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The Legacy Of The Baroque Violin

Performances of baroque music are now most frequently heard on original period instruments, or modern copies set up in the baroque manner. Modern instruments heard played by non-specialist orchestras or ensembles are much altered, since baroque times, due to changes of fashion together with more public music making in designated concert halls, which require a larger volume response from the instrument, higher tuning pitch and perhaps even in these electronic days, greater reliability, ease of maintenance and so on. The trade off has been a loss of the original ‘voice’ of an instrument which has resulted in a certain ‘blandness’ or uniformity in character of the sound in the new product.

Of course it can be argued that this is not ideal, as the opportunity to listen to "proper" baroque instruments in the correct manner in which the old composers had intended them to be heard cannot be understated. Heard the right way the music can transform the listener to another time and place. A feeling of which can bring immense pleasure.

Regarding the violin family, we are left with the undeniable fact that the vast majority of the instruments left to us by the great masters of the past, have been substantially changed by later generations, which, in one sense, might be viewed as a form of vandalism. One of the most telling requirements demanded of these changed instruments is that of being tuned by musicians to play at a higher pitch. It is generally agreed by modern makers that baroque pitch would have been up to one whole tone lower than our modern concert pitch of A=440 Hz. French baroque pitch at the beginning of the 18th century was A=409 Hz, which has been established by assessing the pitch of the most famous of Parisian harpsichord makers, Pascal Taskin, whose tuning fork survives in Paris, and also by the measuring of the bores of surviving wind instruments- particularly oboes and recorders.

We may notice that violin maker Antonio Stradivarius produced both large and small pattern violins surely in recognition of the upward movement of pitch at that time.

What then is left us of the original baroque violin? Essentially not much! The Belly, the Back, the Ribs and the Scroll. Newly made are the Pegs, Fingerboard, Tailpiece, Basra, Neck, Soundpost, Bridge, Chinrest, and Strings, all worked at a different pitch by a substantially heavier Bow fitted with more Hair!

Thus, it is most probably the case that what has been gained on the swing has been lost on the merry-go-round, certainly baroque music sounds to greater effect when the music is played on instruments for which it was designed.

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3 Responses to The Legacy Of The Baroque Violin

  1. Claire on March 7, 2012 at 9:02 am

    Err, is that not a treble viol in the pic, rather than a ‘baroque violin’? Frets, five strings, underhand bow hold … to name a few of the indications.

    • Mike Parker on December 18, 2012 at 8:10 pm

      actually, its a pardessus de viole… not a treble…

  2. Admin on March 7, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    Correct! I was wondering when someone would mention it (it’s taken a year or so). Left it there cause it was a nice painting anyway, but you are correct in that it’s not the right instrument.

    Now I’ll go and see if I can find a painting of an actual baroque instrument and put it up here. Thanks for commenting.

    p.s. I should’ve added a prize but I didn’t think of it earlier.

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