The following article first appeared in the January 1995 issue of our Bulletin. John V. Speak was president of our Association from 1995 through 1997 and again in 2001. Prior to his retirement, John was a sound recording engineer for some of the well-known studios in Hollywood. He presently resides in Capistrano Beach, California.


by John. V. Speak

Between the High Baroque and today's modern instruments there was a period of, shall we say, flux, caused by the almost daily changes in music and society that affected the instruments.

Until about the 1750's the violins remained Baroque1, but the audiences and halls were becoming larger and the wind band, the nucleus of the orchestra was enlarging to provide the sound necessary to fill them. To provide the necessary balance, the string sections grew and it was thought desirable to attempt to increase the power of the instruments. At about the same time players were asked to expand their range as composers were desirous of using the whole range of which they knew the instruments were capable. As this desire manifested itself it was found that a different bow2, one capable of greater power was demanded, and there you are, WE NEED IT, YOU DO IT, and the path to change was once again trod.

During this period the changes to the instruments were incremental and led to orchestras composed of the old and new styles. The instruments of J. S. Bach were not those expected or written for by Beethoven. Mozart forced the change in bowing but we probably would find early and newer violins in his section.

To increase the volume of the violin higher string tension brought problems that must be addressed and wrapped strings3 another challenge. If the tension was too much the violin acted like an accordion (it wanted to fold together) and as if all the above were not enough, the pitch rose adding more of the same.

So, of course the makers came through and began to solve these, not all at once but gradually, one step at a time, and this process did not stop till what we accept as today's violin appeared, answering all technical problems to the satisfaction of the musical community. (It is hoped).

Here is a listing of those changes, and we can get into a “chicken or egg” discussion as to which led off or was last, however:

1—Neck set back further, gradually, to today's standard, and raised to replace the 'wedge' shape fingerboard and the under surface changed to accommodate the higher playing positions more easily.

2—Neck mounting to assure strength4.

3—Fingerboard change, in length, arc and shape to accommodate the neck5.

4—A longer string length until the ‘standard’ was accepted

5—Bridge changes to accommodate the above, both style height and arc of curve

6—Heavier bass bar and sound post

7—Bow changes6

When these were done exactly is conjecture so the maker wishing to present a ‘CLASSICAL’ instrument must decide which he needs and then go right ahead. And good luck.

Even before my focus period, (the High Baroque), changes were a constant for instrument makers because the players and the writers constantly ‘stretched the envelope’ in their demands for musical expression. Not only that, certain advances in available materials presented opportunities for the makers, allowing new approaches which enhanced their ability to accede to those demands.

Let's start with the ability to wrap gut strings with wire, an advance which allowed changes in all instruments as they offered more ease in playing (easier to bow than larger diameter gut only strings) and produced finer tone. The use and acceptance of this technique were, and are today, an open field explored by string makers. Consider Norman Pickering and his work. In our discipline Nothing and Everything moves ahead.

With better strings, the ability to build louder, smaller instruments brought the ‘Braccia’ instruments to equality with the socially accepted ‘gambas’ and at the beginning of the eighteenth century surpass them as the instrument of choice for both players and for composers7.

This technique and the exploration of higher pitches plus the bowing styles these new strings easily allowed, made necessary a change to the fingerboard arc to utilize to the fullest their capabilities, and when a new bow shape appeared needing higher string clearances for its use, all of the pieces were in place to present the violin in today's modern dress.

The Andrea Amati violin was designed a bit before these changes began8, the Nicolo Amati violin at about the time of the wound low register string9, and Stradivari was perhaps experimenting with body shapes in an effort to explore their potential10. We can point to the change in size from the Aylesford11 to the ‘B’ form cello12 as perhaps his understanding of the abilities of the wound string. Guadagnini13 built during the time these changes were being made and as a consequence his instruments were designed from the first to express the voice these changes offered, and why today's concert players appreciate them, even over the others, not because of their price, but for their ability.

This ‘Stretching the Envelope’ is continuing today, witness the electronic ZETA type violin gaining acceptance with the same group the original violin did, that is the working popular music player. We find the earliest violins in the hands of the street player entertaining the happy dancing peasants, (how's that for cliché?), and the ‘Electric Violin’ in the hands of country-western and pop performers doing the same thing. I suppose another cliché is in order, What Goes Around Comes Around, or Nothing and Everything Moves Ahead, and as we build our wonderful instruments I believe it is good that we always remember where they came from and where they are headed.

