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Jerald Archer

5 String Violins: The Black Sheep of the Family?

October 17, 2008 at 7:48 AM

5 String Violins: The Black Sheep of the Family?
By Jerald Franklin Archer

I enjoy the posts and insights that I gain on Violin.com. The many varied members, and their expertise in their chosen lines of work, are not only educational, but oftentimes makes for an interesting read. But something is missing. Is there a reason that I hear very little about 5ing violins, which technically and structurally is an anomaly, since violins are only “supposed” to have 4 strings? Designs are often left to the individual luthiers, but there are subtle differences in sound production that are dictated by many factors, including the sound desired by the players themselves. The choice between acoustic and electric instruments also comes into play, but I am primarily referring to acoustic instruments here, as electric instruments are a whole different universe. Are 5 strings considered only for fiddle players and somewhat eccentric violinists such as myself? My extensive research produced no evidence that this is a hard rule. On the contrary, there were many early bowed string instruments that resembles the modern violin that utilized up to 6, or sometimes 7 strings, not held vertically, as are the instruments of the viol family.
The instrument a violinist is familiar with evolved from the viols and some other instruments like the viola de amore and Pardessus de viola, or Quinton, a fiveing hybrid instrument, in use during the 18th century, that combines characteristics of the viol and the violin.
Its body resembles a violin's, save for the sloping shoulders; but its neck is fretted like a viol's.It was tuned g-d'-a'-d''-g''. Jacques Aubert (1689-1753) composed sonatas (op.4) for the instrument.
First Pardessus of violates had 6 cords, in tune as a viola gives to prawn tenor (g, c', e' or f', a', d”, g”). These tunings were often varied a great deal and was a common practice. It still survives to day as a practice among fiddle players, in general, to utilize cross tunings with effective acoustical and artistic results. Later a very astute adjustment arose: Pardessus of violates to five cords with the refining much more next to the violin (g, d', a', d”, g”). Numerous composers dedicated works of considerable difficulties: the Family of Of Caix d'Hervelois, Dollé, Marc, Blainville and Barrière emphasize by the quality of their productions. The derivation of the word "quinton" is from the fifth (CINQUIÈME) part in French ensemble music of the 17th century. Some noted makers include Joachim Tielke, Hamburg, ca. 1700 and Louis Guersan, Paris, ca. 1752. J.S. Bach wrote his last solo ‘cello Partita (BWV 1012) for an instrument known as the piccolo cello, which was smaller than the normal size of a ‘cello, with a body length of 59 cm, and possessed an added high E string. I have seen it played by some artists holding it at a 45-degree angle and strapped to their chests! Historically correct, but seemingly strange to those who are not familiar with such details of historical performance. I do recall the “violino piccolo”, which is the size of a half size violin, with a neck that can vary in length. And then you have the dancing master’s kit or “ponchette”. A pocket-size violin that could be carried to the houses of fine ladies for their lessons in dancing and music. The normal violin would have been considered “vulgar” at that time in noble houses.
To go into too much detail is beyond the scope of this blog, and I fear my last blog entry was a little too involved. Brevity is the key to attentiveness, it would seem. Musicology is a great study for both players of all styles of music and luthiers, respectively. It places the average musician at an advantage to their peers, as it contributes to the ability to interpret music correctly from different eras of history and creates a better artist, respectively. Today, the 5ing violin is a superb instrument for the rendering of both traditional fiddle music, Jazz and an invaluable tool for teachers who teach both violin and viola. Is there any usefulness in having an extra lower C string? What will the future hold for the 5 string? Is it the proverbial “black sheep” of the violin family, or a progression in the art of violin playing itself?

Jerald Franklin Archer

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