Early Music: use of Open strings?

Edited: March 29, 2019, 12:17 PM · Hi! I am planning to join a local Early Music Ensemble, and am trying to teach myself to express more of an "early" style. I got myself a baroque bow as they recommended (but I think I don't sound any different playing it??) and I am also wondering about the use of open strings vs. the 4th finger in Early Music.

I already figured out that I need to tone down my use of vibrato, based on what I am hearing on the Early Music tracks. But, I can't discern whether they tended to use more open strings or not...?

I am taking a look at some of the Renaissance sheet music and trying to figure out whether to just use open strings or other fingers for the E, etc... Thanks for any insight!

Replies (23)

March 29, 2019, 1:29 PM · Harriet I would wait until the first rehearsal you attend. During that rehearsal you can pay attention to how the concertmaster plays and emulate that. Because I think it varies greatly from ensemble to ensemble.
March 29, 2019, 1:33 PM · I'm no early music specialist, but yes, open strings are used far more in that style than you may be used to. This includes the open E, because in the Baroque era, E strings were also gut and had a far less strident sound than the modern metal E.
March 29, 2019, 3:05 PM · Also in those earlier times vibrato might not have been as full-bore as it is today. I'm not really sure. But if that's true then open strings do not stand out as much for lacking it. It is good to practice studies that have some open strings so that you can learn how to incorporate them, evening out their brightness into the passage. This will help you in all your Haydn, Mozart, Bach, early Beethoven, etc.
March 29, 2019, 3:38 PM · I agree with the previous responses. As far as we know, baroque playing involved less vibrato and more open strings. However, you want to be sure that your baroque group follows these guidelines. One question is whether you will be using a baroque instrument and/or gut strings. The answer may affect the choices you want to make concerning vibrato and open strings. Have fun!
March 31, 2019, 10:49 PM · Thank you all. That is a great point about gut strings perhaps making the open strings sound not so harsh, and about how if vibrato was used less, an open string stands out less. I did learn that in early times, the violin was not held with chin/shoulder but supported more with left hand...thus making it hard to do much vibrato!

The group organizer had also told me that it would be great to put on Gut strings and tune my pitch down overall (to A=416? can't remember exact number) so they sound serious about being authentic. I'm happy to change my pitch, but have been hesitating on the gut strings because I heard that they go out of tune much more easily?

The baroque bow is light and short, but I think I still sound exactly the same...I will keep working on my sound! Anyway I'm looking forward to playing the music I love. I guess I will "peek and listen" at the first gathering to see about their use of open strings. Thanks all.

April 1, 2019, 12:08 AM · Does your baroque bow bow inward like a modern bow, if so its not baroque at all, and that might explain the similarity.
April 1, 2019, 1:36 AM · There's no hard and fast rules about open strings — I've yet to come across a treatise that says you have to use open strings. If my open strings gets out of tune in concert I'll change my fingerings and used a covered them instead.

And I wouldn't really obsessed about open strings, that's pretty low on the totem pole of new things to think about performance practice. You might find the whole endeavor more rewarding if you start listening for beat hierarchy and hearing how your voice is built upon the bass line. Hope you have a lot of fun. :)

April 1, 2019, 2:33 AM · I agree with Dorian that this should not be as important as other things in Baroque performance. The most important thing is for the sound to be good and to your liking, rather than authentic, so choose whichever fingering achieves this.
April 1, 2019, 7:32 AM · The tuning is probably A-415. Good luck!

Dorian's point about open strings not being a hard and fast rule is a good one for most baroque practice. Except for using a baroque bow and gut strings, there are really no "hard and fast" rules for baroque practice. None of us was around during that period. There was also undoubtedly regional variation in the practices. So, don't stress too much about open strings, use of first position or vibrato. As James puts it, whatever you do has to sound good to you, or as my teacher puts it, it is hard to believe that Telemann or Bach would object to anything that made the piece sound beautiful. Have fun!

Edited: April 1, 2019, 8:48 AM · Irish fiddle music is dance music from the Baroque era and is traditionally played without vibrato. About twenty years ago ago, when I got involved in Irish music, on a number of occasions at workshops and in pub sessions you might hear the call "no vibrato!", usually directed at a classically trained violinist new to Irish music who was doing it without thinking. This didn't apply to me because classical violin for me was still a few years in the future. However, lately I have noticed that there are some very good Irish fiddle players of the younger generation who use vibrato more than one might expect. I suspect this may be because they may have been having a thorough classical violin training alongside their Irish fiddle activities, so there could be some cross-over.

My classical violin teacher is the violinist in the long-established 4-piece folk band (violin, accordion, acoustic guitar, mandolin) Spiro, which plays folk music from the British Isles and Eastern Europe. Notably, she never uses vibrato when playing in the ensemble, the reason being that it would make her sound stand out too much and interfere with the carefully thought-out overall balance and interplay of tone between the instruments. But when playing classical she has an arm vibrato to die for. She never taught me arm vibrato, accepting that hand/wrist vibrato is more suitable for me at my age.

