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HIP hip
November 2008

The viola da braccio family, from the violino piccolo (small little viola) to the violone (big viola), are all long-surviving masterpieces of a design basically unchanged in 400 years. Their delicate wooden structure walks, nay, nonchalantly skips along a tightrope between optimum resonance and exploding into a pile of exclusive matchsticks: Walls must be thin enough to vibrate with and amplify the sound waves generated by the strings yet strong enough to support the immense tensions created by them. Not forgetting that the shape of the body must amplify this sound across a range of several octaves but not interfere with a strong resonant frequency of its own, and be ergonomic enough for a human being to play. Oh, and sound good from the lightest whisper tone to a hearty fortissimo. And they look so simple!

So, it is not without reason that the creations of Stradivarius, Guarneri etcetera have such a high value now. Prohibitive prices aside, there are other reasons for using replica instruments: In the early 18th century, most violins etcetera would have been less than 50, not 350 years old. Those that do survive from then have usually been played and therefore altered several times through maintenance and changes in playing fashions, whereas a replica can be built and set up in the original manner.

“Set up”? well, that’s one of the special things you hear at a de Swaen concert. Without dwelling on what’s “usual”, we prefer to use all unwound gut strings in equal tension, because we find that the sounds blend better. it also makes the application of early 18th century playing techniques -and the means of expression which bring baroque music to life- more natural.

You may, however, occasionally see a “silver wound” string here. This is a gut string with silver wire wound around it, which increases density, allowing it to be slightly thinner.
Wound strings were developed in Italy during the mid 17th century for the lowest strings of bass instruments. Their greater density meant that bass instruments could be made smaller. Smaller means faster, since the player’s fingers do not need to move so far on the fingerboard.: irresistable to a virtuose Italian. By the late 18th century, the violoncello (little big viola) had replaced the larger basse de violon. In early 18th century Germany though, silver wound strings were very rare, expensive and unaffordable to the average Stadtgeiger. Because the third Brandenburg concerto was written for a rich court, Bach specifies three violoncelli.

Whichever strings we use, since the stresses in instrument are so crucial, they are set up with “equal tension”, as was the ideal until the 19th century. Using the thickness ratio of 2:3 (the same as the pitch ratio of a fifth- the interval at which the strings are tuned), the forces on the instrument are balanced. This causes the instrument considerably less distortion than the “usual” set-up and, in exchange for a little more work when playing the thick lower strings, allows the instrument to “sing” much more freely.

Having the best paintbrush in the world, however, does not make you Rembrandt. The skill and dedication or our players is best demonstrated not in words but on the concert platform. Since you’re here anyway, please relax and enjoy this metaphysical concoction of artifice and soul.

Mike Diprose
November 2008