What type of strings did the late 19th century masters use?

November 20, 2017, 3:49 PM · I’m aware that there may have been many forums in the past that touched on this subject, but I’ve looked and haven’t found one yet that answers it directly. Apologies if I’ve simply missed it!

I’m looking at trying to purchase the kind of violin strings that would have been used in the late 19th century, by the likes of Joachim, Vieuxtemps, Ysaye and others.

The main things I’m trying to discover is:

1. The differences between plain gut or wound gut
2. Whether virtuosi of that period used a gut E string
3. What difference varnishing makes
4. Whether, even in that period, violinists had any covering on top of the gut eg. silver
5. Whether any of the modern gut core strings (eg. Oliv or Eudoxa) come close to that 19th century sound, or whether I’d be looking at more specialist/handmade strings (eg. Damian Dlugolecki, Gamut, etc.)

Also, in an age not noted for its uniformity, or even it’s equal temperament, was the ‘A’ generally lower than 440 or did this vary from town to town?

Any help would be greatly appreciated!

Vaughan Jones

Replies (19)

November 20, 2017, 4:14 PM · They would have used plain gut E, A and D, with a copper wire wound G (the copper may be silver plated). As for the make of string there were many makers, and today's Pirastro and Savarez were around in the 18th century! Steel Es weren't around until the last decade of the 19th century, and they may have taken a while to get generally accepted. In the 20th century, between the Wars, one prominent German symphony orchestra had it written into its violinists' contracts that they were not to use other than gut Es. The understandable issue was that steel Es would be too prominent (and metallic) for the sound of the other gut strings. As a personal note, that is the reason why I often use a gut E today in conjunction with plain gut A, D (Chorda) and an Eudoxa (or Chorda) covered gut G - my choice of gut/steel E depends on the music being played and the size of the orchestra (chamber or symphony).

Note that the violin gut G has to be metal wound to give it the necessary weight. A plain gut G would be so fat in diameter as to be useless for anything other than Early (pre-Baroque) Music.

November 20, 2017, 4:35 PM · I am pretty much in agreement with Trevor, although I don't think it impossible that somewhere someone was using a wound gut D, Gut D is the weak link in this string set up, but was presumably what most people used, even well into the 20th century.
Edited: November 20, 2017, 4:42 PM · Hi,

Since I have done research and performed some recitals with these kinds of strings (and period pianos), I thought I would answer.

1.The differences between plain gut or wound gut
Two completely different worlds in terms of sound and approach to bowing & vibrato. Plain gut is much more sensitive to contact point and vibrato has to be very centered.

2.Whether virtuosi of that period used a gut E string

Yes. Steel Es came into being during WWI and after. In your list of violinists, only Ysaÿe experimented with them late in his career, and you can see that in the fingering choices for some of the runs in the solo sonatas.

3.What difference varnishing makes

I don't know, I have never tried them. Apparently they last longer and sound somewhat brighter.

4.Whether, even in that period, violinists had any covering on top of the gut eg. silver

Only the G string was covered until the 1920's (silver wound). During the late 20s and 30s, the D was gradually covered and there was experimentation with aluminium covered steel A strings, which Carl Flesch was the first to advocate. Heifetz for example, played on a plain gut A and D his entire career (and a Goldbrokat medium E). I believe that a copy of the Tricolore strings that he used and exact gauges has been remade in recent years.

5.Whether any of the modern gut core strings (eg. Oliv or Eudoxa) come close to that 19th century sound, or whether I’d be looking at more specialist/handmade strings (eg. Damian Dlugolecki, Gamut, etc.)

You should be looking at specialist strings. For myself I used Dlugolecki. The thing is that late 19th century soloists used very large gauge strings (those photos are actually accurate).

Also, in an age not noted for its uniformity, or even it’s equal temperament, was the ‘A’ generally lower than 440 or did this vary from town to town?

A438 was more common in the late 19th century and A440 was actually adopted in Germany after WWI if my memory is OK. Going back, it seems that A432-A435 was more in vogue from the early to mid 19th century.

Hope this helps!


November 20, 2017, 4:46 PM · I second the recommendation to get your strings from Damien Dlugolecki.
Edited: November 20, 2017, 6:37 PM · It's curious to remember that Olivs and Eudoxas are actually modern strings. They still sound like gut-which they *are*-but are definitely different from pure gut, and not just technique-wise.

I wonder when the predilection for low tension gut strings such as Eudoxa started during the 20th century-nowadays, many of us gut-core users are preferring heavier gut tension (though in my case, the opposite for synthetics, where I generally prefer lower tension.)

(Also, I don't find gut to be dark, but rather warm, to a degree. They have some beautiful "upper mids" that make them sound brighter and "clearer" than popular "gut replacements", such as Obligato... which sound good but a bit hollow.)

Both Mr. Dlugolecki and Mr. Larson can offer good 19th century replicas for said period historical performances, as aforementioned. These strings are not too expensive either, at least in the US.

For modern gut-core use, *I* would stick to steel E and a good set of gut GDA, wound or pure, never too light.

My varnished A has lasted for a while, and is more weather-stable than Olivs & Eudoxas. Amazing benefits; I would recommend it without hesitation.