Many years ago I was a cellist in an orchestral workshop and the tutor/conductor was having difficulty in persuading some of the violinists to use the open E-string when required in the score, the sound when they tried likely being a horrible uncontrolled screech. We cellists sat there in wonderment because we were used to playing on our open top A-string when required and couldn't see what the violinists' problem was. It seems that these violinists had been specifically taught not to use the open E but to always play the fingered E on the A string.

A point about an all-gut setup is that the transition from the A to the open E should have no tonal (whistling, ghosting) problems, something that can sometimes occur with a steel E if bow control wavers slightly during the transition from the A to the open E.

April 1, 2019, 11:00 AM · Vibrato is an ornament or embellishment in Scottish traditional fiddle music, as well as Cape Breton music, but it us used quite sparingly, except in the performance of slow airs. A constant heavy modern arm vibrato, however, would be considered out of place. Often it is commenced part way through a note. This practice is quite similar to Baroque violin technique, from which it derives.
April 1, 2019, 12:05 PM · Lyndon, baroque bows come in a range of shapes and sizes, largely depending in which period of the lengthy Baroque Era they were used. I have two baroque bows, both modelled on a mid-18th century design, towards the end of the Baroque. With both bows, when the hair is de-tensioned they naturally bow inward. When they are tensioned for playing the sticks are straight. Other baroque bows from an earlier period of the Baroque may have a stick that is naturally straight or even outwardly bent all the time. The oldest designs expect the player to adjust the hair tension with his fingers as he plays.

For me, what defines a baroque bow beyond the minutiae of its design is how it plays. I have in mind the "baroque bulge" which is what happens when you execute a long bow at constant speed and pressure - the sound bulges out at around the middle of the bow and then audibly reduces as the end of the bow is approached without any further input from the player. The modern Tourte-style bow does not do this, I believe because the head is designed to be heavier so as to counteract the dieing away of the sound as the end of the bow is approached and to ensure a constant volume of projection along along the whole length of the bow, given constant speed and pressure by the player.

April 1, 2019, 2:43 PM · Trevor I was referring to the fake baroque bows commonly seen on ebay that bow inward under tension just like a modern bow, these will not teach you anything about baroque bow performance, because they are not baroque bows.
Edited: April 1, 2019, 4:13 PM · Lyndon, I suggest that in today's context "baroque" applied to a modern bow is understood to mean a bow "made in the style of the baroque period", and there were many such styles. The baroque behavior is defined as I mentioned above by its baroque design and the wood (of which more below), and for the life of me I cannot see why such a modern bow cannot be described as a baroque bow.

The word "fake" is inappropriate, unless it refers for example to a modern bow described in a sales brochure as a baroque bow from the early 18th century; then those sad words "fraud" and "criminal" start coming into the equation.

If a relatively inexpensive modern bow is made in the baroque style then it can very well provide a real and useful introduction to baroque playing.

I mentioned the wood of bow just above; I should have mentioned it in my first post. Pernambuco was not around in the Baroque era and the woods of choice were heavy hardwoods, such as snakewood. The hardwoods have an effect on the tone - I would suggest a useful tendency to brightness. My best baroque bow is made from snakewood, and cost several times more than my practice baroque bow which is made of a softer and lighter S. American wood. The snakewood bow is heavier, more rigid and responsive, has a brighter and bigger tone than its less expensive brother, and is the bow I shall be using this coming weekend in a performance of Brandenburg 3.
One thing to be careful about when buying a snakewood bow from other than a reputable dealer/luthier (one such is my regular supplier) is to make sure that it really is snakewood - there are cheap bows on the online market fraudently described as snakewood where the typical snakewood pattern has been painted on!

April 1, 2019, 4:21 PM · If the "baroque" bow bows inward instead of straight or slightly outward under tension, it is indeed a fake baroque bow, baroque bows were not made that way.
April 1, 2019, 5:05 PM · I invite you to find a single painting or drawing from the baroque era that shows the bow bowing inward, you won't because that type of bow had no yet been invented.
April 2, 2019, 12:56 AM · Stanley Ritchie's Before the Chinrest and Barthold Kuijken's The Notation is Not the Music are pretty good starting points for those interested in learning about styles. It's always enlightening to read what composers and musicians of ye olden days wrote about their music.

And they don't agree with each other either. You might eventually find a source that says play with open strings always — and that might shed light on a particular region, school, time period, or that the writer might be a one-off nutcase and everyone else disagrees. But this is the fun and beauty of historiography.

There seems to be some overarching themes though that everyone from the Renaissance to the Classical agrees: differences between good notes and bad notes, rhetorical delivery, how to move your audience...let your fingering and vibrato choices be in service of those ideals and you'll be a better musician for it, regardless playing on a real or fake Baroque bow :)

Edited: April 2, 2019, 11:03 AM · Dorian, I agree. I've read Ritchie, but not Kuijken (yet). My pragmatic bottom line is, if the bow I am using can do the job of playing baroque music effectively then as far as I am concerned it is a baroque bow (regardless of the bend of its stick when not under tension).
April 2, 2019, 8:10 AM · There is a lovely collection of Baroque bows at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Some are convex, some are concave and some are straight.
April 2, 2019, 3:13 PM · The numbers are just an excuse not to make this flow better.

