Are open strings ok in baroque music?

October 13, 2016 at 07:50 PM · I'm joining a community baroque orchestra and I'm wondering whether it is acceptable to use open strings versus 4th finger/positions. We're playing pieces like Vivaldi rv 121, 151, 127, etc. When I was involved in youth orchestras a while back, open A/Es were basically forbidden (granted it was classical music and most players had student violins where an open E was like fingernails on a chalkboard). But I heard people mention for baroque music, sometimes they are actually preferred. However I have synthetic strings rather than gut strings. Anyway, I'd love someone's opinion. Thanks so much!

Replies (19)

October 13, 2016 at 07:54 PM · yes, unless group's intonation calls for another choice.

October 13, 2016 at 08:44 PM · Chances are at a concert with people breathing and increasing humidity, strings will start to go out of tune and you have to adjust with different fingering (and learn how to tune discreetly). Just be flexible about it and adjust your intonation to the bass line.

Fingering choices are probably more similar to modern than you think. Open gut string still sounds brighter than covered, so it depends on context. Chords are generally opt to to be played as written and not divisi unless decided otherwise...

Good luck, it sounds very fun!

October 13, 2016 at 10:56 PM · It is difficult to reduce the discussion to open strings either ok or not ok. It depends on how that note fits in the passage: is it a passing tone? Neighbor tone? Long or short note? Within a slur? Staccato or legato? Part of a trill?

October 14, 2016 at 12:02 AM · Coincidentally, just this morning I had this discussion with my piano-trio partner during our drive to our pianist's house (and piano) in Sonoma. It had to do with rather inexperienced amateur orchestra 2nd violinists who are crippled by their aversion to playing open strings. There are fast passages that have to be played with open strings - even in baroque music. There are times when open strings (even open E) provide the necessary tone quality (some Bach barriolages). If your instrument can produce a decent sounding open string it can be used for some musical statements.

October 14, 2016 at 12:52 AM · The E in the Baroque period, and up to the end of the 19th century, would always have been gut, which, as an open string, works very well with the gut A. So this is what would have happened in those times. I've used gut E's quite a lot over the last two or three years, and except for its marked lack of longevity compared with the other plain gut strings (due mainly to a tendency to fray), it would be my permanent choice. In use, I find the gut E to be as stable in tuning as a steel E and tonally projecting with a rather fuller tone as much as, or even better than, the higher tension steel, imo. The tonal balance between a gut E and a gut A is, as one would expect, quite good, with none of the metallic overtones that inevitably come with a steel E. However, for the practical reason of the gut E's lack of longevity I somewhat reluctantly use a steel E with my plain gut setup for all my orchestral playing.

If you aren't used to gut strings, a couple of points about using them - you should re-learn your bowing because of the lower tension and having to bow closer to the bridge than you would with synthetics, and with a lighter and quicker stroke. The second point is that the plain gut lower strings last very well - I replace the A, D and G about once a year, and sometimes I wonder then if it is really necessary. Unlike covered strings, plain gut takes far longer to lose its tone.

I use Pirastro's Chorda gut range, partly because they are inexpensive and readily obtainable over the counter in my town, and because they do what I want. The Pirastro gold E works quite well (for a steel string!) with gut.

October 14, 2016 at 06:43 AM · Open strings are often used by Baroque composers to aid shifting down.

October 14, 2016 at 07:54 AM · I think Trevor's advice is good.

I tend on a modern fiddle to use open strings quite a lot, but usually only for fairly short notes. I also have the problem that open E's often do not speak well, so the E strings I use are limited.

As Bud pointed out open E's and A's are good in certain circumstances in shifts and I would add fast string crossings such as in Bach Partitas and Sonatas.

October 14, 2016 at 09:46 AM · I use a wound E (yes, I even like the Dominant one!). A fine layer chamois in the groove of the nut avoids whistling an the "dentist's drill" sound on open E.

October 14, 2016 at 10:57 AM · I haven't been to the dentist recently so I've forgotten what the drill sounds like. (Or is it like ASM?) (wink)

October 14, 2016 at 12:22 PM · Speaking of Es - I use Pirastro Chordas on my baroque instrument (a cheapish student instrument affair by Lu Mi) but no sooner have I put it on than it snaps. Does anyone have a recommendation for something with less appalling durability?

