A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY

Nowadays, the first known mention of the appearance of wound strings dates back to 1659 (Samuel Hartlib Papers Project; Ephemerides: “Goretsky hath an invention of lute strings covered with silver wyer, or strings which make a most admirable musick. Mr Boyle. […] String of guts done about with silver wyer makes a very sweet musick, being of Goretskys invention”), followed then by John Playford (“An Introduction to the Skill of Music…”) in 1664. But their further distribution, in the first decades after their appearance, was not at all fast, but non homogeneous and scattered, at ”Leopard spots”.

Italy, a country that has always been renowned for the production of harmonic strings, offers us a document from 1677 where, in an invoice by the luthier Alberto Platner, one can read: due corde di violone, una di argento et un’altra semplice
(“… two violone strings, one in silver and the other one simple…”).

The first iconographic representations of stringed musical instruments using such strings date back to after 1690 (see the pictorial artworks of Anton Gabbiani, Florence, or of the French painter Francois Puget, Paris 1688, and other authors).

According to Rousseau (Traité de la Viole, 1685), it was the violist Sainte Colombe who first introduced them in France around 1675, but the main English treatise for Lute and Bass by Viola dated back to the second half of the 17th century (Thomas Mace: “Musick’s Monument”  London 1676) still does not mention them, but only describes basses in pure gut: the Lyons and the dark red Pistoys.

Claude Perrault (Ceuvres de physique […], Amsterdam 1680 pp. 214-5) has one of his paragraphs titled: “Invention nouvelle pour augmenter le son des cordes” (“New inventions to augment the sound of a string”). This is certainly regarding wound strings.

In James Talbot’s manuscript (1700 circa) the basses of Lutes, Violin and Violin Bass are still the traditional ones, in only gut: that is, the Lyons and the Catlins.

In the first decades of the eighteenth century, wound strings took over almost everywhere compared to the traditional gut only basses, on both plucked and bowed instruments, totally revolutionizing the way of making music up to the present day.

A recently discovered Roman document, dated 1719, not only states in writing for the first time the use of a fourth wound string on the Violin, as an alternative to the usual naked gut, but also states its construction data, in other words the diameter of the core and the wire to be used (see Patrizio Barbieri, 2016: “Musical instruments, gut strings, musicians and Corelli’s Sonatas at the Chinese Imperial Court: The gifts of Clement XI, 1700-1720”).

An important testimony regarding the use of a fourth wound string comes from Count Giordano Riccati (“Delle corde ovvero fibre elastiche… ” 1767) and then, along the course of the 18th century, also from various other Italian, French, Austrian, German and English documents, where the use of wound strings is described also for the following instruments: Viola da braccio, Cello, Double bass, Viola bass and finally Pardessus.

From the middle of the eighteenth century, however, the use of wound strings became a standard everywhere; around 1750-60, the Cello switched to using a wound string also on the third one.

 

 

TYPICAL CONSTRUCTION CHARACTERISTICS OF WOUND STRINGS IN THE XVIII-EARLY XIX CENTURY

  1. Use of exclusively round wire;
  2. Use of metals such as copper, pure silver, silver-plated copper and brass. There were still no metals such as aluminum, tungsten (or wolfram) or special alloys which began to be used only in the first half of the 20th century.
  3. High-twist natural gut core;
  4. No silk between the core and the covering wire;
  5. Different balance between core and metal winding compared to modern coated ropes (even if made on a gut core).

The strings were made using very simple winding machines:

winding machines

 

winding machines

 

 

WOUND STRINGS TYPOLOGIES IN USE

The types of wound strings used between the end of the 17th century and the end of the 18th century can be traced back to three varieties:

  • wound strings on a gut core with close metal winding;
  • wound strings on a gut core with open coil winding;
  • wound strings on a gut core with a double metallic close winding.

In the second half of the 18th century, type 1 strings began to be manufactured also on a silk core, but only for plucked instruments (practical tests carried out by us have shown that coated silk strings do not work well under the bow). The strings with close winding on a gut core were those that characterized the entire nineteenth century until the early decades of the twentieth century, when, right after the Great War, those spun in aluminum and/or with partially polished metal wire began to spread.

In the 18th century, type 2 strings were called ‘a demì‘ or more generically ‘demifileè‘ strings by the French.

