By Christopher Jacoby
I may be preaching to the choir here, but violin-family instruments are remarkable. The connection that violins, violas, and cellos make to those who play them, and hear them, is remarkable. Their lifespan is beyond remarkable. Some instruments made in the early 1500s are still being played on stages around the world today, proudly bearing the scars of wars and human intrigue as they throw their voices out to please and thrill.
The result of this long lifespan is that as music, and the needs of the musicians, changed, leading players and makers needed to change how violins are set up to suit the changing fashions of the music world.
There are three standard setups these days—Baroque, classical, and modern—with the lines between them blurring sometimes from instrument to instrument.
Each setup offers the player unique sounds and techniques and provides insight into how the music played today might have sounded when it was composed. Your instrument is likely set up as a modern instrument, but it’s always best to start at the beginning.
Baroque Period Setup
Driven by such luminaries as Christophe Coin and Jordi Savall, Baroque music played on instruments with period-appropriate setup has been experiencing a revival in the last decade. Baroque setup gives a mellow, complex palette to the musicians, and is the most distinct setup from the one that you’re probably familiar with as a 21st-century musician.
When Andrea Amati started cranking out violas at the beginning of the 16th century, the demands on instruments were more relaxed than they are today. “Chamber music” meant just that—small ensembles would play in a chamber, a small room, with a handful of audience members. Violin-
family instruments quickly became the darlings of royal courts in Europe, but even in a palatial setting, the instruments had little space that needed to be filled, and consequently, didn’t need to be very loud.
In its original Baroque setup, the violin family of instruments featured a fat neck set at a shallower angle to the top, large fittings (often made of softwood veneered with inlayed hardwood), a squat, broad bridge, a shorter bassbar, and most importantly, gut strings. Gut strings put the instrument under lower tension, and were played with a very different style of bow. Those bows did not have the tension-adjustable camber of today’s bows and featured an identifiable swan-head-shaped bow tip. Players often used their thumbs to adjust the tension of the horsehair, releasing tension to play chords and double stops, and then pulling the hair taut when melody called for focus.
The endpin didn’t exist for cellists, either. Musicians held the larger instruments however they could manage, sometimes pinched between the player’s legs and sometimes, anchoring pins or hooks were set into the backs of cellos and large violas to allow straps to be worn. It’s easy to imagine processions of cellists and violists, their instruments slung across their chests, playing for funerals or parades in outrageous costumes.
Fast-forward 300 years to today: there are brilliant, internet-savvy stringed-instrument players in every corner of the globe, offering lessons through Skype, and sharing music videos shot on glaciers, atop desert buttes, or in their parents’ bathroom in South Korea (where the acoustics really are the best). How has the violin family instruments changed, as the music world has changed so much? Focus on the neck.
As concert halls came into vogue in the 19th century, Baroque-period instruments weren’t capable of producing enough sound to fill the new, larger venues. Violins needed more volume and putting more tension on the top was the way to get it. It started by luthiers cutting the old necks and top blocks out of instruments and replacing them with necks that had a steeper angle. If you look at enough instruments, you’ll see that the scrolls on the old ones have a joint between them and the neck. A scroll-graft is a restoration technique for replacing the neck of an instrument, but one that keeps the original scroll. If done well, the joint should be hard to find. The 1693 “Harrison” Stradivari, in the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota, is one of only a handful of Stradivari violins with its original neck. You can see three distinct rust spots on the neck heel, where the nails Antonio Stradivari used to pin the neck to the top block have bled their iron all the way through the wood.
A fully set-up violin only weighs a couple of pounds, but when your favorite soloist steps out before 1,000 seats in a modern concert hall, she knows her instrument had better fill that hall to the last nosebleed bleacher seat, over the volume of the orchestra, timpani and all. As New York–based maker Samuel Zygmuntowicz says, modern setup is “hot-rodding” the instrument: modifying the parts after-production to maximize the sound output. The result is a violin setup as a high-tension, volume-boosting endeavor to meet the requirements of modern halls.
In addition to the steeper neck, the bridge is leaner, carved to transfer maximum sound down into the soundpost and enlarged bassbar, and the violin has slim fittings made from hardwood, like ebony. Modern synthetic-core strings, wound with metal, are designed to put as much as 60 pounds of pressure on a violin bridge.
The bow has evolved into a longer, lighter machine, with adjustable tension and a head like a hatchet. These modern bows are perfect for all of the techniques needed by today’s violinists and fiddlers.But between these two period setups, the Baroque and the modern, you have a middle, transitional setup.
Classical Period Setup
Many musicians find themselves having to play both ancient and modern music as they work to pay the rent. Many musicians grow to love and appreciate the warmth and expression possible with gut strings, but miss the projection and power that modern strings bring to the table. A middle-period setup, referred to as classical, has emerged to recreate the gear of 19th-century players at the forefront of music technology.
With this classical setup, the fingerboard is still wedged as it is on a Baroque setup, but it has been reset at a higher-than-Baroque angle. The neck has slimmed down, to help players who are traveling farther and farther up that fingerboard, just as they did in the classical period. The bridge is often transitional, too. The Belgian cello bridge is an invention of modern setup, but classical-period cello bridges are pushing the French-bridge template closer to the Belgian style: Leggy and taller, with less wood over the heart. The top two or three strings are gut, with metal-wound gut or modern synthetic core for the low strings. This balance of tension on the instrument seems to give more punch to the sound than gut alone.
The setup is classy and distinctive in style. The tailpiece often has a silver or bronze plate covering the knotted tailgut, or tail-wire, depending on taste. They also have fewer inlays than the florid setup of the Baroque period, leaning toward the lean simplicity of the modern.
The versatility of the classical setup is its great draw. Many modern makers, such as David Van Zandt and Robert Brewer Young, are having great success with the classical model. What better way to place yourself in a golden age of music than to respect the setup style in which that music was written and played? There was a time when violins were the background music for royalty and nobles. Then there was a time when Paganini played music so wild and new that all agreed he must have a pact with the devil to achieve it. And yet today, kids of 11 and 12 play Paganini handily. Things are moving forward at an incredible rate, the global village of the internet making unbelievable things possible.