| Although in some
cases lighter stringing may have been used - for example it is well
documented that the French used a markedly lighter stringing than the
Italians - such evidence as there is generally points in the opposite
Equal tension strings on one of the
Monteverdi violins (before varnishing)
- More subjectively,
the violin sound is described as “crude and harsh if not tempered and
sweetened by dulcet bowing” by the Italian Rognoni in 1620. This
describes accurately the sensation of bowing very thick strings: great
power can be achieved with skilful use of the bow, but care needs to be
It should also be
remembered that the increased thickness of the lower strings required
by equal tension will mean a greater overall string tension (unless an
exceptionally thin E string is chosen). In all, Baroque music would be
better served if we forgot the idea of Baroque stringing being lighter.
The precise level of tension, however, is
very difficult to determine because it depends greatly on individual
instruments and their set-ups. Therefore the most effective method of
choosing the correct gauges is actually trial and error! If experiments
are informed by a good understanding of the basic principles of Baroque
stringing they are more likely to be successful. There is usually a
clear maximum, beyond which the instrument seizes up, and the trick is
to back off from this point sufficiently to ensure a good, ringing free
tone without losing the depth and volume.
results of good
Equal tension changes
the tone quality because of the thickness of the lower strings in
particular. This gives a deeper, more substantial sound, with what is
often described as a “nutty” or “gritty” quality. In addition, all gut
stringing changes the tone quality because the lowest string now
matches the other three better, being of the same material. The sound
of a gut violin G is not overly resonant, but it has a full, satisfying
quality which if well used can be effective in ways that the wound G
naturally alters the balance of the instrument, because the increased
tension on the lower strings means that they make a greater
contribution to the overall sound of the instrument. In other words,
the instrument is equally balanced throughout its range, rather than
being biased towards the treble. (Of course, for post-Baroque set-ups,
bias towards the treble is entirely appropriate, as the range of the
instrument, especially in solo repertoire, is extended upwards.)
An all gut, equal
tension set-up is much more conducive to good blending, both within the
string family and without. A string consort will be more effective with
equal tension because equally balanced instruments mean there are no
“holes” in the texture where individual instruments have weak points in
their range. And when the string consort sounds like a true family, it
will be a more effective counterpart to other consorts such as cornets
and sackbuts, shawms and dulcians or recorders. This can be heard
particularly clearly in the consort pieces in the Duke of Lerma
recording from 2001.
tension allows a greater volume of sound to be drawn from the
instrument. The same effort with the bow will produce more sound; in
addition, the maximum volume achievable will be higher.
well-made, thick gut strings, the articulation is a revelation. A far
greater range of attack and decay of each note is possible. It becomes
much easier to create the effect of “speaking” in music, imagining each
bow stroke as a syllable, with different consonants to begin each one.
This is of course in keeping with the rhetorical approach to
performance considered as the highest ideal in the Baroque era.
Rhetoric has become something of an overused word in recent years;
however the reasons for this are sound! Almost everyone who wrote about
music, as performer, teacher or theorist, made the same point: that the
goals of the musician and the orator are the same – to use their art
and skill to move the listener to certain emotions (“passions”) at
certain times, in accordance with the meaning of the text. This subject
is explored in extensive and lucid detail by Judy Tarling in ”The
Weapons of Rhetoric”, Corda Music, 2004.
From the player’s perspective, the instrument takes on a different
“feel” altogether when strung in equal tension. The resistance of the
strings under bow and fingers is much greater, and this can raise
interesting questions about technique: it is necessary to think very
carefully about bow-speed and bow control in general. In the beginning
this means a bit of experimentation, and it can be taxing for a busy
professional to re-think his or her long-practised technique. However,
the difference between a conventionally strung Baroque violin and one
strung historically is in my view almost as great as the difference
between a modern and a Baroque violin, and just as the effort required
for mastery is considerable, the rewards are great, and ever expanding.
The most important
point to take away from this is that good stringing (and indeed other
aspects of historical set-up) is not merely a matter for pedantic
historians and perfectionists; rather it is something which can bring
us in tune with the musical ideals of the period. Once we understand
how a well set-up Baroque violin works, it is so much more natural to
find the means of expression which bring Baroque music to life.
Articulation, phrasing, balance and blend fall into place and this
makes our job as performers both easier and more satisfying.
here for a reading list in printable PDF format.
If it does not open, you may need to download a free PDF reader.
Click on this icon:
Guts” at the Early Music Exhibition
of the obstacles to effective historical stringing has been the
quality of strings available: equal tension requires thicker strings in
the lower registers, and this is a real test of string quality.
Sub-standard thick gut strings tend to be slow to speak, scratchy and
suffer from pitch
distortion: to overcome these problems a
to be very flexible (“bendy”) and very elastic (“stretchy”). The best
way to achieve this is to make sure the strands of gut are as highly
twisted as possible in the final product.
Stoppani has developed a method of string making, based on
historical principles, which meets these needs. Oliver Webber and
fellow violinist Steven Rouse have joined him as assistant
string-makers, and “Real Guts” now produces a small but significant
quantity of very highly twisted plain gut strings, which work
especially well at the thicker diameters required by historical
Guts” will be at the Early Music
Exhibition in Greenwich on 10-12 November
2006. There will be a recital and instrument demonstrations (featuring
the Monteverdi violins), CDs for sale, consultations and “string
doctor” sessions, as well as, of course, strings for sale.
 For detailed references, see
Webber (1999), pp 8-9.
available in Webber (2006), p5.
Full details in Webber "Real Gut Strings: Some New Experiments in
Historical Stringing", The Consort,
Vol. 55 (Summer 1999), pp 8-9.