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Brescian working methods

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If you want to be completely authentic, depending on which Brescian maker you're planning to emulate leave an integral bar along the center of the top.

Think I'll pass on the whole authenticity thing, AD.  That said, I AM curious as to how the sound of a viola made a la the Brescians per Dilworth would differ from what we are accustomed to hearing.  Am I going to take the time to find out?  Not any time soon!

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One thing not brought up yet is the use of one piece lower and upper ribs, 

  When I did my daSalo I used blocks, thin ribs, form, linnings , call me chicken ....buk buk buk ....came out sounding great , I think a lot of the tone comes from the arch form , very full to the edges with little to no re curve ,should give a lot of surface for the development of higher overtones,  

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When reading an article like this, one should keep a certain distance and take it for what it is, one person's personal experiment based on his reading of documents. Take a look at two of the sources he cites:


  • The most precise indication is from Tartini’s experiments with strings: he was said to have a total string tension of about 30kg on his violin in 1734 (which translates to an E string of at least 0·65mm at A = 415). By way of  comparison, a Dominant violin set today totals 22·1kg!

  • Mersenne’s comparisons with lute strings in his Harmonie Universelle of 1636 indicate a violin E of about 0.77mm.

In the first, it is actually interesting that Tartini's overal tension is higher than what would be used in a modern violin, but we must keep in mind that we have no idea how Tartini measured his string tension, and that this number was reported by Fetis in the 19th century, not documented by Tartini himself in the early 18th. 


Mersenne developped one of the earliest studies of the relationship between string diameter (mass), tension and pitch, (and also equal temperament) but we must keep in mind that his recommendation about "equal tension" was an idealized theory put forth by a scientist/philosopher/ecclesiastic who was not an active musician. He himself writes in this treatise that he deplores the fact that no professional musicians are using his "idealized" system of equal tension!


Personally, I don't think baroque era violinists were any dumber or smarter than those of today. Just like today, I'm sure there were some who didn't think twice about what strings to use, and just used what their teachers or violin makers told them to, and there were others who constantly experimented with gauges, manufacturers, materials (silk and wire were available as well as gut), looking for what worked best for them. I also imagine that like today, those who wrote the most about it were likely those with the least "skin in the game," amateurs with time on their hands and not working musicians or artisans.  There are documents from string makers in the 18th centiry, that can be enlightening, often giving details about the number of instestines used for different strings, and these tend to show proportions that suggest "equal feel" under the fingers rather than "equal tension" in string pull. From reading lots of research on the question, my understanding is that there is no document with actual string tension measurements prior to the 19th century, so anything we conclude about higher or lower tension is purely speculation.


Nice post!


Appreciate the info, and the balanced viewpoint.

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I hope Colin Adamson in Scotland won't mind me saying so, but the first time I saw one of his Maggini copy violas about 6 years ago now, I was absolutely bowled over by it for sound and for capturing the embodiment of Brescian style. He keeps making them and they only get better. Having lived with a proper Maggini for the last 18 months, I'm in a better position to criticise than I was then... but I'm only more impressed than ever. 


Take a look here:  http://adamson-violins.com/instrument/giovanni-paolo-maggini-viola-brescia-italy/

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Ben, nice to see the video on Colin's website....well produced. 

As far as Brescian copies go I think Dilworth has made the most convincing stuff I've seen or played, 
that includes your Magginni of course lol. 
The freely carved fruitwood head on that fiddle being very different to the 1610 viola, which seems to be what Colin 
is using as his templet.

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I enjoy reading this forum for quite a while now and i am especially interested in Brescian Violas.

I made one da Salo model following some of John Dilworths methods and now I am about to make another one.

I used 2mm ribs and no linings. I built it without a mould, just glued the cornerblocks on the back.

It has strings for more then a year now and it has, until now, not deformed significantly under the tension.

I used poplar for back and ribs, which I think is not typical for Brescian instruments, at least I don't know any.

With the sound I'm very happy. I think I will use a similar method for the next instrument, maybe add some very thin linings.


