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Italian violin strings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:
typologies, manufacturing techniques and principals of stringing
by Mimmo Peruffo
(Updated version of the original article in Recercare IX, 1997, pp.155-203)
In the first version of Recercare some of the conclusions reported in section 8 (Working tension and “feel”) turned out to be incorrect. I apologize to readers and offer an updated version of the article below.
Questa picciol'arte, che contribuisce tanto
al nostro piacere, e forse una delle men
note, attesoche' coloro che la professano
ne serbano le pratiche a guisa di segreto.
FRANCESCO Griselini: Dizionario
delle arti e mestieri (Venezia 1765).
On matters concerning strings and the criteria of stringing bowed instruments from the beginning of the eighteenth to the end of the nineteenth century, the systematic study of recently acquired material has produced some remarkable surprises, that are particularly revealing if compared to the stringing techniques currently used by the early music specialists. For at least a decade researchers (1) have begun to realize that a too fast interpretations of the original sources in certain important violin methods dating from the first half of the present century - as, for example, that of Carl Flesch (2) - have had a bad influence on those who first began to pose the problem of how best to recover past musical repertories, in accordance with the strictest principles of authenticity
It has been widely held, for example, that eighteenth-century bowed instruments, and especially the violin, had a thin, nasal sound – in marked contrast, therefore, with that of our own century, with its dominance of metal strings: this was generally attributed to the preference of early musicians to string their instruments much more lightly than is done today in ordinary practice (3). The idea became so deeply rooted (mainly because no really serious research was done on the subject) that even important string manufacturers would recommend very thin strings to anyone intending to play baroque music.
In recent years, however, a more painstaking study of the historical documents has suggested a substantially different situation, thereby generating a founded doubt that what we hear today in so-called ‘authentic performances’ does not wholly correspond to what was once generally heard (leaving aside matters of performance practice). In fact, just as the reconstruction of early musical repertories and their respective instruments requires accurate comparative studies of the various elements of the past, it stands to reason that the string - the actual generator of sound - should be one of the main points of departure (if not the main one) of that endeavour. Hence, as some studies have shown, the string is no longer just one of the bricks making up the edifice, but rather the "corner stone of the temple" (4).