Musical Notes

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What Happened to my Violin?

Last time in Musical Notes I touched on the topic of musical signatures using any, or a combination of, English, German and French notations. In the German notation you will remember, the note B natural is represented by the letter 'H'. When I was designing the graphic to go at the top of this column, I decided to make use of this notation to encode a signature not unfamiliar to us on this site—h2g2—two notes of B natural (H in the German notation), followed by two notes of G. I deliberately spotlighted the fact that the Bs were B naturals by using a key signature for F major—one flat, B flat—then adding the accidental to change it to a natural. I expected one of our musical readers out there to spot this quickly, but to my surprise, if they did nobody commented on it—until now. So congratulations go to Gnomon for cracking the code, as you see on the Conversation Thread at the bottom of a previous Musical Notes.

So to my topic this time: stringed instruments, in particular violins and very particularly 'olden and golden' violins.

It is universally recognised that the masters of the art of violin making were the Amati and Guarneri families, together with Antonio Stradivari (note his name is not Stradivarius). Their workshops were located in Cremona in northern Italy, which by 1630 was the unrivalled centre of excellence of the art1.

The Amati dynasty—four generations of violin, viola and 'cello makers—was founded by Andrea Amati around the middle of the 16th Century. Andrea's grandson Nicolo Amati continued with the improvements to violin design started by his grandfather and taken further by Andrea's sons.

One of Nicolo Amati's pupils, Andrea Guarneri, was the founder of the second great dynasty of Cremonese violin makers, of which there are three generations. It is possible that another pupil was Antonio Stradivari, whose name in popular culture today is a byword for the best violins of all. It should be noted however that the evidence for Stradivari being a pupil of Nicolo Amati is disputed.

The current values of instruments by these makers are stratospheric. While many are owned by virtuosi performers themselves, quite a number are on loan to such players from their wealthy, music-loving owners. Up to about 600 violins by Stradivari are known to have survived at least until relatively recent times, if not up to the present day2. However if today you were able to show one of these to its maker, Stradivari would shake his head in disbelief and say 'What has happened to my violin?' It is a surprising fact that not one of these instruments is the same as it was when it left its maker's hands. Why?

One of the principal differences between violins by Stradivari and those built by the Amatis and Guarneris, is that the Stradivari design substantially reduced the arched construction of the front and back faces of the body of the violin, resulting in a slimmer instrument. This enabled Stradivari violins to yield a significantly louder sound, which was needed to enable the instrument to hold its own in a concerto work such as those being written by composers like Corelli and Albinoni.

The second essential component for playing a violin is of course the bow. By the end of the 18th Century, major changes in bow design had taken place. The modern violin bow is usually attributed to François Tourte, although in reality much of what he did was to bring together a range of improvements invented by other people and add a few features of his own. The principal changes were to change the curvature of the wooden bow frame from outward-bending (convex) to concave, to add weight at both ends of the bow, and to increase the amount of bow hair, holding it by means of a metal ferrule to lie as a flat ribbon. This meant that the player was able to apply more force to the strings, and hence to produce more volume of sound, and to apply that force consistently over the full length of the bow.

The 19th Century saw the rise of the classical violin concerto and the emergence of a new generation of virtuoso performers like Paganini. Both demanded more power from their instruments and in the case of the star performers, the ability to display extraordinary feats of skill. To meet this demand, the composition of the two inner strings (tuned D and A) was changed from pure gut to gut overwound with metal. The strings were also made longer, which further increased the string tension required to produce the same pitch, and the bridge was raised. This caused the front of the body to experience a far greater strain from the strings, and a tendency for the neck to be pulled away from the body. To counteract this, the violin had to be strengthened: the soundpost3 was made thicker and the bass bar4 made thicker and longer. Further changes were made to strengthen the wooden joint that attaches the neck to the body, to lengthen the neck and the fingerboard, and to increase the angle at which the neck joins the body, thereby reducing the tendency for it to be pulled away from the body.

Stradivari's slimmer design was more amenable to these modifications than was the deeper Amati design, and the Stradivari instruments, once modified, became highly prized, so much so that today not one Stradivari violin is known to survive as originally built.

An early Stradivari violin has been offered recently for sale on the market. Made in 1681, at one point it belonged to Napoléon III, who owned it up until 1847, when it passed to the violinist Léon Reynier, who played it until 1869. Thereafter, the instrument was owned by the Comte de Chesnais, who sold it in 1924, since when it has been in various collections. The eventual sale price is anybody's guess, but if you are interested, I would imagine you will need to take at least $5 million of spare cash with you to the sale.

Till next time, happy violin shopping.

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1An exception is the maker Jacob Stainer, who was producing quality instruments in Austria around the same time.2A number have been stolen and not recovered, including a 1709 violin that disappeared from the British Embassy at St Petersburg in 1869 and has not been seen since. Another 1709 violin was destroyed when its owner, Jacques Thibaud, was killed in 1953; his plane crashed attempting to land at Nice airport.3An internal rod, about ¼ inch (6.25mm) diameter, wedged between the front and back faces of the violin body. Accurate positioning of the soundpost can significantly improve the sound quality of the instrument.4A thin strip of wood fixed longitudinally to the internal front face of the violin body. The soundpost and the bass bar together significantly influence the violin's ability to transfer sound energy from the vibrating strings to the resonating body of the instrument efficiently.

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