Their construction characteristic is clearly deducible from their name: their winding had a spacing between the loops equal to the diameter of the wire, or slightly more for plucked instruments (this precious construction indication – the only one of the eighteenth century – comes from Le Coq, Paris 1724, regarding the strings for the five-course Guitar):

 

For bowed instruments, it is assumed that the metal wire was more spiralized (this way, the horsehair of the bow was not channeled):

 

This is our translation of what Stradivari wrote: ’Questi sono i campioni delle tre corde grosse; la corda che mostra attraverso le sue spire che l’anima è fatta di budello và ricoperta con una spira molto aperta ad imitazione della pianta Vitalba

(These are the samples of the three large strings; the string that shows through its coils that the core is made of gut should be covered with a very open spiral as an imitation of the Vitalba plant)

the Vitalba plant

An example of the Vitalba plant

 

The first mention of this type of string, however, dates back to 1712 (Sebastien De Brossard: ‘Fragments d’une méthode de violon’, manuscript), while the last of our knowledge is dated 1782 (Jean-Benjamin De Laborde ‘Essai sur la musique ancienne et moderne’).

The demifilèe strings – always made on a gut core – were used in France sometimes both as the fourth c-string of the seven-stringed viola bass (see the letter of G. B. Forqueray to Prince Friederich Wilhelm of 1768) and as the third of the violin (Brossard 1712 and Laborde 1782):

PLUCKED INSTRUMENTS OF THE XVIII CENTURY AND WOUND STRINGS

Five-course Guitars

In addition to the already mentioned Le Coq (1724), we have further documents that confirm the use of wound strings having both gut cores (Corrrette 1761 ca) and silk cores (Don Juan Guerrero: “Methode pour Aprendre a Jouer de la Guitarre”. Paris 1760):

4-course and 6-course Mandolins

Documentation from the 18th century testifies both to the use of demì strings on a gut core and bass strings with close winding on a silk core or even gut (Methods of Fouchetti and Corrette, Paris 1771-72):

Lutes and Gallichons

The first mention of the actual use of wound strings on gut cores dates back to 1715 (Germany); several other French and, above all, German written sources from the 18th century were later discovered, confirming the fact that the 11- and 13-courses lutes used wound on gut cores. Some clues, both in terms of surviving artefacts and iconography, lead us to believe that they were of the demifilè type (we made exhaustive tests using a silk core, but they led to rather disappointing results, both in terms of acoustic quality and mechanical nature).

For example, here are some fragments of bass strings found on a lute by Raphael Mest in Linkoping (Sweden) followed by a German/Austrian iconography presumably from the middle of the 18th century:

 

On the Gallichon, we found this interesting iconography of German origin dating back to the mid-eighteenth century that, together with general considerations on the construction characteristics of the instrument, strongly suggest the use of close wound basses on a silk core (as already used on the 6-courses Spanish guitar), a hypothesis supported by our practical tests:

 

Harps

Historical documentation and French iconography bear witness to the use of wound basses on silk cores (Baud, 1797-98, Versailles) as well as demifilè, presumably on gut cores:

(Note the strings of the violin behind the harp: 4th wound in silver, and three gut strings)

 

At the end of the eighteenth century the demì strings went into disuse both because of the disappearance of the specific instruments that used them (viola bass, 5-course guitar, lute, etc.) and because they were replaced, in the plucked instruments, by those of type 1, wound on a silk core, that led to the appearance of the simple 6-string guitar:

Example of wound bass strings on silk cores, for 6-course Spanish guitar, dated back to 1810-12

 

WHY WERE THE WOUND STRINGS MADE AS DEMIFILEE?

Contrary to common belief, the demifilèe strings were not strings designed to have a ‘transition’ sound between the upper nude gut strings and the following close wound basses. To achieve this, a normal close wound string with a core-to-metal wire ratio in favour of the core would have been sufficient. The real reason is of a technological nature: research into 18th century wire technology has brought to light the fact that at that time they were not able to make wires so thin as to be able to access the close winding (for example, the thinnest gauge on the Creyseul scale, mid-18th century, concerning the gauge of wire for harpsichord is No. 12, equal to about 0.15 mm). See also on this subject: James Grassineau: “A musical Dictionary” London 1740).

The solution of covering a core by spacing the metal wire brilliantly solved the problem, but introduced a new one linked to the potential difficulties of conducting the bow and to the fragility of the metal winding at the nut.

Type 3 strings:

It is supposed that they were also used during the eighteenth century (G.B. Forqueray in his letter of 1768 explains to Prince Wilhelm that the lower strings of the viola bass should never be made double-covered but with simple winding: this is a clear indication that the double-covered strings were still known/used in those days); this means that, perhaps, they were a strategic solution for those particular bowed instruments characterized by having a very short vibrating length in relation to their tuning.

To cite, for example, the Violoncello/Viola da Spalla but, to be more sure, also the 5th low-B string added to the Double Bass in the late 19th century.

 

Vivi felice