Catgut Strings: Perspectives on quality and performance

In the Elizabethan times, New Years Gifts formed an important ritual for courtiers seeking favour with their queen. Amongst musicians and instrument makers, the Bassanos gave the Queen a Venice Lute. Mark Anthony Galliardello, the musician gave her ‘a fayre Cytrene with a Stone like an Emeralde in the sounde of the bellye’, and Thomas Lichfield, a Groom of the Privy Chamber (who seems to have had responsibility for the overall supervision of court music) presented the Queen with ‘a fayre lute, the backeside and necke of mother-of-perle, the case of crimson vellat, enbrawdered with flowers, and the inside of grene vellat’. William Scheetes the royal organ maker went overboard with ‘a very smale fountayne of golde with ewer in it, enamuled, being a pendannte, and a Ravyn in the midest, wth a smale perle pendannte’, but like with all New Years gifts it came with its own rewards. He was granted an annuity of £50 per year for life.

Such gifts by court musicians and instrument makers reveal some of the extravagance of the Elizabethan court, yet for lute players the gifts that brought them favour were bundles of lute strings. For a queen whose image was one of virtue and purity, her own musical prowess provided the perfect vehicle for transmitting her own identity. Thus when James Melville, ambassador to Mary Queen of Scots came to the English court “She[Elizabeth] asked if she [Mary] played well. I said: “Reasonably well, for a queen”. In a clear political gameplay orchestrated by Elizabeth to upstage her rival, Melville recalled how:

That same day after dinner, my lord of Hunsdean drew me up to a quiet gallery, that I might hear some music; but he said he durst not avow it, where I might hear the queen play upon the virginals. But after I had hearkened a while, I took by the tapestry that hung before the door of the chamber, and seeing her back was towards the door, I entered within the chamber, and stood still at the door cheek, and heard her play excellently well; but she left off so soon as she turned about and saw me, and came forward, seeming to strike me with her left hand, and to think shame; alleging that she used not to play before men, but when she was solitary, to eschew melancholy…

Nicholas Hilliard, Queen Elizabeth with a lute, Berkeley Castle, c.1576.

A miniature portrait by Nicholas Hilliard survives that is remarkable of any monarch of the time for showing Elizabeth playing the lute, something that would not have been possible if it wasn’t integral to her sense of self. Hence the best strings selected by her best musicians took on an enormous importance, representing a much needed metaphor within the politics of her identity. It was not therefore so much a consideration of cost that made them a legitimate gift, but the symbolic power that gave them value. With this comes the implicit understanding that catgut strings for musical use existed in a variety of qualities.

Catgut itself was a relatively common commodity. It had always been an option for musical instrument strings, with a history going far back in Human civilisation. Prized for it’s high tensile strength, the Egyptian Papyrus of Ebers dating to 1375BC mentions it for making medical sutures (a use it is still used for today). Clock makers depend on it for hanging weights, and tennis rackets have traditionally been strung with gut, (whether or not the tradition goes back to the 17th century). In earlier times the most powerful industry working with Catgut was in the making of bowstrings, a practice that once again goes back to Ancient Egypt with specimens surviving from the tomb of King Tutenkhamun from c.1350BC. It seems to have been one of several alternatives that could be used by an instrument maker, and ultimately the most sought after. With ideas of quality that begun with the simple choices of different materials, some gaining a superior reputation to others. Once the conversation of relative quality began, refinements in string making technology were likely to promote ever-further refinements, leading to the kind of allegorical symbolism that existed in the Elizabethan Court in England.

Lazzaro Bartiani (c.1430-1512) detail from Offerta della reliquia della Croce ai confratelli della Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, Venice c.1494. (Galleria della Accademia, Venice)

When the Venetian artist Lazzaro Bartiani (c.1430 – 1512) created his monumental history-painting for the hall of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista (to commemorate the gifting of a relic of the Holy Cross in 1369) an incidental foreground element of the painting shows one of the guild members carefully testing his strings for purity before stringing his lute. The painting is charged with allegory and as a work intended for display in the Great Hall, the intention is to merge with the fraternity of living members of the brotherhood passing by, and address the inherent virtue of membership to the Scuola Grande. The 1490s were the crucible of the Renaissance and any allegory that could attend to the state of a man’s soul was much in vogue.

