Principles of baroque playing

Modern string playing is based on a full tone based on a smooth legato line, aided by a continuous vibrato to sweeten the tone. For variety, the bow can be bounced off the string (staccato). Power and projection are cultivated.

Baroque playing aims to move the heart of the listener by its various emotions or affekts. At the centre of the style is the contact of bow on string and the subtle ways in which it is varied. There is more ’air’ in the sound and small breaks in the musical line – more varied and subtle than the modern staccato. Also, players become more aware of what the other parts are doing around them and shape their musical line to support them – in this way it is more like a string quartet than a modern orchestra.

The best practical introduction to baroque violin is The Ingenious String Player by Judy Tarling. Other string instruments will find it contains a wealth of useful advice. There is also a companion volume with passages explaining specific technique and giving example passages to master. More recently, she has published Weapons of Rhetoric which brings together a variety of sources from the baroque period setting out ideas on affekt and music as acting on the emotions.

From Syntagma Musicum by Praetorius, published in 1618

Historically Informed Performance or How We Play

String instruments of the baroque era had strings made of gut rather than metal or modern synthetic substitutes. Gut strings, made usually from the intestines of sheep or cows, give a mellower sound and have a different ‘feel’ under the bow. Contact between bow and string is at the heart of baroque string playing.

The bow itself was significantly different from the modern ‘Tourte’ bow, particularly in  the balance and strength in different parts of the bow. The modern bow is designed to give an even sound throughout its length and can easily be ‘bounced’ off the string. The baroque bow is typically shorter, with an elegant pointed end. The sound is stronger in the middle, and tails off as it reaches the point. It is much easier to alter the articulation – indeed the articulation makes the music come alive. It is more subtle than the modern notion of detached bowing: there is a whole range between legato bowing and totally detached.

We always play at a semi-tone below modern pitch (a = 415 Hz). Pitch in the baroque period varied from country to country – even from town to town. However, as a broad generalisation, pitch has become higher and it has become common for baroque groups to play at 415 – not least because wind instruments are fixed in pitch.

Our members play a mix of instruments. A good number of us have specialist baroque instruments, some dating from the period (the earliest from 1720) and others modern instruments made in the baroque style. Others have modern instruments but have put gut strings on. However, more important to the style of playing is the bow. Most of our players now play with a baroque bow. (Some have found bargains to be had from China via eBay.)