Things to Know About the Baroque Pochette (Don Rickert Musician Shop)
What Is a Pochette or “Kit” Fiddle?
Pochettes are 18th Century instruments whose popularity was primarily from the early 1700s through the 1780s; however, there are surviving examples dating back to the 1600s. The pochette (French for “pocket”) was a small violin-like instrument designed for easy portability. They are also known as “pocket fiddles” and “kit fiddles”. Pochettes were always quite a bit smaller in girth than full-size violins; however, their overall length, as well as playable string length varied from quite short (about that of ½ size violin or viololino piccolo, or even shorter) to the length of a regular fiddle. The longer pochettes were generally the later ones. Short scale pochettes were usually tuned to a higher pitch than a full-size violin.
How Did the Pochette or "Kit Fiddle" Get its Names?
Pochettes were small enough in girth to fit into a longish sheath sewn into one's coat. The sheath came to be known by the instrument's name: "pochette". This is the origin of the modern English word "pocket". Pochettes were also known as "kits" or "kit fiddles", primarily in England and, to a lesser extent, in Scotland. The name "kit" is an example of impossible-to-comprehend (to anyone but an Englishperson) English humor. The idea appears to have been that, if a full-size violin is analogous to a cat (a reference to "cat gut" strings...actually never made from cat guts, but rather sheep intestines), then a small violin would be, by analogy, a "kit", the English and Scottish nickname for a kitten.
Some surmise that the word “kit” may simply be slang for a mispronunciation of “pocket”, as in “pock-it”. This naming evolution is similar to how “loo” became slang for a toilet—in Britain, “waterloo” is a humorous reference to “water closet”, at one time the name for the closet-sized room in which an indoor commode or “Crapper” (the actual surname of the presumed inventor) would reside.
Who Played Pochettes?
- Niel (aka Neil) Gow(1727–1807), one of the founding fathers of Scottish fiddling
- Thomas Jefferson(1743-1826), a principle author of the Declaration of Independence and the 3rd President of the United States
It is well documented that Neil Gow often played a pochette while on the day long hike to Blair Castle to play for dances, and then on the way back home. One of his proper violins was apparently kept at the castle. That very same fiddle resides, on display, at Blair Castle today.
In his later years, Jefferson, both a violinist and fiddler, often road on horseback from Monticello to Charlottesville for sessions in various pubs. Lore has it that he often made this trip with one of the two pochettes that he is known to have owned. The pochette was carried in a leather saddle case devised by Monticello’s master craftsman, one of Jefferson’s sons by Sally Hemming . . . but that is a whole different story!
The pochette’s real popularity was driven in large part by itinerant Dancing Masters (private dance instructors), who preferred very portable violins that could be carried, with its typically short bow, in a sleeve (called a pocket or “pochette”, as many were French) sewn onto the Dancing Master’s coats.
The Socio-Political Events that Gave Rise to the Profession of Dancing Master (and Indirectly, the Pochette) in the 18th Century
The Union of Scotland, England (including Wales) and Ireland as Britain occurred in 1707. Queen Anne, who had already acceded to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1702, became the first monarch of Britain (and last Stuart monarch), as Anne, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland when the Treaty of Union took effect in 1707.
The Treaty of Union resulted in, among other things, England and Scotland having a shared Parliament. Suddenly, there was high motivation among the mercantile class in Scotland to learn to speak like the English (i.e. without a Lowland brogue) and to learn the latest English dances. These were things that the Scottish aristocracy, by and large, already knew how to do. Dancing at lavish parties was very much like the game of golf is today in the world of business networking.
Rise of the Dancing Masters
So, in major cities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh, there emerged a widespread perceived need for elocution (i.e. diction, pronunciation, grammar) coaches and dance instructors. The profession of Dancing Master filled at least the dancing part of that perceived need, and people were prepared to pay good money to have that need met. Most of the Dancing Masters were either French or Italian music tutors who knew enough about English dancing to sell themselves as qualified Dancing Masters. I am pretty sure that, at least in Britain, there existed no guilds overseeing the qualifications of Dancing Masters.
So, it was in the urbanized part of Scotland that the profession of “Dancing Master” appears to have really taken off. It should be noted that there were Dancing Masters in places other than Scotland; however, Scotland after the Treaty of Union, was the epicenter, at least during the Baroque and pre-Modern periods.
Dancing Masters typically visited clients’ homes. They were, in significant ways, the 18th Century equivalent of personal trainers who come to clients’ homes. The successful Dancing Masters were booked from morning to night. Carrying a full-size violin from appointment to appointment was a real chore, especially given the heft of a case capable of protecting a violin and bow from the Scottish weather (not pleasant much of the time). Manufacture of violin cases on anything approaching a large scale would not occur until the 19th Century. If you wanted a violin case during the Baroque period, it had to be custom-made.
The Baroque Violin Case
I have carefully studied the construction and common usage of existing violin cases from the Baroque period, including those made by the workshops of Antonio Stradivari. First, these cases were quite expensive, often costing much more than a violin that a Dancing Master could afford, and they were intended primarily as decorative storage containers for well-appointed music rooms. Indeed, they did not always have carrying handles. Most significantly, Baroque period cases were quite heavy, somewhere in the range from 10 lbs. (4.5 kg.) to 15 lbs. (6.8 kg.).
