What is a 'baroque violin'?

This is just for those of you who wonder what a baroque violin is all about. It's far from conclusive, but I hope it'll be a useful introduction.

The violin developed in the early part of the 16th century in northern Italy and by the second half of the century it had basically become the instrument we know today as far as measurements, form, number of strings and tuning are concerned. Set-up, playing techniques and playing style were different though and evolved over time to what we are used to today. Accordingly, there are two approaches to playing music from earlier periods: using modern instruments and techniques and interpreting the music in a contemporary way, or trying to play the music the way it sounded at the time it was composed. For these 'authentic' performances musicians and instrument makers recreate period instruments and playing styles from historic documents and surviving (unaltered) instruments. Many old violins still played today started out as baroque violins and were only modernized in the 19th or 20th century. In some cases they have now again been 're-baroqued' for authentic playing.

It is important to keep in mind, that in past centuries the violin and its set-up weren't as standardised as it is today, but generally a baroque violin may differ from a modern violin in the following ways:

  • Shorter neck, hardly or not at all angled back from the top.
  • Shorter, wedge shaped fingerboard made from a softwood core with hardwood edges and with an ebony or hardwood veneer on top. Originally it would also have been wider and less rounded than today.
  • Generally lower and more massive bridge, though there was a wide variety of bridge shapes.
  • Usually plain gut strings, thought first experiments with making metal wound strings date as far back as the 17th century. It is customary for many baroque players to tune to 415 instead of 440 Hz, reflecting a generally lower tuning pitch in the Baroque.
  • No chin or shoulder rest. The violin was played held against the chest or on the shoulder with or without chin contact.
  • Veneered or carved tailpiece matching the fingerboard. Fine tuners, as well as the steel E-string are 20th century inventions.

There are more, less immediately visible differences, for example in the construction of the violin. There was also a preference for higher arched Stainer- or Amati type instruments over the lower arched Stradivari model favored today. The powerful sound of a modern violin would have been considered too rough and sharp in the baroque time. Achieving a beautiful tone was considered more important than getting a lot of volume.

Early classic to romantic violin

Changes towards the modern violin started in the late 18th century, with Paris as a center for this development. Musical development required a stronger sound, a bigger range and more freedom of movement when playing the violin. Today there are players who are using instruments specifically set up for classic or even romantic period music for authentic performances, though this is probably still less common than using a baroque violin. It is also important to keep in mind, that not all countries and not even all players adopted the new gear and techniques equally fast. Generally the following changes took place during this transitional period:

  • Both neck and fingerboard are lengthened and the neck is angled back more and protrudes more over the violin top.
  • The fingerboard looses the wedge shape. Veneered fingerboards, now often with ebony sides continued to be made for a long time (you might find the occasional one still in use on a modern violin), but they start to be replaced by solid ebony boards towards the end of the 19th century.
  • The bridge becomes higher, there's still a wide variety of shapes, but generally the feet are made thinner and the center of gravity is lower.
  • Metal wound strings become more common, especially on the deeper strings, though plain gut strings were still used by normal musicians well into the 20th century. The tuning pitch also rises. Overall string pressure rises, leading to changes in the construction of the violin and creating a more powerful sound.
  • There are first experiments with chin rests, at first usually just in the form of a small ebony rim, but the shoulder rest only appears in the 20th century.

Cello and viola

Basically the same developments took place for cello and viola. An important modern addition to the cello is the endpin, which is a late 19th century invention. A baroque cellist would hold his instrument like a viola da gamba, resting the instrument on his calves.