1910 Violin Mystery - Instructional Aid?

September 13, 2012 at 08:49 PM · Here's a mystery of sorts. Go to:

http://www.dwsanderson.com/images/elise_white.jpg

This is from a photo of Elise Fellows White, ca. 1910, a Maine violinist who began studying with Franz Kneisel as a child, became close friends, was instrumental in the Kneisels' connection with Blue Hill, Maine.

Now - look at her violin. Notice what appear to be two extra white strings, along the edges of the fingerboard and over the very corners of the bridge. What's going on here? I've never seen anything like it, and am hoping that someone can explain it.

My guess is that this was a ca. 1900 instructional aid, designed to keep right arm motion strictly within the limits necessary to play the four strings, thus training the large-muscle habits of the right arm into an economical playing style.

Thoughts and information welcome. This photo (the full image has her looking picturesquely at a marble statue) belongs to the Maine Historical Society, part of a batch of Elise White material they own. MHS hadn't noticed the extra strings until I asked about it, and now is anxious for an explanation as well.

Replies (39)

September 14, 2012 at 12:52 PM · I would guess the same as you -- that these are guides intended to keep the student from allowing the bow to wander off. These days people seem more concerned about tracking the bow between the bridge and the fingerboard in perpendicular fashion, there are all kinds of mechanical devices one can attach for this purpose.

The bow-hold in the picture is reminiscent of a photo that I have of Ysaye, sort of dangling fingers and the bow apparently being held closer to the fingertips than one commonly sees today.

September 14, 2012 at 01:38 PM · Perhaps someone will be able to document the use of the extra strings - there's an interesting book to be written about violin instructional aids, I think.

Interesting comment about the bow grip. I went looking for photos of Kneisel to see if his grip matched, only found one with him holding the bow, but it looks similar.

September 14, 2012 at 02:39 PM · This is so cool. I don't know what it is, either, but it's cool.

September 14, 2012 at 03:05 PM · To me it looks like something the photographer put in to reinforce the idea that there are strings there, not something that was on the violin. One sees that kind of crude retouching a lot in that time period.

September 14, 2012 at 04:27 PM · I don't have access to the original photo; what you see is a scanned halftone. But there is no evidence of retouching; and if you look at the peghead you can see what appear to be the ends of the "guide strings" (got to call them something...) tied off, a detail unlikely to be added by a retoucher. The Maine Historical Society has other photos of Elise Fellows White, but none that show her violin so clearly at that age (she was about 14, had moved to Boston to study at the New England Conservatory in 1883, age nine, started studying with Kneisel a year or so after he came to the US).

September 14, 2012 at 04:49 PM · The thing that seems surprising is that if this was a very promising student and accomplished at a young age, why would she needs these crude guides? Bow guides are for beginners.

September 14, 2012 at 05:27 PM · I think youre right, it is an aid to promote accurate bowing

December 26, 2012 at 01:25 PM · I'll bet that's strung to be like a Nordic resonating fiddle. The extra strings are not bowed, they are there to provide undertones.

A Nordic fiddle is also tuned differently and the resonating strings adjusted accordingly and more than one tuning is possible.

It brings to mind Joni Mitchell who tuned her guitar in many less conventional ways to produce her unique sound. A Nordic fiddle also has a unique sound and is often played with double stops (hence the flatter bridge).

This one looks like a conventional violin strung to produce some of the Nordic resonance but more often a Nordic fiddle is designed to accommodate the extra strings and is often highly decorated.

I can't say for certain that's what we're seeing in the photo, but it might be. It's a very interesting photo!

December 26, 2012 at 11:09 PM · How many pegs are there?

4

How many strings?

December 29, 2012 at 03:33 PM · The Nordic nyckelharpa (a bowed instrument with many strings) also has resonant strings that are not bowed.

There's an entire tradition of instruments with resonant strings (nyckelharpa, Hardinger, etc.) in northern Scandinavia that most violinists don't know about.

If someone knew of these traditions and were familiar with the music and were in a country where the instruments aren't available, I can see them adding strings to a conventional violin to try to reproduce the sound.

Hopefully the Internet will reawaken interest in these instruments and this wonderful music before the traditions disappear. There aren't many Hardinger players left in the world, especially ones who know the many different tunings and most of the music has not been written down. In the small villages along the northern Scandinavian coasts, they mostly play by ear and don't know how to read (or write) music.

December 29, 2012 at 04:43 PM · Looking at the picture I do not think those are sympathetic strings.

December 29, 2012 at 05:08 PM · Strings look like actual string - cotton cord - and are located at the very ends of the bridge. Seem that would make it difficult to actuall play the G or E strings.

The only training aid I can think of would either be for silent bowing practice or else to prevent moving too far above or below the optimal plane for the two strings

December 30, 2012 at 12:42 PM · I think the photo is earlier than that. That's how she wore her hair ca. mid- to late-1880s when she was in her teens. By the age of 20, it was curled and tied back.

I noticed the dating of some of the historical photographs of her are wrong. They have the dates swapped for when she was in her beginning and late teens. You can see her face is more mature in some and she is wearing women's rather than girl's clothing. One of the historical society documents also incorrectly lists her birthdate (which might account for the misdating of some of the photos).

Here's a photo of her toward the end of her short professional solo career. Unfortunately, it doesn't show the violin very well (a Maggini).

http://www.mainememory.net/media/images/625/75/11776.JPG

Hers is a sad story, actually. A violin prodigy, she was playing recitals by the age of five (about seven years before the younger picture was taken). She wanted a career in music, but marriage, children, and poverty all took their toll on her time and energy and she stopped playing regularly when still quite young.

I'm not discounting the possibility of them being bowing guides, but you have to wonder why a prodigy who had been playing recitals for quite a few years already would need that.

December 30, 2012 at 03:32 PM · Go here:

http://www.mainehistory.org/PDF/newsletter_Fall2012.pdf

for the newsletter with the article that prints the photo in question. And here's a reference to a collection of her autobiographical writings:

A Maine Prodigy:

The Life & Adventures of Elise Fellows White.

The writer of the newsletter article identifies the photo as follows:

"Mary Elise Fellows posed with her violin at the

summer home of her patrons, Aimee and Winthrop

Sargent, in 1887, about the time she began studying with Franz Kneisel."

And while her later life may have been sad, she did make a career of sorts as a musician and teacher, and her influence continues through the Kneissel Hall summer programs at Blue Hill, Maine.

I'm pleased to see that someone else is taking an interest in the materials, and am by no means surprised that there may be confusion about dates. The Maine Historical Society tries to do a good job, but like most such organizations the staff is not equal to the materials, and details like verifying dates are not always possible. It is fair to say that they depend on the public for detecting such errors, and would be happy to have communications from anyone who can help.

I was in touch with the writer of the article (I'm in Maine, and interested in local history generally), but she was unable to get me a sharper scan of the photo with the extra "strings" that might have made it possible to see more detail. I'm convinced that they are cloth, perhaps the knit "tapes" used for drawstrings on bonnets and so forth, and mostly likely present as a tool for controlling bow angle. Even if she was an experienced player at the time, we all know of situations that caused changes in technique, and this might have been a convenient way to inculcate limitations to bow arm movement. Haven't tried it myself - someone should, and report - but the placement of the extras pretty much guarantees that bow arm movement on the high and low strings will be limited in the same way that adjacent playable strings limit it, thus training for the same bow arm movement for all the strings, and more consistent bowing. More opinions and discussion welcomed.

I might also add that the summer Kneisel Hall concerts are broadcast over Maine Public Radio.

December 30, 2012 at 03:46 PM · @ David Sanderson, I knew the former owner of, "The Golden Anchor" in Bar Harbor. I have friends here from Stuben.

Speaking of sad stories I recently finished reading, "Unraveling Anne" the life of Anne Ford written by her daughter Laurel. Excellent read! Anne once dated Marlon Brando, had her own fassion line and I believe had a few parts in a couple of movies? Partied with artists who are now reknowed painters today... she died virtualy homeless, an alcoholic... but the daughter who wrote this book.. amazing what she had to endure and actually bacame rather successful in her life! Inspiring to say the least.

December 30, 2012 at 06:49 PM · Thank you for that additional information. I'm on the west coast so I think perhaps I heard her name in connection with the violin because she lived for a time in British Columbia.

It's too bad that a sharper scan isn't available. There's enough information in the photo to tantalize without explaining.

I tried a search on violin bowing aids but, of course, actual bowing, rather than physical aids, are what come up and most of them are recent rather than historical. There are some bars people can get, that run across the instrument, but they are perpendicular to the strings rather than running parallel.

January 1, 2013 at 03:54 PM · I should have mentioned this - the British Columbia connection you found is her husband, who was a mine owner. Find the Maine Historical newsletter article, a good outline of her life.

