The Right Way to Play Old Music

Almost a hundred years ago - just after that Great War, the war to end all wars, they said – there was a revolution in the violin world.

    For thousands of years the strings for plucked and bowed instruments like that had been made from animal gut, mostly sheep, actually. Then someone invented violin strings with a steel rope-core, cleverly overwrapped with rust-proof copper. This was progress! Not only were they almost unbreakable, but they were perfectly even and hardly ever needed re-tuning. What's more, they were louder, and this then completed the transformation of the violin family begun in the 19th century. Those old instruments made by Stradivarius and others had at that time been ruthlessly altered by cutting off their necks, now longer and at a steeper angle, and strengthening the construction, all to make them louder to cope with larger concert halls, modern opera and the developing symphony orchestra. The days of the Baroque (roughly 16501750) were over and forgotten. That was progress. So, in the 1920's, came the final transformation of the violin family, using steel rather than gut strings, to what it still is today, apart, that is, from the further development of electronic violins!
    But, in all this, there was a snag. These new, "perfect" strings didn't sound so beautiful as pure, natural gut. This encouraged a fashion to play with continuous vibrato, to try and give life to the sound; on every note, all the time. Vibrato, which had until the 1920's been a delicate ornament to express passion, became a permanent feature of string playing, made easy by the use of a chin rest and shoulder rest, too. This is still the case today. And so the violin that Bach, Handel and Vivaldi knew, perfected by makers like Stradivarius, had been transmuted into something else, suitable, it must be admitted, for 20th century music and conditions, but really quite different from what it had been 200 years earlier. As different as an electronic violin is from an acoustic violin today!
    "Progress" is a word we hear often. It usually seems good and unavoidable, but there are penalties. A palaeontologist will tell you that the cerebral capacity and hence the intellectual ability of humans has not changed for many millenia. So what is "progress"? It isn't, of course, it's just "change," and not always for the better.
There is no need to list all the ills of the modern world that are endangering our very existence on Earth, but we now realize what penalties through progress we incur in our quest for an easier lifestyle. Many people find solace nowadays in ancient music, and so we play and listen to this old music to escape into a past which seems so comfortably safe from our frenetic but facile 21st century existence. And indeed it is marvellous therapy for mind and spirit. Old-fashioned music especially that of the Baroque - has never been so popular before. Who today, anywhere in the world, has not heard something of Bach's music? It's extraordinary.
    So what is the problem? The problem is one of superfluous baggage, accumulated over several centuries, cleverly disguised as "progress." During the 19th and 20th centuries, musical instruments were inexorably improved and perfected, and when the "Early Music" revival started in Europe almost 50 years ago, hardly anyone thought of the quaint idea of resurrecting those primitive instruments that were used in the 18th century. Musicians now had at their disposal more perfect tools than ever before this old music, using modern technology, was therefore easier to play. But we have since come to realize that that it is far more rewarding to play it on the exact instruments for which it was conceived. By doing so it comes to life more effectively, as fresh as when it was first written and played. To be specific - a violin exactly as originally made by Stradivarius (and there exists only ONE, out of many hundreds, in that condition) with pure gut strings, played with a light bow, has a beautiful sound, not very powerful it is true, but perfect for the music for which it was made.
    The sound of an ensemble of original stringed instruments violins, violas, 'cellos and double bass, and the rustic warmth of Baroque wind instruments, all as they were 300 years ago - is a revelation to our modern ears! Just as a blurred image becomes sharpened and focussed using the right glasses, so does Baroque music spring to life again when using the right instruments, and, with these original instruments, both string and wind, musicians are inevitably constained to play in a style more appropriate to the music.
This, then, is real progress!