Baroque Violin: An Introduction

August 21, 2020, 10:32 PM · I was very taken by these reactions of students trying Baroque violin for the first time:

The other thread about historical performance practice had fascinating and diverse viewpoints, and particularly interesting was seeing that many players who don't play Baroque violin share the sentiment that being exposed to it benefits their modern playing.

How would you describe the sounds and styles between a mainstream violinist and historical violinist? What are some obstacles you might had encountered in period performance, and questions do you have about the Baroque violin?

Replies (45)

Edited: August 22, 2020, 12:08 AM · For me, it's like learning another instrument with the purpose of representing an idealized version of what could have been, based on the latest scholarship on the matter. I enjoy listening to it occasionally, have a few very interesting and beautiful recordings, but am never tempted to learn this period instrument.

However, there are violinists that play viola, piano, baroque violin, and other instruments. It helps them get into "regular" and baroque ensembles, among other things. If that is their passion and drive, why not? I will however focus playing Bach, Vivaldi, etc. with my "modern" violin, and forgo these additional musical opportunities. After all, we can all play in an appropriate style with our "current" instruments.

(If you think about it, our modern setups are not that modern, as there haven't been many changes in many, many years-for instance, not everyone uses a shoulder rest, and steel E strings have been around for quite a long while.)

One can also go very specific per era, which is something I am not too keen to do. Period classical (have some wonderful recordings of these too), period romantic Mendelssohn era, period late romantic, etc. These are all very interesting to listen to, but in my view, one could just cover all these performance periods with the "modern" violin and the right stylistic approach. Perhaps using different bows as appropriate, or different string choice.

And finally, my main "qualm" is not HIP itself, but humanity's penchant for "team sports": "I am team HIP", "I am team modern", nothing else matters, no compromises can be made-akin to the current divided US partisan atmosphere. Few play baroque works on modern instruments because of this divide-it is not "current" to the concert scene in our age. (Solo Bach doesn't count as every modern violinist plays them, but is still often ridiculed by some if not played in a certain, "truer" way.)

For those who are very much into it, or play them, I mean no offense, and I really enjoy listening to recordings of this type to have a hint on what the "current" scholarship is, though even some of the "outdated" (by the latest research standards, at least) period recordings are very nice. I just ask for you to also respect that it is possible for others to enjoy the very same music in another, more "modern" style-that it must not be anathema for things to be done in other ways other than the ones you prefer, even if you are convinced you have all the research in the world to back up your personal taste.

Enjoy your favorite music, and be merry.

(As a sample of "bad" or "outdated" HIP recordings are those of Eduard Melkus. I remember loving his recording of baroque works as compiled in the 1967 "Hoheschule der Violine" LP/recording, when I was much younger. It had these wonderful scholarly notes. But it does not sound that HIP to the current standards, even though it was intended to be.)

August 22, 2020, 10:48 AM · I wonder if Early Music's unintentional/intentional weaponizing of sources and claiming a sort of historical highground was a reaction to have been heavily ridiculed and criticized (some fair, some not), by the mainstream for half a century?

Ah yes, Melkus. He said in an interview even he often cannot tell from his own recordings whether he recorded it on modern or period instruments. The Early Music movement has changed dramatically from its infant days.

I'm very sympathetic to the idea that one can apply the historical styles on modern setup, and I often think it is a good compromise. But we all know a short Baroque bow good for Monteverdi has drastically different attack, bounce, sustain power then a modern Tourte good for Tchaikovsky. I would encounter many problems trying to play Shostakovich concertos with a short Baroque bow (and everyone would laugh), yet we also similarly run into problems using a Tourte bow on Marini. I wonder in a quasi-Utopian paradise with unlimited money and time, what would it be like if everyone had access all kinds of equipments?

I think we all period players in fact: modern players who play with modern set up on old repertoire can be described as a 20th and now 20st century performance practice. There are many beautiful moments created that I find very moving. Some of those Mengelberg Bach cantatas from the 1930s-40s and sounds twice as slow than a Baroque group might do today are extraordinarily beautiful.

August 22, 2020, 11:05 AM · Another thought on equipment vs. technique, going beyond Baroque: Beethoven literally changed his writing in his Sonata Op. 96 by Rode, who uses a French-style Tourte couldn't play the bow strokes Beethoven wanted. (Skip to 32'48'.)

I post these because most of our own private and conservatory teachers probably did not have access to this kind of information to share to us. Yet these findings have huge ramifications on how we deal with technical problems in all the hours we spend everyday in the practice room and on the concert stage. (Perhaps practice room only these days, unfortunately.)

