What makes the OAE a ‘period instrument orchestra’ is that the players use either original instruments or copies of original instruments from the Age of the Enlightenment (17th/18th centuries). This means that the sound they create is closer to the sound that composers such as Mozart and Haydn would have had in mind when composing. Performing with period instruments and endeavouring to be as faithful as possible to the composer’s original intentions is known as Historically Informed Performance or HIP for short.
To be ‘historically informed’, you need a) a good deal of scholarly research into performance practices of the time, b) original sheet music that has not been covered by centuries of alterations and c) a specially crafted instrument. This article offers a short introduction to the Baroque violin, the predecessor of the violin we are familiar with today and the most common instrument in the orchestra.
Similar in shape to the modern violin, the main developments the instrument has undergone are internal; reinforcements to make it capable of taking the stress and strain of romantic compositions. Externally, there are a few differences which are visible upon close inspection. Adjacent to the body of the modern violin, the neck is positioned at a slightly downward angle, which increases the tension of the strings. Comparatively, the angle of the Baroque neck is less steep, which means that the strings are not as taut; therefore the level of power and volume attainable is not as great. A more streamlined fingerboard also replaced the shorter, wider variety on the Baroque violin, allowing acrobatic feats of high notes so loved by virtuosi such as Paganini.
Before strings were made of metal, they were crafted from sheep gut. Gut strings have an earthier sound quality and are generally quieter than bright metal modern strings. They are also quite temperamental and require the performer to be attuned to their unpredictable nature. When exposed to high temperatures and humid conditions, their pitch drops. When conditions turn cold and dry, their pitch rises. Gut strings are also less resilient than their modern metal counterpart and have a higher tendency to snap.
Crucially, to play a baroque violin, you will need a baroque bow. Differences between the baroque and modern bows are easy to see:
A fundamental difference between the two is that the baroque bow was convex in shape, whereas the modern equivalent is concave. Dense, rigid wood such as snakeswood was used for the baroque bow, which encouraged shorter bow strokes and subtle articulations. The modern bow became sturdier and the hair was pulled tighter, thus creating greater tension. This allowed more pressure to be exerted on the instrument by the player, allowing them to create a louder sound.
Modern comforts such as the chin and shoulder rests are a relatively modern addition to the violin, invented by Louis Spohr in the 19th century. Instead, the baroque violin rests gently on the collarbone.
Often players will place a cloth between the violin and their collar to prevent the violin from slipping.
In the main we’ve been talkinga about the Baroque violin in this article but its important to remember that many OAE players will often have more than one instrument, for different periods, and more importantly different bows – a baroque bow, a classical one, a romantic one, for it is the bow which has undergone the most radical changes over time and which has the greatest effect on playing style and sound.
OAE violinist Huw Daniel chats about his baroque violin and bow: