Making Matters: Change and decay?

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Matthieu Besseling argues we are currently seeing a ‘second transition period’ in instrument and bow making, analogous to the changes at the end of the 18th century – but are they all to the good?

The aesthetics of what we today call the Classical period were characterised by equilibrium and harmony. After the ornate and sometimes volatile Baroque period, composers such as Mozart and Haydn were able to connect with the more refined expression of the music of their time. Yet, by contrast, it was a time of upheaval, especially for stringed instruments and their bows. Suddenly there was a need for greater volume and dynamic contrast, especially among the virtuosos of the day. The new demand for a quicker-reacting instrument required a steeper angle of the neck, a higher bridge, and a gradual increase in higher-pitched tuning (a higher ‘A’). This combination increased the pressure on the belly of the instruments. The Classical period was a time of discovery and development for luthiers and especially bow makers, while at the same time fierce experimentation was going on regarding set-up. Therefore, this period is referred to as the ‘transition period.’

Occasionally, one finds original bass-bars in instruments by the Dutch maker Johannes Cuypers (1724–1808). These appear to be more or less the same thickness (6mm) as those one would have found in those of Stradivari and Amati. The high pressure on the belly gives a characteristic sound, namely the sound of the ‘transitional violin’ – brilliantly articulating, penetrating and somewhat strident. At the end of the 18th century, as a result of the aforementioned alterations, instruments were refitted with larger bass-bars, mitigating the balance between pressure and reinforcement.

The same ‘transition’ is to be noted in the manufacture of violin bows, i.e. from the Baroque bow to the so-called ‘Cramer’ bow. Works by Mozart and his contemporaries were played with these bows. Within the next 30 years, François Xavier Tourte developed the bow into the ‘modern’ version, marking the end of the transition period.

Let us now compare that period with the contemporary development of instruments and bows over the past 50 years, which have seen changes important enough for us to declare that we have firmly entered a ‘second transition period’. Since about 1970 there has been a change from gut to high-tech strings. The 1969 Dutch price list from Pirastro (figure 1) shows that gut strings were still its most important product, whereas synthetic strings from perlon and other materials were still up-and-coming products. Today’s young cellists can have trouble playing on gut strings the way they were used by Casals, Feuermann and Piatigorsky…

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