A number of people have commented on this photo, but no one has found any documentation that would suggest a connection with training aids. Kneisel was something of a prodigy himself, came to the US with quite a reputation, so we should not put it past him to have invented this device.

Incidentally, Maine was a hotbed of violin making during the last quarter of the 19th century, with some quite good makers, so I think it should be no surprise that outstanding players developed as well. The reference point was really Boston; this was where the best training was available, and where a maker could send good instruments to find buyers. Orin Weeman moved to Boston from Maine, and of course F.O. Stanley set up his violin operation in Newton after the brothers moved there to establish the car company.

January 5, 2013 at 04:30 AM · I've been sitting looking at this picture again and wondering how you could fit six strings on the bridge without making a special bridge. It would be difficult.

You know what. I think maybe the appearance of "extra strings" is an illusion. I think there are only four strings. The shadow from the D string on the bridge and fingerboard looks lamost like another string, but I don't think it is.

The top and bottom strings are probably silver-wound strings (hence the thicker texture and bright color) and the others are gut (as was common in the 1800s).

January 5, 2013 at 05:45 AM · I hunted around and found this picture of a baroque violin. The one on the left has silver-wound strings for G and E but these are modern wound strings.

http://margaretcaley.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Scrolls_photo-by-Gillian-Rankine.jpg

The historic wound strings were thicker and "rougher," if you can call it that. I'll see if I can find a picture.

January 5, 2013 at 09:32 AM · could the white strings be a rubber band? - an efficient, cheap n' cheerful, instructional bowing aid?

January 5, 2013 at 04:09 PM · I'm delighted to see so many people intrigued by this photo. Having done what I could with Photoshop, I can confirm that the extra "strings" are in fact present, and not an optical illusion. As to hardanger connections, remember that this was a serious violinist, student of Kneisel, focused on Classical concert playing, period.

My best guess is still that the bands are the narrow knit "lacing" used for things like drawstrings, tied tightly over the bridge corners, easy to slip on and off the bridge when you wanted to.

What bothers me is that if this was a pedagogical tool, why have none of us been able to find any documentation for it? Even if it were something Kneisel made up himself for teaching, he was prominent enough that one would expect someone to have taken notice. I am now worked up enough to find some of the fabric and try it out; anyone else game?

January 5, 2013 at 04:52 PM · scratch the rubber-band idea - just tried it and as shown in the photo, it won't stay in place.

can't try this because i don't have anything suitable in the house but it looks as if one end of the drawstring has been threaded through the hole for the "e" violin string in the end piece, drawn up along the fingerboard, threaded under the strings at the nut, drawn back down the fingerboard and (presumably) threaded through the hole for the "g" violin string in the end piece.

i can only guess it was there to help students position the bow at a proper angle.

i love stuff like this - the mad minutiae i exercise on my fiddle is better left unshared ...

January 5, 2013 at 05:04 PM · I think J Petersen has the right answer. There are only the 4 standard strings, the E/G being metal/metal wound (the E possibly metal wound rather than plain metal). I've looked at a blow-up of the jpg and it seems that the reflected brightness of the metal E has made it look thicker than it actually is (a photographic emulsion effect, perhaps?). I see no evidence of more than four strings passing over the bridge. I think she was playing on the A, and pressing it down.

January 5, 2013 at 10:24 PM · Here's a scan of the image as printed in the Maine Historical Society newsletter:

http://www.dwsanderson.com/images/violin.jpg

I've tweaked it some and it's more or less clear. What you see are two distinct white ribbons at the edges of the fingerboard, distinct from the strings (three of the four strings are clearly visible). You can see the loose ends of the ribbon where it's tied at the peghead. The date of the photo is 1887, when Fellows was 14 years old, roughly at the time she began studying with Kneisel, having been at the New England Conservatory prior to this, coming to Boston in 1883 age 9.

For the complete article and photo go to:

http://www.mainehistory.org/PDF/newsletter_Fall2012.pdf

I wonder how many 9-year-olds ended up at conservatories in those days?

January 6, 2013 at 06:08 AM · I think the white lines appear to be more of a decoration on the instrument as it appears to also be alongside the peg box. I can't imagine the photo would have been taken with any training devices attached as it certainly is a posed photo and not taken randomly while she practiced at home or at her teacher's studio.

January 6, 2013 at 07:36 AM · Thank you for the blowup scan.

More than ever I think there are four strings and one of the "extras" (between the D and the A) is the shadow on the fingerboard.

