Making Music with String and Bow
By “Awake!” correspondent in Australia
WHEN the Italian violin virtuoso, Nicolò Paganini, played in Vienna in 1828, his incredible skill and technique captured the imagination of the entire city. Poets wrote about his musical “magic.” Restaurants renamed dishes after him. Pastry makers produced violin-shaped creations. And Paganini’s picture appeared on anything from powder boxes and neckties to pipes and billiard cues.
A classical violinist may not evoke similar enthusiasm in you. But you may be moved by the melancholy yet passionate Gypsy violin. Or, possibly you enjoy hearing a fiddle in a country dance band. Of course, when you hear someone who is still trying to master this difficult instrument, you may think his violin sounds like a cat that is being strangled.
A well-played violin, however, can produce an almost human-voicelike quality capable of expressing all manner of moods and feelings. For centuries it has been a source of enjoyment and fascination to countless people. Many have devoted their lives to making, playing or just collecting the instrument. Yet, mystery still surrounds its origin, and many questions about it remain unsolved.
Did you know that violins made over 300 years ago are still in use? In fact, despite experimentation and scientific analysis and progress, fine violins now produced still cannot match, much less surpass, the quality and tone of those centuries-old masterpieces.
The violin in its modern form was first produced around the middle of the 16th century. But its typical features can be identified in many earlier instruments.
The rybybe, for example, had four strings tuned in fifths, was oval-shaped and had a distinct neck. It was played at the shoulder or the knee. The fydyl (from which the term “fiddle” is derived) probably had three strings. It was also tuned in fifths and had a fingerboard with no frets or ridges across the fingerboard. It was held at the shoulder and was played with a fydylstyck. The Oriental rebec, Gaelic crowth and Grecian lyra all had some features in common with the violin. However, there is uncertainty as to who actually combined the various characteristics into the final violin form—a form that has remained basically the same for 400 years.
By the latter half of the 16th century, northern Italian craftsmen, such as Gasparo da Salò and Andrea Amati (the founder of a long dynasty of violin makers), were producing beautiful violins. During the 17th and early 18th centuries, the art of violin making reached a peak that has never been equaled.
A Great Violin Maker
Can you imagine paying about $250,000 (U.S.) for a violin? This sum of money changed hands in 1972 for a violin crafted by Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), generally considered the greatest violin maker in Italy. After Amati’s death in 1684, there was a marked development of form in Stradivari’s violins. This was because Stradivari continually experimented in little ways with shape, dimensions and construction. His instruments came to have exceptional power and brilliance of tone and were of outstanding craftsmanship. Gradually his violins rose to preeminence.
Of the 1,100 or so instruments Stradivari is thought to have produced (he was making them up to his death at 93 years of age), about 540 violins, 50 violas and 10 cellos are verified as still existing. Of all these beautiful instruments designed and crafted to delight the ear and still capable of doing so, only about 50 are in actual use today. The rest, considered possibly too precious or too beautiful to be played regularly, are preserved in glass cases, to be viewed rather than heard.
Many exceptionally fine instruments were also produced by other violin makers, Giuseppe Antonio Guarnieri (1683-1745) being particularly renowned. However, the quality of violins varies both among makers and among instruments of the same maker. There are even superior and inferior “Strads” (instruments made by Stradivari). Nevertheless, even “Strads” of lesser merit are good instruments.
What determines whether one fine violin is superior to another? There is no real answer to that question. At times experts have been asked to listen to various instruments being played and to select the one crafted by the superior maker. The results have seldom been conclusive. Finally, it is a matter of a violinist’s personal choice, the “feel” of the instrument and also the type of music being played.
Changes in Violin and Bow
Since the day of Stradivari, the neck of the violin has been set at an angle to the body instead of being parallel to it. The pitch has also been raised, the bridge heightened and the fingerboard lengthened, and other alterations of a minor nature have been made. The result of these adjustments has been a greater range in fingering and increased brilliance and penetrating power.