1. “How to move your audience” has clearly changed from the baroque to now, although those steeped in each tradition will swear that their approach is ‘natural’ ‘like the human voice’ “musical”, etc., yet they are in fact different, which is the real basis for the interest in and popularity of HIP. (It is also the basis for how easy it is to tell it has had an influence on players using modern equipment.)

2. It would be wonderful if actual historical designs were available inexpensively for players to experiment with, so they could find out for themselves how they inform the process.

3. The only way the above will happen is if the market becomes better informed and stops buying neo-baroque bows. Which means someone has to make a persuasive and informed case for the difference and the value. The players and makers best positioned to do this online seem to be busy at the moment. :-)

4. Insofar as one does not need accurate reproductions to give reasonably historically informed performances of baroque music, one may as well just use a modern bow, perhaps with a higher hold.

5. It is reasonable to criticize cheap ‘baroque’ bows because compared to solidly established historical examples they commonly have: heavy heads; high overall weights in the range of modern bows; modern graduation concepts; modern camber.

6. Bows in superficially ‘baroque’ style continued to be made into the last half of the 18th century. It was common in the late 20th century to ascribe any ‘baroque’ shaped bow to the period, but recent scholarship has been pushing the timeline around for some of these bows. Although heat-bending begins to appear even on some very early short bows it isn’t clear they started out that way. I am not aware of reliably dated bows which retain a camber under tension from before 1740, even then the same caveats apply about when the camber was done--and yes, iconography.

Edited: April 2, 2019, 6:38 PM · I think I will ask a friend who plays baroque violin on the subject of open E. Well, when I get the chance to do it. She lives in the UK and I live in Denmark, so it is not every other day we meet. But she is Danish and visit Denmark frequently often with her baroque band. Sending her an email would make sense.

Regarding open E and a harsh sound. The E string doesn't need to sound harsh and yet it can appear a bit harsh for one simple reason: Tune two violins in perfect fifths and then play the open E on one violin and someone else plays the open G on the other violin. You will notice that the E string does not resonate with the G string, so it is out of tune. The E is two high or the G is two low.

Or even worse take a viola or cello and tune all the strings in perfect fiths. Now make a string quartet and play a C major chord with the open C as the root and let a violin player play the open E. The E is way out of tune, much two high. Some violin players will tune the E slightly low or some viola players or cello players will tune the C slightly high. Other viola and cello players will put a finger at the start of the C string to make the pitch a tad higher. It very much depends on the music you are playing whether you need to do any adjustments. Sometimes it doesn't matter.

April 3, 2019, 9:03 AM · Harriet - your Baroque bow won't affect your tone much. It can make a big difference to your articulation, but you need to learn the different articulation as well. I found I had to unlearn some of my assumptions about how to articulate many slurs and string crossings, which I'd learned through many years of playing Kreutzer studies smooth and evenly - Baroque playing is often the opposite. I recommend the books already mentioned in the thread, and also "Baroque string playing for the ingenious learner" by Judy Tarling.

I would also suggest you approach open strings as "use an open string unless you can see a good reason not to", and vibrato as "don't use vibrato unless it's helping you emphasise something important". There is a vast amount of ink spilt pointlessly on those issues, but having read most of the Baroque treatises and most of the modern works about it I think that is the only general advice you can give!

Edited: April 4, 2019, 8:17 AM · This is all fascinating and educational!
Thank you for all the info.

My baroque bow comes from Shar and is the standard inexpensive type they sell. I was recommended to go to a local dealer "for as little as $1400!" but was not ready to shell out $1400 for a baroque bow quite yet.... I will settle for "copying" what I hear (& like) from other early music groups, for now. I guess I had the wrong idea that I would put my baroque bow to the violin and immediately sound like I had travelled back in time...!

The comment about the "baroque bulge" was really enlightening! That is the difference I hear...less vibrato, lighter sound AND the note has a slight "die-off'" at the end, like a tiny delicate decrescendo which my usual playing does not have.

From what I hear about gut strings, I think I would like their sound a lot! I will probably change my strings over if I hear them at the Group, and I like them.

My favorite genres are Renaissance and Baroque and I do also dabble in Irish fiddle! It is harder than you'd think! The bowing, slurring and rhythms are so different, and the sound of open strings is considered wonderful. The bow pressure is lighter too (I was trying "pinky off" to lighten up, as many fiddlers do). Anyway the hardest thing was to manage to not sound like I was playing a classical minuet when I played a jig. I also had to train myself to sound "rough" sometimes or slightly "out of tune"...Growing up in County Clare, Ireland would probably help...but being Asian, I am not the typical Irish fiddler. :-)

Learning Bach growing up, my teacher never made any mention of any "historical accuracy" and I agree that the beauty of the music is most important - so maybe I shouldn't get too caught up in trying to master the perfect historical style. and just relax and enjoy! But I do think that for playing my favorite genres, the bold modern concert sound with constant vibrato which I was taught, is not wholly appropriate. It will be fun to learn how to better match my sound to these genres.

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