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  • 1 month later...

Just a quick note, coming late on this. Very interesting thread and I hope you don't mind me responding to the comments on strings even if it's not a direct answer to the Brescian question.

On equal tension stringing: Mersenne is not the only source for this: it is also recommended by di Colco (1690), Speer (1697), Eisel (1738) and L Mozart (1756); a lot of iconography corroborates it, and indeed some (naturally rather rare) examples of surviving strings - for example those on the Zanker bass in the Berlin museum. (This has come up on MN before)

It's also worth noting that "equal feel" does not preclude equal tension: if the strings are too stiff (which is caused when they are not sufficiently twisted) then equal feel is indeed achieved only by using somewhat thinner lower strings than equal tension would require; however with very highly twisted, and therefore flexible, strings, equal tension strings do indeed feel equal under the bow and finger. Descriptions of strings, and surviving strings, seem to indicate that the best thick bass strings were indeed very highly twisted, so in fact there may be no conflict here.

The concept of equal feel is especially important for the lute - Dowland, Burwell and Mace write about it, for example. I imagine that for plucked instruments that is the most practical way to judge strings (I don't play them myself) - but it's important to remember that the "feel" of a string alone doesn't tell us about the tension unless we also know how flexible or highly twisted the strings were.


All this aside, that doesn't mean everyone used equal tension: as has been sensibly pointed out, many musicians won't have taken so much care, or may have had different opinions about what works best on their instruments (although none of them seem to have written anything down about alternative methods, frustratingly!). Leopold Mozart complains that musicians often choose their strings by eye - and that the result is often very bad! - before going on to describe the correct way (in his opinion) to select strings: use weights to make sure you have equal tension. So for the historical performer you might ask, do we imitate those who chose by eye with bad results, or do we follow the advice of Mozart senior who was a fine violinist and pedagogue...?


As for the level of tension, it is indeed very hard to specify actual levels of tension (equal or otherwise) beyond the specific examples we have from Mersenne, Tartini* and the Zanker bass - it must be (and must have been in the past also) to some extent a matter of trial and error. However what I wanted to debunk was the myth that "baroque = lighter" - it might be in some cases, but (1) there are at least some examples (Mersenne and Tartini) which indicate higher than modern tension and (2) with a lower bridge, which was often the case in the 17th and 18th centuries, the maximum string tension that it is possible for a given instrument to sustain is higher (that doesn't mean that it *has* to be higher, of course - but it's wrong to assume it must be lower.)


So as always a broad generalisation is unwise (and my 2006 article does perhaps risk that - apologies!) but the clues that do exist give a rather different picture from what used to be "standard" for baroque instruments 20-odd years ago (not just in terms of tension, but also string materials and the preponderance and construction of wound strings).


I think what I am trying to say is that, not forgetting all the reservations necessary for any interpretation of historical evidence, the equal tension model is a little more than one person's personal experiment, but rather an apparent best practice recommended by many important writers of the period and corroborated by much iconographical evidence and even some surviving strings. It may not have been universal but evidence suggests it was important. It's also a practice which has had very interesting results in recent performance and recording - obviously you can judge for yourselves whether you agree. 


If you're interested, try any of the recordings by Gabrieli or Early Opera Company from the last 10 years or so; on line you could have a listen to Monteverdi String Band - we haven't made any CDs yet but there's a Radio 3 clip here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03t1nfg as well as a few live concert videos on our website. 


*Tartini data - it's quite right to point out that this is second hand information. We can't be 100% sure about it. But it is not implausible, especially with a relatively low bridge, so it seems wrong to disregard it unless or until there is specific evidence to contradict it. 

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Here's the recording which goes along with that article.  Not a very revealing recording.  Skip to 4:50 if you want to try to hear the fiddles.



Actually that link doesn't work. I don't think it was uploaded by Gabrieli and they are fairly strict about asking unofficial recordings to be removed. However there are some short clips specifically of the violins on the MV page here: http://www.themonteverdiviolins.org/hear.html

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