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Focus:

A beginner’s guide to Baroque violin
Pauline Nobes, tutor in Baroque and classical violin at the Royal Northern College of Music, offers
some advice for new starters in Baroque music
January 14, 2015

There used to be two distinct schools of playing, Baroque and modern, of which it was thought that ‘ne’er
the twain shall meet’. Now, however, there seem to be bandwagons travelling constantly between the two;
period-instrument groups frequently import modern players and in their turn modern orchestras invite oldmusic specialists. To facilitate this cross-fertilisation, what compromises can be made regarding
equipment and the various elements of technique?
Using modern instruments for all periods of music is a hefty compromise. However, combining
specialisation with earning a living is hard, especially considering the requisite financial outlay for at least
two quality instruments and three or four different models of bow. Makers today often offer halfconversions, less expensive than full conversions, to keep costs down for players, as well as producing
fine modern copies. But, although the sound of the modern instrument differs considerably from that of
period instruments, with a few modifications their use is arguably another of many compromises
necessitated by modern-day performance and recording.
If players wish to stick to their one, beloved instrument in modern set-up, to what extent can historical
performance practice be pursued? The bow can be a simple place to start – copies are relatively
inexpensive and widely available. Most Baroque bows are significantly lighter than modern bows with the
balance point generally lower: holding a modern bow slightly away from the frog approaches this lighter

balance. When choosing strings, there is a wide selection of high-quality gut strings available now, of the
sort that were in common usage.
Playing without a chin rest affects sound and projection as much as many technical aspects such as vibrato
and shifting and is enlightening for a historic approach. After all, Baroque repertoire was conceived for
violins without chin rests: the one invented by Spohr only started to be introduced around 1820. Leopold
Mozart’s comfortable position at the neck varies considerably from a modern-day hold where one freely
turns pages with the left hand.
Pitch is a question of choice too. Baroque pitches varied between 392Hz and 41.5Hz, with Classical and
early Romantic periods ranging between 430Hz and 438Hz, according to studies of contemporary wind
instruments and organ pipes. Baillot’s attempt to find order by standardising 440Hz came in the middle of
the 19th century. Slackening down to 475Hz, a semitone lower, may come as an enormous relief to an old
instrument, as well as altering articulation possibilities. Also, harmonic rather than melodic intonation was
expected, as equal temperament was not yet established as the norm.
Then, as now, what was deemed good taste in performance style, le bon goût, varied enormously – the
criticisms of and contradictions between the French and Italian schools at the turn of the 18th century are
infamous. The typical elegance and poise characterised by the dances of the French overture suite contrast
greatly with the extrovert virtuosity displayed in the Italian concerto, both sometimes far removed from
the rules of the Berlin school described by the often conflicting accounts of Quantz and C.P.E. Bach.
Many controversies arise from the fact that details of performance style transcend notation, not only with
expression but also when interpreting rhythms and adding embellishments. Inegalité was assumed by
many non-French composers such as Bach, Telemann and Purcell. This is a loosening of the rhythm,
where equally written separate notes are ‘swung’ in a strong–weak manner. Generally a smooth
articulation, it affects notes that are half the value of the main beat, particularly during stepwise motion,
unless counter-indicated by slurs, dots, or instructions such as égale.
The limits of notation and traditional shorthand may also necessitate over-dotting in dotted rhythms, as
well as aligning semiquavers with pervading triplets and eliminating other rhythmic inconsistencies. This
happens especially when intensifying or confirming the musical ‘affect’ , a word used to describe the
emotion of the moment. Bear in mind that making the music consistent may sometimes defeat the
composer’s wishes, especially when intensification or expression are called for.
Details of phrasing and dynamic shading are expected although not notated. In his Tables, showing ‘the
proper execution of each note’, Quantz indicates strong, weak and crescendo moments but says that ‘you
must not always take these words in their extreme degree; you must proceed as in painting, where socalled mezze tinte or half-tints… are employed to express light and shadow.’ Notated dynamics, mostly
piano and forte (or dolce and forte), sometimes indicate solo and tutti passages rather than extremities of
volume. The correctness of instrumental imitation of vocal slurs is also debatable: a certain adding of slurs
is recommended, as is being true to the composer’s score, although inconsistencies are common in
original sources and markings between parts sometimes even oppose.
Cadential trills and other ornamentation were also assumed. Rules of upper-note trills are well
documented and generally fast notes require a quick trill with little emphasis on the upper note whereas
slow notes demand more expressive, possibly accelerating trills with appoggiatura and maybe a
termination. French-style music requires decoration by way of trills, mordents, battements, port de voix
and other ‘twiddles’, whereas Italian style and cadenza points require improvisation with harmonic
consequence: there are many written-out examples and explanations of both types to learn from. Bach
included embellishments in his scores rather than risking defamation of his art by overzealous performers.
The quintessence of Baroque style is hierarchy, with some notes taking more importance according to
certain rules – for example first beat stronger than second, dissonance stronger than resolution, with notes
grouped and graded like syllables in a word. Musical language was seen as a rhetorical expression of