Edited: August 22, 2020, 1:24 PM · Dorian great video again on the Beethoven sonata, thanks again! However I can't match what is happening there with what you write about it? You write that Rode couldn't play what Beethoven wanted, so Beethoven had to rewrite it. But the lecture shows that what Beethoven wrote in the end cannot be played with a Viennese bow? That's not the same thing? Could you clarify?
August 22, 2020, 10:19 PM · Sorry I'm unclear. What I understand from Prof. Köpp is that Beethoven was used to writing for Crammer style bows, with much more different response than the very stiff French Tourte bow at the time designed for bow strokes like the stiff detaché appuyé, staccato at the tip, etc. He would had written his more typically sprightly finales but changed his compositional style for this sonata because he was going to play with Rode at a concert and had trouble playing with him.

Basically Beethoven changed his composition style to accommodate a musician.

August 22, 2020, 10:48 PM · I am a bit confused here, from what I remember the changes that where made were in the LAST movment (the examples in the first movment), and the changes were not because of the bow, but becase Rode was past his prime as a soloist. At least according to the Archduke who was the pianist at the premiere.
Edited: August 23, 2020, 2:02 AM · My idol in the "infant days" of HIP was Simon Standage who led modern- as well as period-instrument orchestras and even in baroque music adapted his style according to the needs of his company. During the 1980's a pro/am band I played with somehow secured the gig of performing the St Matthew Passion in St Paul's Cathedral on Good Friday, in front of a guaranteed house of maybe 1500 people. According to my diary we did it 7 years in succession, and for the first three we engaged SS as leader. Sitting right behind him for Erbarme Dich was one of the most nervous times of my playing life. The adaptation went both ways; not only did he adopt what I would consider an ideal half-way style (playing a "modern" instrument) for that occasion, we in the orchestra learnt and applied a considerable amount of rudimentary period-instrument practice.
August 23, 2020, 9:49 AM · If I understand correctly, Kai Köpp is arguing that Beethoven wrote what would make Rode sound his best. Perhaps in addition to Rode being past his prime, the drastic difference of the French style vs the Viennese style (both in technique and bows as we can see in Claire Holden's demo) played a big calculus in Beethoven's compositional decisions, and he decided to forego his usual finale writing style.

I'm guessing he picked examples from the first movement instead of the last to demonstrate clearly those French bow strokes.

August 23, 2020, 11:44 PM · But if he wrote the first movment in his "normal" way and "the drastic difference of the French style vs the Viennese style played a big calculus in Beethoven's compositional decisions", he would have written the first movment with the Viennese bow in mind, right?
August 24, 2020, 3:41 AM · Indeed it really does not make sense the way you interpret it, Dorian. Köpp uses striking examples from the first movement to prove that these could NOT be played with a Viennese bow. Perhaps Köpp's point is that he has discovered something new, that was not yet known, namely, that Beethoven not only had to adapt the final part (as is well documented) but he actually wrote the ENTIRE piece with a Tourte bow in mind??
August 24, 2020, 11:54 AM · That is an interesting thought Jean. Those of you that are more familiar to the chamber music of Beethoven - how unique are these bowings in his music?
The second example, triplets with one note on the lower string and 2 on the upper in accompaniment is quite common in Mozart, for example in violin sonata K.378/317d. It displaced one 8'th, but exactly the same bowing. Written in about 1779.
August 24, 2020, 12:05 PM · To be honest, I myself would find it very surprising that Beethoven would limit his writing because it would become harder for the instrumentalist to pull it off. The Music always came first! So I am a bit skeptical about the whole theory and its various interpretations.
August 24, 2020, 3:05 PM · I suspect my brain is short circuiting and I'm confused with the confusion. Just to be clear, I don't think Kai Köpps said Beethoven rewrote the final movement, but rather Beethoven changed his compositional style and deviated from what he would usually do in his violin sonata finales, if I understand correctly. How much this was due to Rode's decline as noted in Schwarz's "Beethoven and the French Violin School" article, or according to Köpps's observation that there were competing schools of violin playing and instruments between Paris and Vienna influencing Beethovne's compositional decisions, this would be a fun project to tease out.

I think the "music always came first" is an easy trap among Romantic era clichés. Certainly it appears here a tension between Beethoven being a practical musician vs. that oft-quote (apocryphal?) anecdote of Beethoven telling Schuppanzigh he didn't care about the miserable fiddles interfering with his divine communion (I paraphrase badly.) Perhaps an example of Beethoven accommodating his musicians would be his Triple Concerto (easy piano part for Archduke Rudolf).