November 20, 2017, 6:55 PM · The only expensive thing about historical Dlugolecki strings is the cost of the wound G, which is more than a Eudoxa G by about 50%, the unwound strings are very reasonable, especially when you consider the a and e come in double lengths, 2 strings for the price of one.
Edited: November 21, 2017, 3:44 AM · For more on pitch, see the Wikipedia article on concert pitch.

The strings seem to have been on the thick side compared with modern uncovered gut (see https://www.gamutmusic.com/tricolore-string-return/, and earlier on Pagaini's strings, https://ricerche.aquilacorde.com/i-nostri-lavori/65/nicolo-paganini-e-le-corde-di-budello/).

However, perhaps some soloists were favouring thicker strings than most players? I do not think the answer is readily available. Even thin uncovered gut strings can be a bit slow to sound. Modern microphones might have picked up their scratchiness. Maybe a 19th century soloist instrument setup only makes sense with a different use of bow and fantastic right hand technique, unrecorded, in a large hall before an audience?

November 21, 2017, 5:03 AM · I find it amazing to think of the big concertos being played on a gut E!
What are we missing?
November 21, 2017, 5:15 AM · "What are we missing?"

Sweeter sound and frequent string breakages.

Edited: November 21, 2017, 7:43 AM · I’ve played gamut, chorda, and tricolore and found them interesting, but of little use to me imho. Perhaps my opinion is a little collored by my experience as a bassist. Gut strings for bass have led to many compromised set ups and schools of playing, techniques, and tunings that players still argue about and have been a huge waste of years for me. IMHO modern strings and technique on the larger instruments afford more range and ease in playing - that said, I prefer the gut-like (yes compromise) sound of synthetics for every string instrument I play except the high e and low pairs on cello and bass.
On violin, however, I do appreciate the different technique and bow required to play a period piece in an authentic manner, but I view it as virtually a different instrument just as viola da gamba is different from cello and violone from bass.
Perhaps my choice is based on the fact that I already practice regularly on all four instruments and view a period instrument as a fifth with drastically different technique used ln a limited repertoire- for me.
November 21, 2017, 9:44 AM · I don't know the "facts" but in the movie, "The RED Violin, I noticed on the big screen how the strings changed over the years and when they started to show metal windings. The Pirastro company started in business in the late 18th century (I think) and I believe at least the G strings were already being metal wound.
Edited: November 21, 2017, 9:45 AM · As to your original questions. If memory serves:
Wire wrapping technology was about mid 19th century if I recall.
A reliable steel e was early 20th with the simple goldbrokat being Heifetz’s standby (see tricolore at Gamut)
‘A’ varied from locale to locale. Even organs were built with some variability that came to be more standardized in the late 18th and 19th centuries.
Others know more bout varnishing, but some use of nut oils seemed to be common if memory serves.
Be sure to try a variety of rosins once you find a good period bow. A good period bow may be the biggest challenge. Also, don’t use a shoulder rest. It will cause a major change in resonance.
November 21, 2017, 10:06 AM · Hi,

Speaking of bows, we are of course talking about already modern bows in the late 19th century. Soloists tended to favour Tourte bows and weight was in the 56-59 grams range, whereas today, many of the modern bows tend to be above 60 grams. You get into more historical bows when talking about pre-1830-1840.

Using metal to wrap the G string to reduce mass was already done in the early 19th century.

Although steel Es did appear in the early 20th century, it wasn't until WWI that they became more widely used and accepted.


November 21, 2017, 12:09 PM · I'd just like to thank you all for spending time in giving me the benefit of your expertise. Some of the replies were exactly what I was hoping for and I feel a lot more informed about it all now. Thanks for your reply Christian as I'd seen a response you made in a similar blog post from around 2011 and hoped to get your point of view on this. I'll certainly approach Damian Dlugolecki and although I'm based in the U.K., it's all about getting it right. I'm not sure (with my long neck!) whether I'll be entirely successful dispensing with my shoulder rest, but I'll experiment with it as Edward's comment about it causing ...'a major change in resonance' must be true (aside from the shoulder rest being an anachronism to late 19th century playing!).
November 21, 2017, 12:57 PM · I've heard that Damien Dlugolecki is so particular about his strings, that he goes to shelters and hand-picks the cats himself.
Edited: November 21, 2017, 2:20 PM · There's some insights from the late 19th / early 20th century players themselves in the book of interviews: Violin Mastery Talks with Master Violinists and Teachers

Those interviewed include Eugene Ysaye, Leopold Auer, Fritz Kreisler, Maud Powell, and many others. The book is free and really a very interesting look at the thoughts and processes of virtuoso violinists of that period.


November 21, 2017, 3:18 PM · Although more baroque in focus, ‘Before the Chinrest’ by Ritchie is also an excellent resource.
November 21, 2017, 5:44 PM · Erik, I think you need "shelters" in quotation marks! What real shelter would sell cats to the likes of Dlugolecki?
(Answer: The one that sold him his present moggie 5 years ago and hasn't sold him another one since)
November 21, 2017, 7:00 PM · I'd be more worried if he wanted to adopt my sheep!!

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