In a series of blogs, Benjamin Hebbert looks at the ideas behind the “baroque violin” and questions the assumptions that are brought into play in defining a historically informed sound.
At some time, I will get around to writing a fuller criticism of David Boyden’s A History of Violin Playing from it’s Origins to 1761, which was a praiseworthy landmark in the development of historically informed performance. His visit to Oxford University where he was invited to write the Catalogue of the Hill Collection of Musical Instruments, appeared to give him unrivalled access to instruments preserved in pure condition, but without guidance and a broader context this led him to make several assumptions that helped to form a late 20th century perspective of what constituted a “baroque violin”. Assumption number one, that baroque bass bars are shorter than modern ones.
The truth is that there hasn’t really been a universal standard for making until well into the nineteenth century. If one can argue that the Parisian standards of Jean Baptiste Vuillaume and his contemporaries effectively codified a ‘modern’ tradition based on Stradivari, it was probably W.E. Hill & Sons in London from the 1880s onwards who did the most to retrospectively apply these standards to fine antique instruments, so that by the middle of the 20th century universal standards applied to all instruments.
Prior to this, bass bars seem to have been a mixed bag. Some factory instruments went only so far as to put a sliver of wood parallel to the soundholes to give the appearance of a bass bar, whilst infinite numbers of experiments in the 19th and 20th century led to an array of interesting and unsuccessful ideas that persist to today. Some bass bars run parallel to the centre of the instrument, others at an angle, and there is considerable science about where they should be placed relative to the foot of the bridge, which means that instruments with a narrow width between the soundholes may have to have a bass bar that slightly overlaps the upper eye by modern standards, which clearly contradicts the original makers intentions. In short, the history of bass bars is a mess. The weediest original bass bar I recall seeing was in a Giuseppe Gagliano made in Naples of about 1780. The longest, widest, highest and heaviest was an integral bass bar (i.e. carved out of the belly) of a Giovanni Grancino cello of about 1690, which had about an inch clearance at the top and the bottom of the belly.
So, whilst bass bars seem to have been made to any size at all, including what we would call modern, there is no particular evidence that they were generally smaller, or larger, or even the same as those of modern day. Yet, when Boyden wrote the Catalogue of the Hill Collection he would have been confronted with the preservation of Stradivari’s original bass bar from the 1716 Messiah kept separately from the instrument itself. In their own words the Hills speak of The Necessity of opening the instrument, in order to insert a stronger bass bar, gave us an opportunity of examining the inside, which is as remarkable as the outside. … The bass bar which Vuillaume then fitted was not strong enough, and allowed after a time a slight depression of the belly, necessitating the renewal above referred to. Excepting for the change of bar, everything inside is as Stradivari left it.
Whatever the reason for Vuillaume replacing the bass bar in the first place after he acquired it in 1854, we cannot really speculate, but it was not a universally approved of practice. The 1709 Stradivari “La Pucelle” earned its reputation because it had never been opened when Vuillaume acquired it at auction in 1851, both underlying the importance he placed on it’s pristine condition, and how rare it already was to find an instrument so well preserved. David Laurie, the Scottish violin dealer was at least one authority who spoke against this, recalling his experience with the 1744 Carrodus del Gesu when he sold it to Rudolph Gleichauff, retold in his Reminisces of a Fiddle Dealer (London, 1900) in which he adamantly proposed retaining the original neck and bass bar of the instrument because it was at it’s full potential. Gleichauff didn’t heed his advice, and in the modernisation, he reports, it lost it’s tone. Nonetheless, Laurie’s tale seems to be a single dissenting voice in a tide of change, and almost all bass bars have been changed at one time or another. Many have been changed several times over.
Whilst the Hills explain their intervention in slightly abstract terms, there is a bottom line to this. At some point deep in history, instrument makers discovered that if you fit a bar under tension to an instrument it gives the tone considerable more punch. We know that in the sixteenth-century lute makers had sussed this out, and the bars of a lute have a slight concavity planed into them, giving the soundboard a little bit of a ‘scoop’. Whether this passed to violin makers back in antiquity, or if they arrived at the same conclusions centuries later remains a mystery. We can go back even further and find an array of early-Renaissance instruments which worked on a principle of bending a flat belly over contoured ribs to provide structural integrity, whilst viol makers including Gaspar da Salo were adept at making some instruments with bent wood staves, so the concept of tensioning – one way or other – may be far more ancient than the invention of the violin.
These observations may be circumstantial, nonetheless Stradivari had certainly figured out ways of fitting the belly of a violin under tension by planing down the ribs from the middle of the c-bouts to the top block so that the belly is glued under tension in a stressed manner. If he was thinking along those lines, tensioning a bass bar would be a logical next step. Whichever way, over time a bass bar loses its tension as time passes, so although the practice is now one of last resort, it can be desirable to replace a bass bar every so often. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this practice became part and parcel of every major restoration and improvement of violins as they entered the market. The result was that old bass bars, whether they worked or not, and whatever their size would simply be removed and replaced because of the advantages of a freshly tensioned system.
Overall, I view the modern bass bar as a kind of average of what people tried in the past whose length is sensible and proportionate to the overall design, and I don’t believe that we have the effective tools to judge what was historically relevant for specific instruments. I also contest whether removing a ‘sprung’ bass bar has any relevance to baroque performance, especially when we consider that Stradivari’s violins all used other means to tension the front. I would even go so far as to suggest that the few historic bass bars that have been saved or recorded have been so because they are the outliers that generate curiosity. The many more normal ones may have been replaced without remark.
For baroque and period players I argue strongly against worrying about changing a bass bar when looking for an instrument for period performance, even though this has been one of the pillars of what defines a baroque violin for many years.
In the meantime, I will slowly add to my collection of photographs of bass bars of note.