various Passions, such as Fury, Resolution, Grief, Pleasure, like speech, combining poetic nuance with
punctuation between phrases and sub-phrases. Leopold Mozart recommends that good violinists should
know their grammar and syntax as well as being ‘great grammarians, or better still rhetoricians or poets’.
Choice of tempo, too, has a huge impact on style, so consultation with first-hand contemporary description
is recommended. Detailed descriptions of the character of various dances and their relative tempos are
abundant and where no specific markings are given considerations include harmonic pace, the nature and
complexity of the counterpoint conventions of time signatures, exact meanings of given tempo and
character markings and any affiliation to dance. These may in turn be affected by traditional mood
associations coming from key or melodic make-up, compositional intent and even the size and resonance
of the performing venue.
Modern-day tolerance of dissonance has been raised by post-Classical tonal developments, overshadowing many subtleties of Baroque harmonic tension. The strengths of various figured-bass
dissonances are carefully listed in Quantz’s ‘Art of Playing the Flute’, but for the little experienced, he
suggests simply playing louder when there are a lot of numbers!
The omnipotent rule of down bow, codified in Muffat’s observations of Lully’s bowings, reflects the
importance of hierarchy, organising strong beats to be played with a down bow, assuming that the up bow
is the weaker. The coveted equalisation of down- and up-bow strokes which developed later is
inappropriate when administering Baroque bowings and articulation, regardless of which bow is being
used. With the modern bow this effectively means working against certain inherent design features in
order to make sense of the rule.
The ideal sound is pure and sweet. Mozart demands that violinists aspire to the qualities of the voice; he
also advises playing with ‘earnestness and manliness’, criticising ‘hare-brained’ violinists who ‘imagine
the greatest inaudibility to be sweet’. He complains too about ‘shrill sounding open strings… which pierce
the ear too sharply’.
Vibrato (also called ‘tremolo’ or ‘close shake’) was considered an improvement to the sound rather than
an integral ingredient. Mozart describes it as ‘a small, slow movement ‘used to intensify the expression
created by the bow and criticises its consistent use, likening it to the appearance of palsy. Geminiani, after
praising the effect of vibrato on long notes, writes that ’when it is made on short notes, it only contributes
to make the sound more agreeable and for this Reason should be made use of as often as possible.’ It is
not known precisely how ‘more agreeable’ sounds, but in general the many descriptions imply that the
preferred vibrato would not have been automatic, particularly wide or continuous.
Orchestrally, it may be that a consensus of staying in low positions, using well-sounding open strings and
little vibrato would offer the aspired-to purity of sound. In the solo repertory higher positions were normal
fare: the methods by Geminiani, Herrando and Nogueira clearly indicate shifting and practising in
position, while Mozart recommends that slurs should be kept on one string wherever possible for an even
tone.
Mozart suggests slurs for notes ‘at close intervals’ but separate strokes for ‘notes far apart’ and
recommends that this should be ‘arranged to give pleasant variety’. Quantz, whose flute method includes a
wealth of material specifically aimed at string players, also calls for variety: ‘You must adjust your
tonguing and bowing in such fashion that you give each note greater or less stress.’
When playing separate notes with ‘greater or less stress’ (and organising them into groups without
slurring), a varied bow speed, as well as weight, is invaluable. During his lengthy exposition of bow
divisions, Mozart advises that ‘the stroke in soft tone must be drawn very slowly; when increasing the
tone somewhat quicker; and in the final loud tone very quickly’. He warns that ‘each tone, even the
strongest attack, has a small, even if barely audible, softness at the beginning of the stroke, for it would
otherwise be an unpleasant and unintelligible noise.’

Modern bow design and musical demands have encouraged power and continuity of sound, while the
tapering of the Baroque bow favours the release of sound, its lightness and lower balance point assisting
phrasing off with air between the strokes, as well as articulations which maintain a thread of sound
between notes, such as bow vibrato, where repeated notes are played in a single bow. The slur is
consistently described as a phrasing off, an emphasis on the first note followed by a release. Prepared and
followed by a silence d’articulation, a small clearance or an almost imperceptible placement, the way of
playing a slur varies according to the prevailing musical character. This is also the case with
appoggiaturas.
Lifting the bow at dotted rhythms is frequently recommended, although the amount of lift is not
quantified. Geminiani gives a selection of signs including a staccato, where the bow is taken off the string
at every note, and Mozart summarises different expressions: ‘Merry and playful passages must be played
with light, short and lifted strokes, happily and rapidly; just as in slow, sad pieces one performs them with
long strokes of the bow, simply and tenderly.’ The attention to detail and contrast naturally demands the
eradication of any technique that promotes equality, such as spiccato, sautillé, martelé or détaché, unless
specifically indicated. Even when equal stress is implied, contention arises: daggers also indicate
separation or emphasis and according to Quantz, the instruction ‘staccato’ rarely intends ‘a single species
of note’.
Read cellist Alison McGillivray’s account of studying with Baroque specialist Jennifer Ward Clarke.
This article was first published in The Strad’s September 2003 issue. Subscribe to The Strad
or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase single issues click here.

RELATED LINKS
Cellist Alison McGillivray on studying with Baroque specialist Jennifer Ward Clarke
Steven Isserlis on period instruments and his Stradivarius cello
Violinist Nigel Kennedy accuses period specialists of pushing Bach into a ghetto
Editor’s blog: trying a Baroque bow and the wobble board at the ESTA conference (but not at the
same time)
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