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What Makes a Baroque Violinist?

What Makes a Baroque Violinist? – by David Wilson

Any Navy SEAL will tell you that having the right gear and the right training are essential, but that another crucial part of the package can be described as “attitude,” a willingness to venture outside of one’s comfort zone and discover a new way of operating. As far as I know, no one has yet begun their violinistic career as a baroque violinist—we are trained as modern violinists, and at some point along the way we discover this other path and begin to pursue it. (I sometimes call this “going over to the Dark Side.”) Doing so requires an open-mindedness, a willingness to try new things and possibly to discard a great deal of habit. Making the switch involves a great deal of time, effort, and even expense on the part of a player.

So, why bother? I asked that question of a number of my Philharmonia colleagues, and here are some of the answers I got:

Lisa Grodin — Baroque instruments are “native speakers” of the musical rhetoric of their time. In original “dialects,” they enable musicians to delve into and to genuinely articulate the elegance, emotional power, and humor in baroque music.

Maria Caswell — I am able to do much more nuanced playing with the baroque bow, and the lower tension on the strings allows me to draw out a singing tone without effort. My baroque instruments, geared for chamber music and small orchestras, are more personable, intimate, individually expressive…and the best thing is you don’t have to constantly shake the note to make it sing!

Katherine Kyme — It is the subtle, sensuous responsiveness that always draws me to the baroque violin. While playing on gut and especially while using a baroque bow, I feel I have a greater range of musical color, a more fleet, capricious ability to show the ever-changing character and mood of the music.

Elizabeth Blumenstock — Every culture has created its own particular sound world; and none of them are the same, all are unique. I suspect that many of us who love Baroque instruments have some desire to visit the people of that lost world, a curiosity and love which is somewhat satisfied in the playing of “their” instruments in a way “they” might have recognized.

“the baroque violin”
or, as it was called in the 18th century
“the modern violin”

we use baroque instruments as means for a shamanistic exploration of the ways of our ancestors
—as the hunter dances in imitation of the game, in order to become the game—
we bring the words of our ancestors to our lips via their writings
we look through their eyes into their paintings and drawings
we put our ancestors’ hands before our eyes via facsimiles
we grasp their tools in our hands via their instruments
and so we attempt to reenter their world
or invite their spirits into ours
and thus reanimate
their voices
in our ears

–Anthony Martin

David’s answer: The first time I ever heard baroque music on period instruments, I literally had chills running down my spine and tears running down my face—I was profoundly moved by the sound of the instruments and the way that sound showed the power of the music. For me it was like having heard poetry read by a voice synthesizer, and then hearing it read by a poet. I knew I wanted to learn how to make music in that way.

And . . . Link to the American Bach Soloists website for great additional information about Baroque instruments and Baroque performance. Well worth reading.