The bow itself underwent a revolution during the early 18th century. François Tourte (1747-1835) of Paris introduced the inward curving of the stick toward the hair and established the standard length of the bow. He discovered that Pernambuco wood from Brazil was the ideal material and established rules for the selection of the hair (150 to 250 hairs from white horses). Other details, such as the gradations of thickness of the stick and the position of the center of gravity of the bow, were altered.
Musicians quickly recognized the great strides Tourte had made, and he was overwhelmed with orders. He set the standard for bow making from then on. Even today, his bows are in use. A gold-mounted Tourte bow would now be worth about $20,000. The modern bow helps the experienced player make a more powerful sound, more “attack” and bouncing of the bow being possible. However, for some types of music, the older style of bow can have advantages.
Violin Making Today
What is the most important factor in the creating of a fine violin? Why are modern makers not able to reproduce and improve on the tone of those older violins? This, too, is an area of controversy. Many believe that among the important factors are the quality of the wood used, the dimensions of the instrument and the skill of the craftsman. Others, however, would make the varnish the most significant single element. They feel that the superiority of ancient instruments lies in the now unknown formulas for the inimitable varnish used by the old masters.
As with those of the past, the modern-day violin maker, or “luthier,” takes extreme care in selecting a resonant wood.a It is cut into slabs about 1-1/2 inches (3.8 centimeters) thick and is dried for up to 10 years. The top plate or belly (the real sounding board of the violin), the bass-bar and the sound post are usually made of soft, straight-grained pine or spruce. The back, sides, neck and head, as well as the bridge, are usually made of maple, a harder wood. The fingerboard and tailpiece are made of ebony.
A mold is used to trace the outline of the shape of the back and the belly. These parts are cut out with a bow saw. Using gouges and small thumb planes, the luthier skillfully and with great precision carves the wood into the required gradation of thickness, in some cases a mere 0.08 inch (2 millimeters). The sides—as thin as the walls of a matchbox—are heated and bent to shape. Corners are mitered, and blocks of pine or willow are glued to the corners to strengthen the sides. Following the edges of belly and back, three thin strips of ebony and applewood are inlaid. The performing of this operation is known as “purfling.” These strips are decorative and help to prevent the wood from splitting. The f-holes in the belly are carefully cut out and the parts are then glued together. Not a single nail or screw is used.
Next comes the varnishing. An unvarnished instrument would lose its tone in about 10 years, while a properly varnished one keeps it indefinitely. While it takes from two to three weeks to make a violin, the varnishing can take as many months. The varnish and the way it is applied can make or mar a well-formed instrument. If the varnish is put on too thickly, or if it is too hard in texture, the tone can be affected.
First, the instrument is stained, and then three foundation coats are applied. Next come eight finishing coats, the tinting and a top coat.
Playing the Violin
When it comes to playing the violin, you may wonder why the instrument produces such unpleasant sounds when it is in the hands of a beginner.
The individual faces peculiar challenges when learning to play the violin. A discerning musical ear is essential. Properly gripping the violin between chin and shoulder, correctly positioning the fingers on the strings (remember, the violin has no frets) and controlling the bow’s direction and pressure—all of these take a great deal of time and perseverance to master. Even after these skills are mastered, much must be learned before a delightful complexity of tones can be produced. For those who have the time available, and the desire to put forth the effort, making music with string and bow can be pleasurable.
So, the next time you listen to the violin being played well, you might think about all the effort the musician made to master the instrument, the many devoted luthiers over the centuries who perfected both violin and bow, and the individual craftsman who made the particular instrument that you are hearing. If, on the other hand, you are rummaging through your attic and come across the old violin that your grandmother used to play, remember that you may be looking at a long-lost masterpiece worth a fortune. Even if that is not the case, you might be moved to try making music with string and bow.
a For a detailed account of violin making, see Awake! Feb. 22, 1971, pp. 20-23.