On the bridge I see only four strings and the research I did yesterday confirms that a common setup in the 1800s was silver-wound strings for E and G and gut for the others. I didn't know that when I first looked at the strings and began to wonder if they were silver-wound strings.

Notice how the scroll is blurred from movement. Movement would make the strings appear thicker, especially reflective ones like wound silver strings.

She appears to be bowing the A, but perhaps the split-second earlier, she was bowing the E and it was still vibrating (in addition to the movement of the fingerboard and scroll).

The shadow under the D string (that looks like a string when you look at the fingerboard) does not appear to continue across the bridge. If you follow the trajectory, it would go through the holes in the bridge.

If it's not a shadow, perhaps it's a vibrating string caught in two moments in time, one on the bridge but appearing as two over the fingerboard.

January 6, 2013 at 09:07 PM · 4 pegs = 4 strings!

J Petersen is right; long film exposure, common at that time, plus fast tempo and perhaps some re-touching after = an optical illusion of more than 4 strings.

Mystery solved.

January 6, 2013 at 09:40 PM · If I ignore the fingerboard (which I think may include illusory shadows and reflections) and also ignore the "shake" in the picture, and only look at the bridge and the top nut, here is what I see:

http://www.jkpetersen.com/Pics/EliseFellows.jpg

January 6, 2013 at 10:55 PM · Here's my 2 cents:

There are no extra/guide strings here. I think the E and G strings are vibrating and reflecting light. I think she is playing on the E string and was previously playing on the G string so both vibrating strings are creating a larger 'surface area' which is reflecting light and making them appear thicker.

I agree that slight movement and long exposure are encouraging these results.

The shot is outdoors and certainly the sun could be the light source illuminating not only the strings, but those curved edges on the body of the instrument (which seem almost as bright as the strings).

Photography can create unexpected results. I'm sure during the chemical exposure these 'artifacts' showed up. Choosing, instead, to limit the aperture to remove them probably compromised the brightness of the subject and probably didn't look as good.

As well, I agree that any training device would not make sense for this photo, plus if there is no mention of it then it may not exist.

I love how curious we are about it and loved reading all of the theories. Thank you for posting.

January 7, 2013 at 01:29 PM · if the white of the "g" and "e" strings was caused by vibration and reflecting light then it would stop or at least diminish after the bridge.

January 8, 2013 at 05:01 AM · I think they are silver-wound strings (look at the link to the baroque violin I posted earlier which has gut in the middle and silver-wound strings for E and G) which are very reflective to begin with, especially compared to gut, and even moreso if there is even the slightest shake in the camera.

Also, the winding on antique strings was thicker than on modern strings. I found a good picture of 19th and 18th century wound strings and forgot to bookmark it and, alas, can't find it again.

It's a very good picture, considering that they were barely beyond lensless pinhole cameras in those days. Exposures were longer in the 1880s and there's obviously movement toward her scroll-hand. Look at the string-tail sticking out of the scroll—it looks like there are half-dozen of them close together when we can be pretty sure it's an image artifact and there's only one.

January 8, 2013 at 04:21 PM · Well, I've now got a request out to my acquaintance at Maine Historical, to see if I can get a hi-res scan of the photo - I offered to go to Portland and do it myself, as a matter of fact. So we'll see.

Meantime, I've added some callouts to my scan; go to:

http://www.dwsanderson.com/images/violin_with_callouts.jpg

What I've pointed out is that you can clearly see three of the four strings, distinct from the ribbons, which are stretched over the corners of the bridge. At the peghead you can see the extra ribbon hanging; it's not a string.

And I should comment on the photo quality. I don't know what the original is at this point; I would suspect a glass negative or contact print from a glass negative, probably at least 5x7 inches. And while emulsions were slow at this time, lenses were adequate to transmit a clear and detailed image to the film. And in these medium formats (4x5, 4x7) the amount of detail that is reproduced on the negative is considerable. If there is a loss of clarity, it is normally at the edges of the image, where limitations on lense grinding were still a problem. For the exposure itself the camera may not have had a shutter - the photographer simply removed the lense cap, then replaced it, while the subject remained immobile. In this case there may have been some wavering of the peghead; but the photo is adequately sharp.

My magnified scan, however, is limited by the fact that it's a scan of the halftone from the printed newsletter, thus inherently not sharp, but the best I can do pending the cooperation of MHS. Having enticed everyone into this discussion, the least I can do is get a clear image of the photo.

January 10, 2013 at 06:10 AM · Okay, some questions...

Why are there four pegs and four string-shadows on the top nut?