August 24, 2020, 3:07 PM · At any rate, I hoped the video showed the drastic differences between the Parisian and Viennese bows. The very straight-looking early French Tourte bows were also later recambered to the shape we are now used to.
August 24, 2020, 4:36 PM · I can certainly go with that conclusion Dorian, and thanks again for the very interesting videos you posted here and on the other thread.
August 24, 2020, 5:41 PM · Thanks for the fantastic videos, Dorian. This is a fascinating discussion that makes me realise I really should read more musicology, something I enjoyed in high school.

My first violin teacher (in my 20s and only for a year or two before she moved interstate) was a baroque violinist, and whenever I did especially well I was allowed the special treat of playing her violin. I also got to be an usher and go to all her concerts free, so baroque was the first style I was exposed to live.

I think I've been trying unsuccessfully emmulate that feeling of being immersed in a warm, rich sound-dance ever since.

Edited: August 24, 2020, 9:17 PM · I really appreciate the follow ups on bows in the early 1800s, which really falls outside of my perview. I would love to dig deeper into Beethoven's performance practice when I have more time -- or perhaps someone might be able to enlighten me on this area too, I would be very thankful for that.

@Adalberto, meditating on your eloquent response, I am thinking in particular of the comment of feeling one is learning "another instrument" to realize some kind of idealized version (whether those idealize versions are at all historical, I am often highly suspicious of them myself), I am struck by the idea of a split identity of the instrument. It seems modern playing has also been influenced by the HIP-mannerism. And yet a Baroque violin and a modern violin are both a violin -- or perhaps not?

Even Twoset Violin made some interesting observations in "How Violin Playing Has COMPLETELY CHANGED in the Last 60 Years" along these lines, and I often wonder if there might be a grand reunification of HIP and modern in the distant future, a sort of les goûts-réunis during the Baroque, if you will?

August 24, 2020, 11:06 PM · Dorian - sorry, I was a bit off topic. There is no doubt that playing have changed immensive. Thanks for the thread and keep the excellent videos coming :D
August 25, 2020, 12:56 AM · Dorian I love your idea of a grand reunification. I think it would require advances in bows and strings that are hard to imagine right now. In fact I can more easily imagine a new kind of HIP arising in which the style of play of the late 19th/early 20th c. is recreated.

In the meantime I would be happy to see developments which allowed completely idiomatic HIP of baroque music with something like the color range of the modern setup. Perhaps that will just prove to be a matter of a learning curve for HIP, which is still very young.

August 25, 2020, 3:11 AM · To Dorian Fu

i heartily endorse what you say;-

'might be a grand reunification of HIP and modern in the distant future, a sort of les goûts-réunis during the Baroque, if you will?'

that will also mean abandoning the label of 'modern' and 'baroque' which are already trending
to the meaningless.

These posts seem to be obsessing the difference between tourte and baroque bows. I have
at least 12 different bows. I have two baroque bows both of which are heavier than my lightest
coda bow. I have a transitional bow that Beethoven would have recognised, with a narrow hair width which works well for all periods. If I had to just keep one bow to play all music on it would be the early
coda bow "aspire" model at 56 grams....stiff and light, handles well a the frog, and tracks well. I wouldn't have the slightest problem playing any period of music on it.

Just permit me one small reminiscence. Many many moons ago I was in Los Angeles and I saw that Roger Norrington was conducting the Los Angeles Phil in a concert of Mozart Haydn and Beethoven. Well at that time i was a kind of baroque equipment obsessionist and i couldnt imagine what on earth
Roger Norrington was proposing to do. Well it turns out that he had provided his own scores and bowing to the orchestra in advance and exhorted the players (many of which apparently were initially hostile)to observe the main HIP principles. I remember how incredible the result was. Here was a full
orchestra making no equipment compromises whatsoever, but a wonderful rich resonant sound. This was formative for me and was to quote you a kind of "grand re-unification".

August 25, 2020, 3:25 AM · @Andres. The problem with recreating playing styles of the early 20th century is that we have the audible evidence and we don't like it very much! Makes you wonder what we'd think of baroque played authentically...
August 25, 2020, 9:45 AM · Steve Jones, some of us like the early 20th century playing very much!
August 25, 2020, 11:11 AM · It's mainly the portamenti that I find contrived and artificial. I doubt we'll ever hear live playing like this again!
August 25, 2020, 2:33 PM · Steve - It may still seem manneristic and contrived to us, but these things change. Current performance practice i.e. what we are used to, is just as much a matter of conventions and what we grew up with as any other era. Some day the portamenti will seem like just the right new flavor to liven up people's listening.

