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The Monteverdi violins
of the Gabrieli Consort & Players

The story of the Monteverdi violins
by Oliver Webber

Many violinists – even Baroque specialists – get a shock when they play the Vespers for the first time. The violin writing is exceptional for its virtuosity and its range of expression. There is exquisite delicacy (in the Deposuit), exuberant brilliance (Quia Fecit), demanding passagework (Sonata sopra Sancta Maria) and a wealth of florid ornamentation, both written out and to be improvised.

For those more familiar with 18th century idioms, this work is a refreshing eye- and ear-opener which inspires us to look again and common assumptions about performing “Baroque” music. This applies especially to our understanding of the Baroque violin itself. The Vespers dates from a time (1610) when many elements of violin design were relatively new (The G string, soundpost and bass bar), and others (violin size, and method of construction) were by no means standardised.

One of the cornerstones of the early music movement is the use of instruments as closely matched as possible to historical models, and the Gabrieli Players have always taken this very seriously. This is not for the sake of “authenticity” or “correctness” per se, but because we have always found that when we do so the music speaks that much more strongly to us, and the idioms and expressions of the period fall more naturally under our fingers.

As soon as the Monteverdi recording project was mooted, we realised that the violins we had [1] belonged to a different era, and if we were to pursue the Gabrieli philosophy we would need to be somewhat more adventurous.

This is why we took the bold move – with the support of Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli management, and a generous loan from the
Gabrieli Trust – of commissioning a pair of violins, strictly following historical principles, from George Stoppani. This might seem an unduly radical move, even for dedicated performers: we have, after all, been playing this repertoire for many years – are our current instruments really so wide of the mark?

In fact, when we look back to the time of Monteverdi, the answer is a surprising “Yes!” Although there are many violins in circulation ideal for music of the 18th century, a handful for the later 17th century, and another handful for the 16th century, the early 17th century seems to have missed out. I believe the reason for this is the vast range of music that period performers have been required to master. We have had to play everything from Monteverdi to Mozart, and since it is much easier to play Monteverdi with a “Mozart” violin than vice versa, the focus of the “Baroque” violin inevitably gravitated to the later 18th century. Metal-wound strings, long fingerboards, hybrid bridges and long, over-flexible bows were being heard in the music of the early 17th century, and they were disappointing!

The pendulum then swung the other way, and frequently “Renaissance” violins were demanded for Monteverdi, usually modelled on 16th century examples like Andrea Amati’s “Charles IX” set or the small 1581 Ventura Linarol violin. The results were much more satisfying, especially when these instruments were strung properly with equal tension gut strings, but I have always wondered whether we could have a true “early Baroque” violin, modelled on examples from around 1600, with fittings appropriate to the early 17th century? Surely this would be the ideal “Monteverdi” violin?

Catherine Martin owns a Carlo Antonio Testore (1745) and an early 18th century Stradivarius copy by Chris Johnson (1999).
Oliver Webber uses a violin by Edward Pamphilon, London,
c.1680 (a generous loan from Peter Trevelyan),
and owns an early 18th century Stradivarius copy by Alan Beavitt (1986).

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© 2006 Oliver Webber and George Stoppani                  Design by Linden Lea