Not sure I have much to add to the comments about when to use the open E!

October 14, 2016 at 12:39 PM · I just want to say that the schoolteacher-ish advice to avoid open A's and E's at all costs drives me absolutely insane. It leads my students to show up to lessons with absolutely stupid fingerings because they are determined to use their fourth finger all the time.

I agree with Scott. It's impossible to give a general rule. Context will determine the use of an open string.

October 14, 2016 at 03:33 PM · Open strings need as much care and attention as stopped strings.Sometimes one must float the bow and shape it with cresc./dim and even vibrate with a stopped note on an adjacent string to give some warmth to the open string.You can add a faster bow speed along with flautando if you want.Just don't "wank" on an open string.They deserve respect.

October 14, 2016 at 04:20 PM · Some baroque orchestras, on the contrary, seem to use open strings on long notes whenever they can (or, at least, quite often), probably because they think it is historically informed? This contradicts however what is written in Leopold Mozart's book where he explicitly advises against using the open strings, so as to avoid differences in tonal quality. Since Leopold Mozart's book is of course well known to HIP scholars, and they still advocate the use of the open strings, this probably means that Leopold's idea was quite new for his time?

October 14, 2016 at 05:31 PM · Good point Jean.I'm just responding as a professional player who has only two rehearsals,a dress rehearsal and three concerts for our Baroque and Beyond Series.If the Music Director asks for open strings then you jolly well do it and add some "quality" to the sound as listed above.There is no time to get into historically informed or uninformed debating.

October 14, 2016 at 10:58 PM · Hi Chris. Chordas aren't the best for lasting a long time. Using toro strings at the moment (diameter 0.60) and they do well. Also used aqulia recently and they last ok. If still having problems try strings that have been 'oiled'. The reality though is with heavy use an E string probably won't last a week. I've had E string last over a month but it is often at times that I am using my modern violin more.

October 15, 2016 at 05:35 AM · For 1756 I've found Leopold to be totally modern in his approach. As far as I'm aware resting the violin on the collar bone had only been going on for 20 years.

October 15, 2016 at 07:29 PM · Chris, a gut E shouldn't break as soon as you say. This suggests that there is something in the setup of your violin that may be at fault - such as sharp edges in the nut/bridge grooves, or the groove may be too tight, or lack of lubrication with a soft graphite pencil. A visit to a good repairer is indicated IMO to have things checked out.

Plain gut is pretty durable stuff (think about its biological origins) and a new gut E shouldn't snap even if it is tuned slightly sharp - unless physical damage has been caused.

The other things to check out if someone is not all that familiar with plain gut are fingers (short nails, please!) and using too much pressure, and, with the the bow, less pressure than you would use with synthetics or metal but with a lighter, quicker bow movement and closer to the bridge than you would play with other strings.

I can only say that I've never had a gut string break; fray, yes, and if that's on the E it's a sure indication that the string's days are numbered, at least as far as playing comfort and tone are concerned. I get about two months out of an E before I decide it has had its day. I have next to no fraying with the A and D, so their life is about 12 months or so.

The covered gut G is a different matter. As with other covered strings there is a natural tendency with use for the interface(s) between the core and the layer or layers above it to gradually deteriorate, causing the tone to go south even though the string looks and feels perfectly fine. Sometimes these layers covering the core can be quite complex in bids to achieve certain tone colour, projection and response, and the more complexity there is then the greater the likelihood that things can break down (ask any engineer). This is why some stellar, and expensive, strings need replacing after a very few months of playing. Plain gut does not of course have layers, so you can draw your own conclusions. However, the covered gut G does, in my experience, tend to lose its tone gradually at somewhere between 6 and 9 months, so I change it a while before the A and D are due to get changed.

October 15, 2016 at 11:11 PM · Going back to Natalie's original post, if she is using synthetics, and wishes to continue using them for baroque, I wonder if a light gauge steel E (possibly covered), so having a lower tension, might be more suitable for open string playing in that environment? Anyone know if that would work?

October 16, 2016 at 02:31 AM · Agree about the durability of a gut E.

I have played with mine tuned up to about F sharpish for two weeks. Only drawback was that it lost a week of playing life. :)

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