Making Matters: Historically Informed?

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Are the gut strings used in HIP really true to those used by 18th- and 19th-century players? Kai Köpp examines the technical reasons why today’s strings might sound quite different from their predecessors

Playing on gut strings has become increasingly popular among today’s string players. Animal intestines are used not only as the core of a wound string, but also unwound – for example on the harp, and of course on all stringed instruments in historically informed performance practice of Baroque, Classical, Romantic and even early 20th-century modernist repertoire.

However, with very few exceptions, beef intestine is used for making gut strings today, even though it is much too large for the production of fine strings. Before the 1970s good gut strings were traditionally made from sheep intestines, and the change to beef gut required new techniques and chemical processes. It seemed necessary due to a shortage of materials, but also for economic reasons – since the consumption of sausage products has increased worldwide, the entire provision of high-quality sheep casings today is absorbed by the sausage industry. Also, because the large-calibre beef intestine cannot be processed into sausage products, it is cheaper by far than sheep intestines. But these new beef gut strings have noticeably different playing characteristics from sheep gut strings…

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