David - baroque short bows tend to weigh in the 30s, and most long bows in the 40s. Tourte père's baroque-looking bows of around 1750 weigh right around 50 grams.

August 25, 2020, 4:34 PM · Forgive me for radically departing from the Baroque/Enlightenment and reaching into the early 20th century, but this excellent (as usual) offering from Elam Rotem really gave me food for thought about how much accepted styles has changed, even in music we might think we know well (e.g. Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, etc.):

I do find there is a lot of beauty in these early 20th-c. mannerism that I feel slightly sad we've lost.

@Steve, reflecting on what one might find contrived or artificial...I can only conclude that tastes are so subjective. What one likes another might detest. And tastes can swing widely even for one listener within one's lifetime (e.g. me). I certainly have a nagging suspicion for example much medieval and Renaissance music one hears are reconstructed to the standards of our concert hall, which has its pros and cons, but such is life. I can go hardcore at approximating ancient performance conditions, but then the concert series presenters probably won't be too terribly happy and I won't get hired back. We are interested in some sort of authenticity or "authenticity" a la Richard Taruskin, but we are also playing for audiences of today whose ears are conditioned to aesthetics of today. It's a wonderful dilemma, isn't it?

August 25, 2020, 10:10 PM · Dorian, that's a great video. I really love that old, freer style and would love to see it make a resurgence.

Steve, the portamenti are certainly a matter of taste. I also appreciate that element of older performance but it can be done to varying degrees of effectiveness.

I find it unfortunate that there is significant interest in HIP pertaining to baroque music but not to romantic music. If there was it would be more like Kubelik than not.

August 26, 2020, 2:20 AM · Of course in all aesthetic activities tastes and fashions are constantly changing, not necessarily in cycles. To adorn the body in an eye-catching way seems to be a Darwinian adaptation with the ultimate objective of improving one'"score" in the competition to reproduce. Sometimes an arms race seems to take hold, giving rise to extraordinary mutations like the medieval poulaine (long pointed shoe) and the 18th century macaroni style of dress and deportment. These are interesting historical phenomena that nobody wishes to repeat in practice!

I doubt that music is exempt from this and I'm wondering if the portamento style is such a phenomenon, becoming exaggerated for a short period before disappearing into history. It's clearly based on vocal practice, but whereas vocal portamenti are usually applied so naturally that the listener hardly notices, in the case of early 20th century violin playing it starts to become an affectation, not dictated by the shape of the music but applied almost at random.

Edited: August 26, 2020, 3:25 AM · The "affectation" characterization comes from a critical mind biased by modern performance practice. They knew what they were doing-some people loved it, but even back then, "bad" use of portamento was ill-received.

Nowadays I am happy that some of the younger performers are daring to use tasteful portamento. Overly careful-not-to-offend, "keyboard like" violin playing-especially of the romantic repertoire-tends to disappoint me at some level, even if otherwise dynamics and expression are "OK". I do not think we are as strict nowadays as we were a few decades ago, but also, not as "loose" as in Kubelik's day.

(I like Kubelik's Paganini #1 Cadenza... also his playing is fine, and not to be fully characterized by the limitations of the 78rpm medium used for those old recordings. It is obvious he did not sound like that in a real live recital situation. His portamenti are not that bad... perhaps I lack a refined taste for the arts. No offense intended, of course.)

I think some have attempted special projects emulating that specific era, but I do not have recordings or evidence at hand. It was previously mentioned on this website some years ago. Still, gut GDA, steel E on a modern setup would work well if one wanted to do that, IMHO (you can also try uncovered, gut DAE strings.)

August 26, 2020, 3:14 AM · About the old Kubelik recording that Steve referred to: I found it amazingly well played. You often read that there was a "pre-Heifetz" and a "post-Heifetz" period; in the pre period, violinists didn't play particularly well in tune. But Kubelik plays beautifully in tune.
Edited: August 26, 2020, 3:52 AM · I agree, exquisite playing of a sort that may be gone for ever. In the published copy there are a number of places where Drdla's fingering implies a portamento. Kubelik adheres to these and adds a liberal number of his own, some sounding more like glissandi.

I see from IMSLP that Kubelik was actually the dedicatee of this piece, published at about the same time as the disc was recorded, so you might argue Drdla knew what kind of interpretation he was likely to hear.

Edited: August 27, 2020, 8:58 AM · The metronome and recording technology has certainly standardized our modern preferences for tempo and pitch (pros and cons of course).