Anyway, it's interesting thinking about it. Here comes the fun part. Assumptions must be made as to which steps were taken and in what order. Assumptions being the Mother of all foul-ups as we know, I'll stick my neck out and set a change protocol, keeping in mind I will start in the High Baroque period.

Here we go.

1. The surface of the fingerboard as built earlier, that is decorated lines and maple or fruitwood, was liable to damage from the metal windings, and a harder material was sought, the choice was ebony, and as it was in short supply and expensive, became the face veneer of choice. Noticing the elegance this look gave, the sides were also covered. At first the baroque decoration persisted in contrasting color lines but as time went on, this became out of date and was dropped. We notice that Stradivari's work used less as time moved on. For my work I will decorate them for the LONG STRADS and just use plain undecorated ebony faces for the ‘G’ models. Nicolo Amati on the other hand can always use the line decor. We have to go back to his grandfather for the really fancy boards, and to the Amati brothers if we wish as they also fancied up their boards. But, let us consider Stainer who apparently used ebony alone for both the tops as well as the sides on his instruments in original baroque mountings currently existing. So, pick your maker and his era and choose.

2. As long as the composers and players only utilized the notes provided by the first and second positions the baroque neck shape and the wedge fingerboard were fine, but here came the demand for the rest of the instruments capability, opened up by the advancement in string making, allowing musical expression to expand. Now the bulky baroque neck-wedge got in the player's way and the makers removed this hindrance, as they always will, by raising the neck itself to do away with the wedge and placing a finger ‘board’ on top. This permitted the undersurface of the neck to stay thinner farther down, and the player could easily play the expanded range. This range meant lengthening the fingerboard.

The projection probably stayed at its usual height at first, but as playing techniques advanced and demands were put for more projection to fill the larger halls and bigger groups called for larger sound, and don't forget the pitch changes that steadily spiraled upwards, this projection rose, and the simplest method to accomplish this was to tilt the neck downwards, preserving the working surfaces. This movement also counteracted the new string tensions brought on by the pitch rise. I feel this was gradual, as most changes are to established working tools.

3. These changes brought, as changes sometimes do, unexpected consequences. The box upon which these were inflicted began to object. As it was not designed to resist the higher pressures it complained by attempting to collapse, oops, and something had to be done. What was done was to strengthen the belly by enlarging and extending the bass bar to counteract these. At the same time the sound post was asked to help by becoming heavier, just a bit. That helped out and again, these were probably done little by little as the makers were cautious about changing the acoustics and playability.

4. The neck-body join presents an interesting situation. Just exactly when did the mortise become the norm? Was the change at the time the new neck was mounted, or, was it after as the weakness of the flat joint became apparent? What made the common flat joint at all usable was the ability to use nails to provide integrity. When the reshaping of the under surface removed the wood necessary for them to work, another alternative had to be found. I have noticed during this period, the integral neck-upper block as in guitar construction. Perhaps this was one solution, and so perhaps the mortise just became the right answer at the same time, or close upon these changes. That's what I feel, so the mortise is used for all my classical work.

5. The change to the arc of the fingerboard was the result of playing demands. Because of these demands the bow shape began to change, after all the style was over 200 years old and it needed freshening (where have I heard that?). At the end of this period of changes, about the 1830's give or take, these changes were all in place and working just fine, thank you, and the period of codifying or carving in stone was upon us, and that is where we find the craft today, and where I take my leave.

There will be more or less change; that is inevitable as has always been the case in the creative arts.

Looking forward to it.

1. Jeremy Montagu, The World of Baroque and Classical Instruments. 1979

2. The Tourte family, the 1740's. William Retford, Bows and Bow Makers, Novello, 1964

3.For all string considerations, E. Segerman, “Historical Violin Stringing Up to 1900,” The Strad 1988 and the NRI brochure 1994

4. For a study of neck-body joining see Wm. Monical, “The Shapes of the Baroque,” AFVBM 1989

5. William E. Hill and Sons, Antonio Stradivari His Life and Work, 1902

6. See no.2

7. See Endnote no.1

8. Andrea Amati, 1505–1577

9. Nicolo Amati 1596–1684

10. Antonio Stradivari, 1644–1737

11. 1696

12. 1707

13. G. B. Guadagnini 1758–after 1800

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