By Karen Peterson | From the March-April 2023 issue of Strings magazine
The word “pochette” is likely more recognizable today, at least by the fashion conscious, as a line of posh brown-and-gold monogrammed clutch purses from French fashion house Louis Vuitton rather than its more celebrated definition circa the 18th century—a pint-sized, high-pitched Baroque violin. Yet both the Vuitton bag and the curious-looking violin have something in common beyond their name: status.
An odd-looking bird, the pochette held sway, literally, through the 18th century and into the 19th, though its origins date back to the 1500s, when more primitive versions were played by street musicians. The reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King, beginning in the late 1600s, marks the point when the unlikely pochette began its rise to celebrity.
Its ascent to stardom never waned once the traction kicked in, though it’s doubtful that most of us know about—or, importantly, can hear—its contribution to modern music. Think hip-hop. Really. But that’s now. Back then, this petite violin was designed to teach and encourage people to dance at a time in Europe when court and public dances were the rage.
A pochette is about two-thirds the size of a standard adult violin with a proportionately larger fingerboard. Generally speaking, pochettes were about 16.5 inches long, with the fingerboard between 8 and 10 inches in length. In their heyday, pochettes were generously decorated if played at court. Owen Morse-Brown, a modern-day British luthier known for his pochettes, writes on his website that these Baroque status symbols were “richly decorated and made of precious materials including ivory, tortoise shell, ebony and/or inlaid with precious stones, silver, or gold.” Rosewood and rhinestones also prevailed.
Like a book and its cover, the beauty of the court pochette obscured what the pochette lacked: good sound. Most pochettes were simpler in adornment, but all were built without a soundpost or bass bar—key structural elements for managing sound output. As a result, there was little to recommend, melodically, about the pochette, normally equipped with four strings, played with a shortened bow and held against the ribs or below the collarbone.
But the sound it did make gave the pochette reason to exist and thrive—the ability to create a rhythm clear enough for dancers-in-training to hear with a beat provided by the player to get the bodies sliding and feet delicately pointing.
There were two varieties of pochette, one an elongated, rounded rectangle, like the Medieval rebec or a narrow lute. They were often referred to as “boats” or “sardinos.” Others kept the violin-style body but were more akin, visually, to comic-looking versions that call to mind the phrase, “Honey, I shrunk the violin.” These were known as “kits,” as in baby cats.
Violin maker Don Rickert, who is both a pochette maker and a self-described “pochette geek,” suggests that the nickname originated from false rumors circulating then that violin strings were made of cat gut. In that case, a small violin would be a kit.
Like a Baroque-era MP3 player, the pochette was all about making music portable for those who were taking part in one of the hottest on-the-road gigs of the 18th century: the traveling dance teacher for those seeking an opportunity for upward mobility. The French and English aristocracies were coming into full bloom as the 18th century progressed, in lockstep with the Sun King’s love of extravagance. Dance teachers with a pochette were in high demand.
As the century progressed—in France, then England, and most especially Scotland—dance teachers with their pochettes offered the means to impress one’s peers or, better yet, to enter into high society. One prerequisite for reaching either goal was skill on the dance floor. Stumbling during the ever-popular court dance the courante would be, well, très gauche.
Dance teachers, or as they came to be known, “dance masters,” were the era’s equivalent of a personal trainer, and they carried their music-maker with them in a special pocket (poche) sewn into the inside of their justacorps,elaborately styled French overcoats—hence the name “pochette,” or little pocket. The other reason for having a pochette in your poche: lugging violin cases from client to client was a burden, physically and financially.
Custom-made, the wood cases were expensive and heavy, weighing between ten and 15 pounds, according to Rickert, who has built upward of 40 pochette replicas since the early 2000s and has spent many more hours researching their history. “They were hefty, with no handles,” says Rickert of the cases. Imagine “traipsing from one house to another house in bad weather,” a scenario, he says, that was common in the Scottish Lowlands, where the pochette found an eager audience.
Rickert isn’t making pochettes today, but both he and Morse-Brown sell pochette-making kits online. The public interest is not there, says Rickert, for the amount of labor and the cost involved in replicating the past. Instead, Rickert has turned his focus and skills to modern pochette-style “traveling violins” or “backpacker fiddles” that fill the portable niche but with professional style and sound.
But pochettes were not just for mobile dance teachers. Accomplished violinists of the 18th century kept a pochette or two in their collections, for practice and travel. The most famous of these pochette players was also the most famous violinist in Scotland, Niel Gow, whose music and that of his sons “still permeates the repertoire of Scottish country-dance bands—most of their output was for dancing to,” as Greg Cahill writes in the September-October 2020 issue of Strings.
As Rickert recounts, Gow would walk from his home in county Perth to Blair Castle, where he was the royal violinist. His violin remained at the castle, so Gow traveled with his pochette to practice and compose in peace and forested quiet.
Because the pochette has a shorter bow than the violin, Gow would run out of bow as he played, causing a noticeable break in the flow of the music that he accommodated with short notes that created a “distinct characteristic lilt,” says Rickert. Over time, Gow’s workaround became known as the “Scotch snap,” by definition (in Collins Dictionary), “a rhythmic pattern consisting of a short note followed by a long one.” In turn, the Scotch snap led to the creation of the ever-popular Scottish strathspey, a reel-like dance with a slide, a twirl, and an accented hop.
An easy way to “hear” the Scotch snap: Think of the rise and fall of the Scottish dialect or, better, the cadence of “Coming Through the Rye.” The Scotch snap is a reflection of Gow and his countrymen’s way of speaking, as metered by the pochette that Gow played on his commute to the castle.
The Scotch snap found a welcoming home in the traditional music of Scotland and the British Isles; it was quickly embraced in America through Scottish-Irish immigration in the 19th century, where it was incorporated into the music of the Appalachians and also the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks—and so it goes all the way forward to hip-hop.
Though it sounds unlikely, this distinctive rhythm, born of a pochette violin, does appear in modern hip-hop music. As composer and music scholar Adam Neely says on his YouTube session, “Scotch Snaps in Hip-hop,” (above) Scotch snap is subtle, “but once you notice it, you won’t be able to unhear it.” Case in point: Lizzo. Take a listen and see if you can hear in her music what Neely defines as “the rhythm of a metrically accented sixteenth note followed by a dotted eighth note.” Hint, as Neely assures, “It’s everywhere.”