It's Baroque, Man! (or the Low-down on Baroque Violins)
This article is primarily for those considering purchase of a Baroque violin, such as the Model 1721 Early 18th Century Baroque Violin by D. Rickert Musical Instruments, via the Don Rickert Musician Shop, which sells 6 models of true Baroque violins, ranging in price from less than $2,000 to about $10,000.
The next article (or maybe the one after that) will focus on WHY? In other words, the many reasons why someone would want to take up the Baroque violin or fiddle (there was no real differentiation between violin playing and fiddle-playing in the old days).
This article only deals with the instruments themselves and not with playing techniques or the evolution of the bows used to play them. I have touched on baroque playing techinque and baroque bows in past articles. I will be cover them in depth in a future article.
To the majority of modern violinists and fiddlers, Baroque violins are shrouded in mystery and myth. I believe that many players, and even some violin makers, think that the Baroque violin is a completely different instrument than the modern violin. This is understandable, as many Baroque instruments, with their short, wedged and highly decorated veneered fingerboards and similarly decorated tailpieces attached with gut cord, look very different from the instruments we play today.
The absence of a chin rest alone, which would be the case with all true Baroque violins, can make them look like a different instrument than a modern violin or fiddle. Accentuating the salient visual differences between Baroque and modern instruments are the ivory or bone nuts on many Baroque violins. As an aside, the use of ivory or bone nuts on Baroque instruments is imponderable, as ivory and bone are murder on gut strings, which are made from twisted sheep intestine or similar yucky animal parts (NEVER cat innards, contrary to popular myth).
The fact is, any violin in use today that was made prior to 1760 or thereabouts, was a Baroque violin when it was new. Most Baroque violins were retrofitted and, thus, converted to modern violins during the late 1700s and early 1800s. The old instruments acquired mortised (rather than nailed on) necks, larger bass bars, long ebony fingerboards and 19th Century tailpieces (almost like a modern taipliece, but still attached with gut but in a different way) during the 1800s. The modernized old instruments further acquired chin rests in the early 20th Century and modern tailpieces attached with Nylon “tail adjusters" in the 1950s. Shoulder rests became the rule a bit later.
So, an instrument made in 1700, while still essentially the same instrument, looks very different today than it did when it was new.
The Classes of Baroque and Related Violins
Baroque Violins Proper
- All instruments made roughly between the late 1,500s and about 1760, as they were prior to retrofitting (transformed into a “modern” violin)
- Some instruments made post-1760 until well into the 19th Century as they were prior to retrofitting
- Modern instruments converted (“back-dated”) to Baroque violins
- Retrofitted (modernized) baroque instruments converted from their modern state back to baroque violins
- Replica baroque instruments made from the early 19th Century to present day
Other Classes of Violin Related to the Baroque Violin
- “Transitional” Violins
The Baroque Period of violin making did not suddenly stop in 1760. Violins began an evolutionary period bridging Baroque and Modern instruments decades before 1760 and extending well into the 19th Century. These violins are often called “Transitional” instruments. There is no standard for a transitional violin; which will have characteristics of BOTH Baroque and Modern instruments. They range from “mostly Baroque” to “almost Modern”. For example, you will see instruments that are Baroque in every way except that they have a mortised neck, or you might see instruments that are Modern in every way except that they have a Baroque-type tailpiece and saddle, and so forth.
- “Baroque-Inspired” or Pseudo-Baroque violins
These are modern violins with a modern fingerboard, typically maple, decorated with inlay to look like some actual baroque fingerboards and a similarly decorated fake baroque modern tailpiece.
Many Commonly Held Beliefs about Baroque Violins
The common ideal of what constitutes a proper Baroque violin come mostly from luthiers and academics in the 19th and 20th Centuries interested in the idea of a standard "ideal" baroque violin. Many aspects of this standard ideal do, in fact, reflect actual violin making practices during the period in the middle of the “official” Baroque period (1600 to 1760), often known as the “Golden Age” of violin lutherie. This was the period during which the likes of Amati, Stradivari, Joseph Guarneri were establishing how to make a good violin.
What follows is a description the common contemporary ideal for the early 18th Century violin:
The Model 1719 Early 18th Century Baroque Violin“ by D. Rickert Musical Instruments more or less reflects this ideal.
Exactly the same as a modern violin except for the absence of a neck mortise
- No mortise
- Glued directly to the ribs and button and nailed by 3 nails through the neck block
Neck Angle and Set:
- Angle at the heel between 88% and 90%
- Neck set so that top plane (where the fingerboard is attached) is even (or slightly proud) of the top plate edge
- Slightly more wood left in the heel angle, presumably to provide more mass to nail into.
- Often, a more gradual curve where the neck meets the scroll (i.e. not hollowed out like most modern necks)
See illustration below. The photo shows a baroque neck. The dashed lines show where neck material would be removed to approximate a modern neck shape. Click on the image for a larger view.
Long enough to provide from 320mm to 330mm (baroque violin scale length was NOT, in fact, standardized) of nut-to-bridge string length with the fingerboard (described below) in place
- A virtual wedge (part of the fingerboard as opposed to being a separate piece) is incorporated into the fingerboard to compensate for three things:
- The low neck set (about 6mm lower than a modern neck on average)
- The essentially perpendicular relationship of the neck heel with the ribs (i.e. little or no “angle back”). This can also be thought of as the near parallel alignment of the neck top surface (where the fingerboard is glued) to the plane defined by the upper edge of the rib garland. See the illustration.
