitch of their instrument. Standard pitch in the early 19th century was set between A 432-452!  Really makes you wonder how anyone played in tune back then...

So, as much as we'd all like to believe that violins have remained unchanged for the last 400 years, it is simply not the case. The violin that walked out of Stradivari's or Guarneri's workshop has been worked on and worked over several times in its life. Almost all violins made prior to about 1830 have had their necks lengthened via a neck graft. If that seems just horrible to you- Go For Baroque!

*A note on the re-Baroqued 1669 Nicola Amati violin at the Metropolitan Museum of Art- The violin's neck was restored to a Baroque (thus shorter) neck in 1977 by Fred J. Lindeman of Amsterdam. Thanks to the curators at the Met for that information and correction!

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  1. I'm surprised there are no comments. This was an interesting post! After buying several 19th century German violins, I became curious what a true 18th century violin was like. This post was a great intro.

    1. 18th Century violins were like today. Some were great and some were bad. I have owned several 18th Century. The best violin I ever owned was badly worn and made in Japan in the 1930s. Don't get stuck on labels. Judge a violin by the tone.