Lazzaro Bartiani (c.1430-1512) Offerta della reliquia della Croce ai confratelli della Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, Venice c.1494. (Galleria della Accademia, Venice)

Around the time this was painted De Institution Musica, the theoretical writings of the 6th century theoretician Boethius had been put into print for widespread dissemination. He had claimed the strings of Hermes’ lyre were made of sinews. For musical theorists of the period this became a point that contrasted music of the ancients with that of modern times. Sebastian Virdung was particularly keen to correct Boethius, citing that in recent times musical strings were made ‘solely from sheep’s gut’. Soon afterwards, Giambattista della Porta’s Magia Naturalis [Natural Magic], published in Naples in 1558 (translated to Italian, 1560; French, 1565; Dutch 1566, and English 1658) expressed that a harp that was strung with strings made from wolf’s gut and sheep’s gut would always sound discordant due to the natural antipathy between both animals which would remain in their parts even after death (one possible origin of the term ‘wolf note’).

The concept of testing catgut to see if it “rang true” or false, demonstrated by Lazzaro Bartiani was widespread in Europe within 20 years of his painting. In 1511 instructions are provided by Sebastian Virdung in his Musica getuscht. Martin Agricola in Music instrumentals deudsch in 1529 and Hans Gerle repeated much the same information in Musica Teutsch published in 1532. In Italy, Silvestro Ganassi also included the same image in Lettione Seconda published in Venice in 1543, demonstrating the widespread understanding of these concepts. Clearly the high society of European music saw the ability to test strings in this manner as central to the accomplishments of science and nature inherent in being a ‘true musician’.

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Sebastian Virdung’s Musica getuscht und angezogen (1511)

“A: How, then, does one string the sixth course? [of a lute]
Se: With one pure, good, even string. And you may recognise [a good string] in the following manner: When you open a bundle of strings, choose the string that is as long as you need it for the lute, and stretch it a bit between both of your hands. Then hit the string with your thumb so that it vibrates and rumbles. Then, as it vibrates, the less you see the repercussions or appearances of this string, the better it is; the more you see it, the worse it is. It has a course of its own which is called the ‘quintsaytt’ [fifth string]. [It is done like this]… … All these strings of the lute will be strings that are made from the gut of or from the Intestines of sheep, although Boethius and other musici[ans] in former times that they made them out of sinews, but at the present time these strings for lutes, as well as [those] for viols and rebecs, and for harps, and also for trumets marine are all made solely from sheep’s gut. But other instruments [i.e. harpsichords, citterns, etc.] have brass strings, and some [have] steel strings.” Sebastian Virdung, 1511.

An improved wood-block illustration found it’s way into the London reprint of Adrien Le Roy’s  Brief and Plaine Introduction for the Lute published in 1574, and thereafter into Marin Mersennes Harmonie Universelle, published in Paris in 1636.

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Adrian Le Roy A Brief and Plaine Introduction to the Lute, London 1574

To put the last hand to this work, I will not omit to give you to understand, how to know strings, whereof the best come to us out of Almaigne [Germany], on this side of the town of Munich, and from Aquila in Italy: before you put them on the Lute, it is needful to prove them between the hands, in manner as is set forth in figures hereafter pictured, which show manifestly on the finger, and to the eye, the difference from the true with the false: that is to where, the true is known by this, that in striking him between the fingers, he must show to divide himself just in two, and that for so much as shall reach the bridge below, to the top of the neck: because it makes no matter for the rest of the strings, that goes among the pins [pegs], notwithstanding you may not be so satisfied in assaying the string, holden only at the length, but that you must also prove him in striking him, being held at short lengths to be well afforded of his certain goodness and perfection. Also the false string is known by the show of many strings, which it represents, when it is struck between the fingers: so must you continue the same trial in striking the string, till you perceive the token of the good, to separate him from the bad, according to the figures following. (Adrian Le Roy, 1574).

