By Karen Peterson | From the May-June 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Forget everything you’ve read about the Stroh violin, if you’ve read anything at all about this curious-looking instrument with a horn attached to its slimmed-down body. It was far from a novelty, and it hasn’t gone away, even at age 122. The Strohviol, as it is also known, was invented and patented in 1899 by German watchmaker Johannes Matthias Augustus Stroh. He was at the time living in London, and his invention revolutionized the classical violin and the nascent music-recording industry at the dawn of the 20th century.
If you listen to recordings made anytime before 1925 that feature violins, chances are you’re hearing Strohs.
“There is a common misconception that it was developed for the early acoustic recording studios, but this is completely false,” says London-based Aleksander Kolkowski, a composer and musician. His numerous restored original Strohs and similar-styled instruments of the era—all of which he plays at live performances and for recordings—make up the world’s largest private collection. It is almost impossible to find original Strohs anymore.
Johannes Stroh, says Kolkowski, was already “one of the most brilliant scientific and mechanical engineers” of the late 1800s when he turned his attention to the violin. “Stroh conceived of it as a new and improved form of violin, a new departure from the centuries-old design that relied on a resonating corpus,” says Kolkowski, who is also a senior research associate at the Science Museum, London.
“This was cutting-edge late-Victorian science,” says Kolkowski of Stroh’s invention. Electric violins and the Dobro steel resonator guitar are descendants of this re-imagined vision of traditional stringed instruments. Historically, the Stroh violin, later to include viola, cello, bass, and ukulele models, is celebrated for giving the violin family a voice in the early recording studios, where the attached metal horn provided directionality—meaning it could be aimed directly at the corresponding larger “recording horn.”
This was the solution to a problem that vexed early recording artists: the sound of stringed instruments was difficult to capture. Their sound was too “open” and wafting. The horn took care of that.
In construction, about the only thing reminiscent of a violin is the sound. The Stroh’s body is basically the fingerboard. The bridge connects to a diaphragm that turns the musical vibrations into sound blasted out of the Stroh’s trumpet-like horn, usually made of aluminum. Though the large horn was the part that defined the Stroh violin in the public consciousness, in actuality, there were two horns: the large horn and a smaller one attached to the body near the player’s ear as a sound monitor.
Kolkowski’s collection includes several Stroh violins, two violas, a cello, “an extremely rare” two-string Stroh “Japanese Fiddle,” and its more common one-string version, along with what the Stroh also inspired—variants like the Phonofiddle by A.T. Howson. All date from the 1910s to the mid-1920s.
In their heyday, Strohs were used almost exclusively by major recording studios in Europe and the U.S., says Kolkowski, who adds that two amplified violins and a viola could replace entire string sections. Even as recording techniques improved apace, Strohs were still on the job. If you listen to recordings made anytime before 1925 that feature violins, chances are you’re hearing Strohs. Classical violinists Jan Kubelik, Carl Flesch, and Eugène Ysaÿe recorded with them.
When recording technology did surpass the Stroh, it went on the road with jazz and dance bands, allowing violinists to compete with saxophones and trumpets. (Kolkowski says the Stroh was advertised as a substitute for a tenor sax and the Stroh bass for a tuba.)
By the late 1920s, the Stroh was seemingly on its way out, but fast-forward to the 1970s and it reappears, this time as the vioară cu goarnă (“violin with horn”) played then and now by Roma violinists from the Bihor region along Romania’s border with Hungary. It was in Hungary that Kolkowski first heard the Stroh in 1998. “My interest was piqued,” he says.
While Kolkowski says he was attracted by its appearance, he was struck by its sound—“reedy and fluty,” not tinny or metallic—and the potential it held for a musician of his tastes, one “deeply involved in new music and experimental forms of music-making.” In 2000, Kolkowski released his first Stroh CD, Portrait in Shellac, and he has composed pieces featuring Strohs for groups including the Kairos Quartett in Berlin and the Apartment House ensemble in London.
Kolkowski was also a member of the Kryonics, an improvisational Stroh-playing trio—for which he supplied the instruments—that included Matthias Bauer and string impresario Jon Rose, the Australian violinist known for his sound-bending experiments, notably with violins but also with most anything that can be played or manipulated with a bow. Beginning in 2002, Rose and violinist Hollis Taylor have traveled through Australia bowing the wires on that country’s outback fences.
“Aleks Kolkowski is a friend and colleague,” says Rose. “We performed improvised music using the instruments from his collection and very satisfying sonic combinations were achieved.”
Rose describes the sound of these 100-year-old-plus technologies as evoking “a feeling of memory if not loss.” Despite the advantages of the digital age, he says, “many long for a scale of technological engagement that retains a physical connection. Early radio and film also inhabit this space.”
Rose spent part of 2020 performing solo in YouTube concerts—his “COVID-19 lockdown project”—that included a Stroh. In “10 Violins,” he plays a contemporary Stroh from an instrument maker “living on the border between Thailand and Myanmar.”
“Compared to the real thing,” he says, “the sound is a little abrasive and the auxiliary ear-horn doesn’t function that well.”
Still, you’ll get the picture behind the Stroh’s role in the early days of recording technology: Rose is playing his Stroh next to an old gramophone playing an LP.
What Kolkowski and Rose both enjoy is the creative space the Stroh opens up between the instrument and the player. “You do feel quite detached from the sound—with a conventional fiddle you feel the sound as well as hearing it, through conduction,” said Kolkowski. “With the Stroh you have a small monitor horn which is not very effective, so you hear it mainly in the room.”
According to Rose, being independent from the instrument and the confines of the classical playing position opens new worlds of sound to reconsider. “One of the unsaid issues with the standard violin is that the performer always gets a false perspective of the sound produced,” he says. “What happens under the ear and through the bone is sonically very different to what is going on a few meters away, or at the back of a hall.”