- The height of the arching where the bridge is located (same as a modern violin: 190mm – 195mm from the neck attachment to the ribs)
The fingerboard rise starting at the nut ends up being approximately 7 degrees +/- in order that the bridge be of sufficient height to suspend the strings slightly higher than a modern violin)
- Very slightly flatter than a modern fingerboard
- Baroque fingerboards were shorter than modern fingerboards; however, how much shorter is still a matter of debate. See the illustration below. Click on the image for a larger view.
Materials and Construction:
While actual baroque period fingerboards cut from a single piece of wood, particularly maple, are not unheard of, many, if not most baroque violins had composite (aka veneered) fingerboards.
The solid maple fingerboards are probably over-predominant in modern baroque violin replicas.
A baroque composite fingerboard consists of a core of spruce, with thick veneers (2.5mm to 3mm) of either figured maple or ebony glued to the sides. A thinner veneer of either ebony or maple is glued to the top arched part. Often the top veneering employs various decorative marquetry techniques using at least two types of wood, or at least simple decorative purfling.
See the examples below. Click on any of the images for larger views.
Tailpiece and Saddle:
A baroque tailpiece, often decorated to match the fingerboard, generally has more of a square-edged shape than a modern tailpiece. See the illustrations below.
A bona fide baroque tailpiece will have simple holes drilled for the strings rather than the “keyhole” type string attachment holes of modern tailpieces. The strings are attached to the baroque tailpiece either with a loop, as shown below, or simple with an overhand knot. The g-string is almost always attached with a loop; often, the e" as well, as an overhand knot used on the relatively thin e" string can compress and slip through the tailpiece hole. You will see a' and d' strings secured either way: looped or secured with an overhand knot.
You will see many tailpieces that look like baroque tailpieces, but with the modern string attachment holes. See illustration below.
The most significant difference from a modern tailpiece is the attachment method. Thick gut cord is threaded through two holes through the tailpiece near its base. The cord is either knotted or the two ends are joined using a technique known today as the “Stradivari stitch”. The photos below show tail gut tied in this manner.
Typically, a baroque violin has no saddle per se, but rather an insert of bone, maple or ebony in the same place a modern raised saddle would go. The baroque insert can be thought of as a very low saddle. The rather stiff 2mm diameter (on average) tail gut cord ends protruding from the bottom of the tailpiece serve to raise the tailpiece substantially.
The bass bar
A Baroque bass bar is shorter, lower and thinner than a modern one. There are no standard measurements, Baroque bass bars, and even their location within the instrument, varied by maker. Some measurements of actual original bass bars, listed below, provide some general guidelines.
- Jacob Stainer violin, 1656: 250 mm long; 6.7 mm long; 4.9 mm thickness
- Nicola Amati violin, 1665: 235 mm; 5.0 mm; 4.4 mm
- Nicola Amati violin, 1671: 217mm; 6.2mm; 5.0mm
- A. Stradivari violin, 1719: 241mm; 6.6mm; 4.7mm
A contemporary modern bass bar is about 270-275mm in length, 9-12mm in height (the highest point) and between 5.5-6mm in thickness
Baroque bass bars tend to be more gradually tapered than modern bass bars, which are tapered rather abruptly close to the ends. The following illustration compares a Stradivari 1719 spec bass bar to a typical modern spec bass bar. Click on the image for a larger view.
Bass bar orientation and location
- A Baroque bass bar is generally oriented parallel to the instrument centerline, either under the bass bridge foot or in the center of the instrument.
- A modern bass bar is mounted in a transverse orientation such that the part under the bridge is 15mm from the centerline, the leading edge is 13mm from the centerline and the rear edge is 17mm from the centerline.
- All four strings pure gut for pre-1750s setup
- Silver wound gut G on later setups
Many Aspects of the Ideal Baroque Violin are Myths
The fact is, the only rules actually formalized were the body shapes and graduation maps (topographical maps of varying plate thickness) for Amati, Stradivarius and Guarnerius instruments, as well as shop notes for neck angles and the like recorded by Stradivari. Other standard practices come from surviving Baroque instruments that were never retrofitted to modern specs.
What appears to be true
- Surface-mounted (non-mortised) necks secured by glue and nails through the neck block
- Low-set necks (i.e. top edge of heal even with top plate)
- The absence of a raised saddle
- Smaller bass bars
- The spruce core composite (veneered) fingerboard that is shorter than a modern fingerboard
- Tailpieces secured by gut cord
What appears to be pure fantasy
Short Necks resulting short (320mm +/-) playable string length:
There were many Baroque violins, including those made by Stradivari, with a modern (330mm +/-) playable string length. Stradivari shop notes actually refer to short and long scale necks.
Common belief notwithstanding, it appears that angled necks, some with even more angle than the 83 degrees (+/-) of modern necks were the rule rather than the exception.
For instance, it is now well established that at least some Strads had an 86-degree angle, with 3-4 degrees of compensating rise on the fingerboard, resulting in a modern neck angle.