Pietro Paolini
Pietro Paolini (1618-1681) Allegorical painting of an old man with a lute and violin. 

In Rome, the painter Pietro Paolini (1618-1681) would continually return to Bartiani’s allegory in several allegorical series of studies of musicians. It is unclear when testing strings for their purity ceased to be an important aspect of musicianship. The development of covered strings may have contributed to this, but there is no reason to suppose it fell from use until well into the eighteenth century.

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The sources for strings sold in London according to John Dowland’s letter in A Varietie of Lute Lessons (1610)

Le Roy mentions that the best strings come to London from “Almaigne [Germany], on this side of the town of Munich, and from Aquila in Italy” showing that the Elizabethan English were already highly selective i their sourcing of strings. John Dowland in 1610 provides an even more detailed source for the expert musician. This comes from a collection of music published by his son, Robert Dowland’s, in his  Varietie of Lute Lessons to which his father, John, added a letter to all merchants, revealing the preferences for the different strings best suited to different parts of the lute.

Dowland’s premise was that merchants would be able to support the import of strings from a range of different manufacturers and markets in Germany and Italy in order to provide for the London market. When we consider the issues of quality control, the shelf life of strings, the need to put capital up front and the wholesale quantities that were available at these markets, it soon becomes apparent that the very best strings would have had to be expensive. It is around the same time that string players in the English Court began to be paid a customary five pounds per year allowance for strings, when a fine English viol or a Cremona violin would cost between £8 and £12, and an annual salary for playing in the Royal Court was between £30 and £50. Clearly this isn’t the cost of constantly snapping strings (although that must have been a contributing factor) and instead it must have related to the quality expected for such musicians.

Dowland’s Varietie of Lute Lessons 1610. To read my blog on Dowland’s writing in further detail, follow this link.

The seventeenth century was a period of virtually no inflation in England – a surprise if we consider the Civil War, the Plague and the Fire of London all took place within its years. Various receipts for instruments designated for use of the Children of the Chapel Royal give a price of two or three pounds for instruments of what we would consider a good professional standard. It is certainly what Samuel Pepys paid in 1661 to Richard Hunt, a music seller in St Paul’s Churchyard: Pepy’s records his experience of visiting “my” viol maker, Mr [Christopher] Wise in Bishopsgate repeatedly during the making of his instrument, but at the end he collected it from Mr Hunt and paid him the sum of three pounds for it. When we contrast his experience to the advice of Thomas Mace a decade later, recommending that a Cambridge University student should spend just one pound a year on strings (5 shillings a quarter, 20s a year), a pattern seems to form. If we presume that part of Pepys’ £3 payment was something like 20% of the value for the strings, the real value of the viol was somewhere around only £2 – £2, 10s whilst Hunt, a dealer instruments and strings stood to make a pound a year in sales from the deal. 

The fourth aspersion against the Lute: “That one had as good keep a Horse (for cost) as a Lute”, as answered by Thomas Mace in Musick’s Monument 1676

Nevertheless in attesting that “20s per Ann. is an Ordinary Charge; and much more they need not spend, to practise very hard”, Mace confessed that “Those who will be Prodigal, and Extraordinary Curious, may spend as much [on lute strings] as may maintain two or three Horses, and Men to Ride upon them too, if they please”. Some indication of the inventiveness surrounding stings comes from Samuel Hartlib’s Ephemerides, a diary of scientific observations in which he wrote in 1656 of John Rushworth “Hee is also a teacher and has one that is worth 25lb [pounds] which hath new invented Lute-strings worth more the using”. Rushworth was one of those remarkable characters of his age, who had been appointed Licenser of the Press in 1644 and indulged in the fringes of what would become the Royal Society. He had also spent £10 stringing an archi-viole – a gut strung harpsichord played with rotating wheels – that had belonged to Charles I, and was a prolific innovator who claimed to have accomplished an amazing array of scientific feats, inventing smokeless candles, optical lanterns with a 40x magnification, to make wooden statues look like metal and to have perfected the art of flying.