I don't see five strings on the bridge, I see four plus shadows. What is that somewhat clear light horizontal line (that looks like a string) between your two bottom-left call-outs? If you put your hand over the fingerboard to cover it up on the original picture and look at where the strings hit the bridge WITHOUT assuming they are extended from what you see on the fingerboard, I think you might get a different picture.

Also, as far as perspective goes, the distances are farther apart as things are closer, and closer together as they are farther away, and yet, you have two strings marked across the bridge that are closer together than the farther string. Visually, it would be the other way around (I think it's because you are assuming an extra string).

But most importantly, if the outer strings are ribbons (rather than reflective silver-wound strings), why are there only three strings on the violin of an accomplished prodigy?

January 10, 2013 at 04:42 PM · Well, being a prodigy she only needs three strings, while the rest of require four....

Jokes aside, we're looking at an image that just doesn't have the resolution to supply the information we need, so that careful examination leaves ambiguity. I haven't had a reply to my Maine Historical request yet, and my intention is to get an image that will allow us to answer everyone's questions.

I would say, however, that there is no reason to doubt that this is a conventional violin, conventionally strung, even if we can't discern necessary detail. What keeps bothering me isn't that, it's the fact that no one seems to be able to provide any other reference that will explain the ribbons. So do we assume that Kneisel invented this idea? Possibly - while he came to Boston as a conductor/player/teacher, if you do a Web search you find some detailed discussions of his teaching, much later, that show him as a careful, intelligent and effective violin teacher, much concerned with phrasing, expression and musical playing, especially in ensembles. And I wonder if he doesn't deserve more of a reputation in the violin community. And I wonder how much of this might be related to the fact that he seems never to have recorded.

January 10, 2013 at 05:49 PM · "Well, being a prodigy she only needs three strings, while the rest of require four...."

Love that answer.

Looking forward to a clearer image. I can't resist a good mystery.

But regarding the "extra" string over the fingerboard...

My reasoning for looking especially hard at the top nut and the bridge in the blowup picture was because that is where the strings have the least room to vibrate.

Over the fingerboard they can vibrate a significant amount and appear as two (or more) strings, particularly in a longer-exposure antique photo. Also, over the fingerboard, a string leaves shadows, sometimes a very distinct one, whereas it can't do that in the same way on the top nut or the bridge (the shadow would be angled) because there's direct contact.

January 11, 2013 at 07:44 AM · I had one other thought that I keep forgetting to mention.

What was the purpose of the photo?

Photography was specialized and expensive in the 1880s. It was a "big deal" to get a family portrait and a great many families don't have any photos from the 1800s because they couldn't afford them.

This is a good picture and carefully "staged" next to a classical statue. Elise had been playing publicly for nine years and since prodigies tend to be popular and she was eager for a career as a soloist, she had probably played many concerts.

So was it a publicity photo? If so, would she pose with a re-rigged "teaching" violin for a newspaper article about a young "violin prodigy" or for a concert poster or a feature newspaper article photo?

January 11, 2013 at 09:09 PM · Really good question, yes. the MHS newsletter story captions the photo: "Mary Elise Fellows posed with her violin at the summer home of her patrons, Aimee and Winthrop Sargent, in 1887, about the time she began studying with Franz Kneisel." So we shouldn't take this as a publicity photo; in fact, the photos MHS has of Fellows mostly seem to be family photos, give or take. The Sargents were Bostonians of some means (if this is their summer home, what was their winter home like?), so I take this photo as part of a photo session at the Sargent home.

I have now found another account of Fellows life, at:

http://www.skowheganhistoryhouse.org/pdf/EliseFellowsWhite.pdf

This talks about Aimee Sargent as the major figure in the relationship with the family, guiding Fellows, arranging for lessons, and buying her a Maggini.

January 11, 2013 at 10:57 PM · "In 1922, Elise made what must have been a supreme sacrifice, selling her precious Maggini violin for a paltry two hundred dollars."

Heartbreaking. And does it mean there's a second mystery? What happened to the Maggini?

February 8, 2013 at 03:13 PM · OK, here I am again dredging up our mystery photo. It has taken a bit of time, but Candace Kanes at Maine Historical Society has kindly posted a scan of the photo on their Maine Memory Web site, which already had a number of Elise Fellows White photos. Go to:

http://www.mainememory.net/artifact/80124/zoom

This will get the zooming version, and a fairly close look. I won't attempt to revive the discussion; you can take a look and see what you think.

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