Returning to the Baroque briefly, this is one shocking example on how composers played with intonations systems (skip to ~4'45" and notice the harpsichord's split keys):

Without instrument builders and researchers, and just as important, musicians to realize them, we might never be aware of these striking intentions from composers of the past.

August 27, 2020, 9:58 AM · Fascinating!!
August 27, 2020, 12:40 PM · Just so long as you don't take HIP performance one step to far and claim all the performers have to be male!!
August 27, 2020, 12:50 PM · Sorry Lydnon, I genuinely don't understand your the expense of killing it, can you explain?
August 27, 2020, 1:22 PM · there were practically no female musicians in baroque music groups. It was forbidden.
August 28, 2020, 2:13 AM · Except the Ospedale della Pieta in Venice
Edited: August 29, 2020, 9:18 AM · @Lyndon, ahh now I get it. Hmm, no females except for all the all-girl-band imitations of the Concerto delle Donne, Maddalena Laura Sirmen, Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, what Steve said about the female virtuose at the Ospedale della Pieta including Anna Maria della Pietà, Barbara Strozzi, Isabella Leonarda, Francesca Caccini, and all the women who made music at the nunneries, operas, salons, homes, and concert stage?
August 29, 2020, 2:33 AM · I was thinking more of church music, I don't believe there were women in the chamber groups or choirs at least in Germany.
August 29, 2020, 10:12 AM · Women voices in church spaces isn't my speciality, but a quick search brought this:

"By 1754-1757, Friedrich Marpurg reported women singing in the
chapels of Gotha, Dresden, Mannheim, Paris (both the Opéra and the Concerts Spirituels), and in the Schwarzburg-Rudolfstadt Chapel."

"... Roger North (1653-1734) began to publish articles that
enthusiastically supported the idea of women choristers both in church and on the opera stage ..."

"Composed in English, often for Lenten performances, Handel’s oratorios (1732-1757) usually employed leading female soloists, both Italian and English, never female choral singers, and only rarely castrati."

Prichard, Laura Stanfield. “What Did Women Sing? A Chronology Concerning Female Choristers.” The Phenomenon of Singing 9 (2014): 189–98.

I think we can all easily find exceptions from the norm. At any rate the whole Early Music enterprise is not about making a historical replicate, because either it's not possible, or we don't want to do it. For example, nowadays we don't cut off people's delicate parts to make castrati.

August 29, 2020, 10:20 AM · The gender bias against and paucity of women in classical music, even in many cases for female singing roles, is so well historically established that to challenge the notion is to take a much weaker position, despite a few counterexamples that proved the possibility of participation, because music is not gender-specific.

It wasn't until 2003 that the otherwise esteemed Vienna Philharmonic had a single female player, and of course that's not because women weren't good enough.

August 29, 2020, 12:31 PM · Right, and I included these hurriedly-found counter "exceptions of the norm" in reply to Lyndon's implication of what HIP should do or not do. (I argue that the under premise of HIP, one can basically do anything with some support from historical sources, which are often contradictory and we cherry picked at our pleasure. Richard Taruskin et al has spoken of this for the past four decades and I won't rehash them here.)

I think the injustices of patriarchy, and expanding to other issues of inequality such as the European colonial enterprise and its legacy to our current Classical music ecosystem is a pressing subject to examine. But for the record I wanted to respond to Lyndon's implied suggestion, which was that broadly there's no women in church music (and the answer is yes and no), and that having women in today's Early Music performances is one of those decisions that's based on ethics and not a desire to replicate history.

There's a huge distinction between, let's say, using Baroque bows because we can learn from them, compared to banning women from orchestras because we don't see the 18th century. The latter is an arbitrary discrimination that's mean spirited, and we also learn nothing from.

August 29, 2020, 12:42 PM · oh brother, some people can't take a joke!!
August 31, 2020, 12:09 PM · Yeah, sorry Lyndon I killed it. (#sorrynotsorry)

Speaking of funny stuff, this remains one of my favorite cartoon...

"We are the London Consort of Surgeons"

August 31, 2020, 12:13 PM · I also want to share this Bach violin concerto movement from a Cantata BWV 1045, here reconstructed/realized by Shunske Sato and Netherlands Bach Society: case everyone wants to explore more Bach violin concerto music besides the A min, E maj, and double concertos. What spectacular music.

August 31, 2020, 5:06 PM · The Elam Rotem video was ear-opening for me, and although the skeptic in me hesitates in drawing specific conclusions from the few and period-limited samples I got to see, I think I will in any case.

There's also the Bach D Minor concerto - BWV-1052R, which I think should be played more often.

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