Silver-wound strings had appeared in London by 1659 when Hartlib wrote of further developments in which  he had been informed by Robert Boyle that “Goretsky hath an Invention of Lute strings covered with Silver wyer or strings which makes a most admirable Musick”. They were certainly commercially available by 1664, using either gut or silk as a central core, though still a novelty when Richard Hunt advertised them for sale in a 1664 edition of John Playford’s Introduction to the Skill of Musick. 

The advert from one of two editions of John Playford’s An Introduction to the Skill of Musick from the year 1664, the earliest comprehensive explanation for covered strings from any part of Europe.

The implication of these sources all supports an idea that strings for musical instruments could – under certain circumstances – be as costly as a horse to keep, as Mace puts it in 1676. Yet in other forms, catgut was a relatively common. There is no direct evidence that  the English made catgut at the time, but it would be surprising if they didn’t and tangential evidence gives us some clues as to the extent of the industry.

One element in particular comes from the Fletcher’s Company, to which Henry Jaye, Floris and Thomas Barnard became members in 1605. The history of archery is rather difficult, and in the medieval times it seems that the Bowyers, Fletchers, Stringers and Arrow-head makers were four separate livery companies in the City of London, but for some reason that remains unclear, they formed into two separate companies by the time of the Order of Precedence, laid down in 1513 – Bowyers at 38, Fletchers at 39. (Why they reduced to two, and not one company was a mystery to John Stow in the 1598 as it is to us). In 1570 in a joint petition to Lord Burleigh as an attempt to retain power, they described themselves as  the “decayed Companies of Bowyers and Fletchers, Stringers and arrowhead makers”. It is fairly insubstantial evidence for their involvement in catgut, but it suggests that the Fletcher’s Company had incorporated arrowhead makers (logically) and Stringers (less logically) as well. If that indicated that they held the monopoly on catgut bowstrings, it seems that the monopoly may have gone further in terms of the catgut trade as the musical instrument makers Henry Jaye alongside Thomas and Floris Barnard were admitted to the company by Redemption (essentially through the payment of a ‘fine’, but this gave them full rights as a guild member without having to go through an apprenticeship and the usual route of progression), suggesting that membership of the Fletcher’s Company may have brought with it the license to deal in catgut musical strings and the necessary contacts to achieve it. As we have seen from other sources, the recurring sales of gut strings could prove more profitable than instrument making itself, whilst instrument making was a completely pointless activity without their supply.

The idea of satirising the sound of cats dates back to  Johann Theodor de Boy’s ‘Emblemata Saecularia of 1597. The theme recurs again in Gaspar Schotts Magica Naturalis in 1657 and repeatedly though history.

Whilst this supports the idea that musical string dealing was a reasonably lucrative trade, it also reveals how common catgut was. Whilst the origin of the word catgut is unclear, and it certainly has nothing to do with cats, before the end of the sixteenth century the association of bad sound with cats was a fixed point in satire, as if to associate catgut with the horrible noises made in the advancement of music. Simultaneously Johann Theordor de Boys included a cat-powered keyboard instrument in his Emblemata Saecularia of 1597 and Shakespeare remarked pensively in Much ado about nothing, “Is it not strange that sheep’s guts could hail souls out of men’s bodies?”

Edward Francis Burney’s Amateurs of the Tye-Wig Club c.1820 (Tate Britain)

In Edward Francis Burney’s satirical painting, Amateurs of the Tye-Wig Club, boxes of “Amateur String” comprising “English Sheeps Sheeps”depicted alongside “Italian Catgut” as if to mock the vanity of those who spent large sums on strings, with other string boxes of silver and gold to equate to the vast expenditure involved. In context of the painting, the ridicule is justified whether or not it applied to the realities of  music making in elevated circles.