The potentially available cases were definitely not built to withstand rain, freezing rain and snow—the standard weather for much of the year in the Scottish Lowlands. The contemporary musician, armed with full understanding about the limitations of Baroque cases, should understanding why carrying around a full-size violin for an entire day’s worth of client appointments would have been effectively impossible, even if one could afford such as case.
The Pochette: Solution to a Real Problem
Pochettes or kit fiddles had already been around at least since the late 1600s. It is easy to understand why they were almost universally adopted by the 18th Century Dancing Masters.
How Does a Baroque Period Pochette Sound?
The short answer is nasty! So, here is the longer answer.
Most Baroque and Pre-Modern period pochettes and replicas sound horrible beyond comprehension (and we have heard many!). A toy kazoo, toy piano, comb and waxed paper, or slide whistle would have sounded better.
Pochettes, particularly the earlier ones, often had substantially shorter playable string lengths than a full-size violin. The later ones, on the other hand, generally had a full 4/4 string length, but with much skinnier body, and usually a shorter body (in the 11.5" to 13" range) than a full-size violin, which has a 14" body. Except in very cases, Baroque-period pochettes lacked the two things that we now know are essential to good sound production, a sound post and proper bass bar. Short bows were often used to play pochettes, without a doubt contributing to a less than optimal sonority.
So that you can fully experience the range of sound quality for Baroque and Pre-Modern pochettes, take a look and listen to the videos below.
Great musicians - ludicrously small instruments!
Here is a really small pochette from the 1600s.
A slightly better-sounding pochette - really fine playing!
A later model - marginally acceptable sound (the instrument, that is - playing is great!)
Had They Only Know About the Physics of Violins!
The poor sound of historic pochettes and their replicas is curious to us. More than a decade ago, we were able to design and make a very sonorous and nice-sounding pochette by essentially copying the external dimensions of a late 18th Century Scottish pochette (in the Burrell Collection in Glasgow). The only substantial changes we made were to fit the instrument with a proper bass bar and sound post. We also enlarged the sound holes to the extent necessary to afford setting and adjusting the sound post. This, of course, made the sound holes more appropriately-sized (i.e. larger!) for good sound production. This instrument, which we still sell today as the Neil Gow Pochette, is available in the Baroque Instruments category of the online store for the Don Rickert Musician Shop.
If you are interested in knowing just how good a Baroque pochette replica can sound, see the following video.
Darci Jones playing a late 18th Century pochette replica by Donald Rickert
The Ergonomics of Historic Pochettes
With the 17th and 18th Century pochettes, ergonomic concerns were apparently not considered at all. Ergonomics (the British term) and Human Factors (the preferred American term), or the study of the relationship between people and things, are 20th Century fields of expertise. The only concern in the 1700s and 1800s was making the pochette small enough to be easily portable. Indeed, the whole idea of making a tool fit its user was not yet part of the zeitgeist—one simply learned how to use available tools and other objects. The idea of “human-centered design”, a basic principle for modern Industrial Designers (those who design objects for people to use, including musical instruments) would not emerge until the late 20th Century.
One could even argue that the violin itself is ergonomically sub-optimal. This is why so much attention has been devoted to making the violin more usable in the last century (e.g. chin rests, ergonomically-correct shoulder rests, etc.). In the case of pochettes, a playing technique involving resting on the instrument on the arm and tucking the tail into one’s underarm evolved. In order to envision this playing technique, imagine the “on-the-arm” instrument hold that some violinists and fiddlers in various musical genres use even today. One can clearly see this extremely awkward hold and playing technique in the videos above.
This concludes my brief introduction to that diminutive Baroque period relative of the violin, the pochette, a.k.a. kit fiddle. My next article will delve into the modern descendent of the pochette, commonly called a “travel violin” or “travel fiddle”. I will post a link here when the follow-on article about modern travels violins is posted.
Modern backpacker and travel violins are the highly-evolved great-great-great grandchild of the pochettes of the late 17th through the late 18th Centuries. Most modern travel violins or fiddles bear a strikingly similar appearance to their Baroque period ancestors. The similarity stops there. Indeed, there are significant differences. Most, but not all, modern travel violins are designed in such a way as to capitalize on what has been learned in the past 250 years about the physics of bowed instrument sound production. What this means, essentially, is that they can, but again, not always, sound MUCH better than Baroque pochettes, even the good ones.
Many, but certainly not all, designers of modern travel violins and fiddles, pay great attention to the ergonomic aspects of these small instruments. Primarily, these "human-centered" ergonomic design efforts are focused on removable chin rests and shoulder rests that, when installed on the travel violin, replicate the critical ergonomic improvements expected in a full-size violin or fiddle in modern configuration. Furthermore, the critical ergonomic dimensions of full size violins, such as body length, overall length and playable string length are, in most cases, rigorously adhered to.
In the past 13 or so years, D. Rickert Musical Instruments has designed and made a large number of Baroque pochette replicas (about 40). We have designed and produced an even far greater number of state-of-the-art modern travel violins (more than 125).