Detail from Burney’s Amateurs of the Wig-Tye Club. “Amateur Strings / Italian Catg[ut] English Sheep” along with boxes of strings marked “Silver” and “Gold”.
 This evidence makes a case for a very broad set of musical possibilities for the use of catgut, which depended on the financial reach of the musician. Certainly fairly rough sounding catgut seems to have been commonplace as it was affordable and in widespread supply, but at the other end of the scale John Dowland describes both a sophisticated supply network and specialist industrial focus for making strings that were sold into an export market that had broad reach across Europe. Connoisseurs were interested in fine sounding instruments. Both Thomas Mace and Jacques Gaultier in his letter to Constantijn Huygens reported that King Charles I to offer up to £100 for Bolognese lutes by Laux Maler, and Mace repeated the claim for viols by the English maker John Rose, when a perfectly good example could seemingly be had for £2 or £3. Samuel Pepys was proud that upon converting his lute to a theorbo for at the cost of 26s that Richard Hunt told him “it is as good a lute as any is in England, and is worth well £10”. Hartlib was evidently astonished that John Rushworth’s had a £25 value. For the violin, Roger North’s praise of it goes some way towards understanding the way in which it was viewed at the end of the seventeenth century:

The best utensil of Apollo, the violin, is so universally courted, and sought after to be had of the best sort, that some say England hath dispeopled Itally of violins.

Roger North

The evidence of such a strong market for fine instruments goes hand in hand with an appetite for similarly fine sounding strings, as one would be pointless without the other. This brings into question many of the ideas surrounding modern concepts of historical performance practice. It is often said that we don’t know exactly how instruments sounded in the past – especially stringed instruments, but to some extent that has become an excuse for a complacent attitude towards the kind of sounds that are possible from the kind of gut strings that are easily available. Following hand-in-hand with this is the concept that if we are unused to the harsh sounds that they produce, it is because we are too ‘brainwashed’ by modern perception of sound, and it is a case of getting used to it. There may be some modicum of truth to this, but it is far from being the whole picture. We know – more-or-less – how a flute, a recorder or an oboe sound in their most simple sense, as we also have a fairly good idea of how an organ pipe sounds, or how the human  voice responds: we may argue that any given choral tradition has evolved involuntarily over the years, but the aggregate of these traditions is presumably much the same. Certainly some forms of violin playing are a direct response to bird song, following after the flageolet and recorder traditions of doing the same. At this point it is worth considering Roger North’s contention of the violin being the best utensil of Apollo. In Antony à Wood’s commentary on Davis Mell “he played farr sweeter than Baltzar, yet Baltzar’s hand was more quick”. These and other comments draw upon a sweetness or refinement of the violin which ends to be considered in the context of the terrain of other instruments that were in common use at the time. It seems doubtful that it could be considered in such terms if it lacked the basic properties inherent in other instruments of the period, less so would it be worth the effort of purchasing lutes and viols for extravagant sums of money if they fundamentally struggled to make a tone that could be compared favourably on a scale of wind instruments, keyboards, and the human voice. Hence in rethinking baroque sound we should do well to understand the variety of tonal properties that are available with gut. We should understand that a highly refined tone that some may term ‘modern’ can be inhabited within the most sophisticated of gut strings, and we should apply some of the obsession for quality to our choice of string that John Dowland concerned himself with even in the Elizabethan times.

In the late eighteenth century, gut string makers in Neukirchen discovered ways of polishing strings. Opinion has always been that this was an improvement that led the way towards a nineteenth-century idea of sound. The change may not have been as radical as we supposed. Instead I offer the argument that the polishing process, which burnished out faults in the gut, enabled the high-quality that had only ever existed in the most expensive strings to become more universally available in greater quantities and using the materials traditionally reserved for cheaper strings. The Industrial Revolution democratised fine tone, making it available to greater numbers of musicians, and in that way it radically changed the course of music. However, strings of that quality producing fine tone of that standard were likely available even in the years that Elizabeth I’s lutenists were reserving them as New Year’s Gifts for the Queen.

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