By John Tamilio III, Ph.D.
The Handel and Haydn Society has been a leading player in the Boston music scene for over 200 years, but for the past four decades—since the arrival of former Artistic Director Christopher Hogwood in 1986—it has been in the vanguard of ensuring the early music capital of North America has consistently excellent historically informed performances.
In historically informed performance, affectionately known as “HIP,” musicians work to present music from the past as faithfully as possible, keeping close to the intent of the composers and striving to perform the pieces as they would have sounded to their first audiences. One of many ways the world-class performers of the H+H Orchestra and Chorus achieve this is performing on period instruments—either ones constructed during the Baroque or Classical periods or replicas that reflect those original designs.
Though it’s always been my experience that the H+H experience just feels different from a standard classical concert—and I hope you agree!—it’s not always clear from several rows back in Symphony Hall just how that captivating sound is being created onstage. Let’s take a look at how a couple of the period instruments played by the H+H string section compare to their modern counterparts. Next season, maybe you’ll be able to spot the differences for yourself!
The violin does not look much different today than it did in the late 16th century. Before that, though, the forerunners of this familiar instrument would have looked quite foreign to us. The rebec (pictured below), popular in Medieval Europe and during the early Renaissance, had one to five strings stretched over an oblong frame. The lira da braccio, used during the Italian Renaissance, looked much like a violin but with a wider fingerboard. The rebab, a historical staple of Islamic music and one of the earliest bowed instruments (dating back to the eighth century), could have shapes ranging from a circle to a square.
Image: A reconstruction of a rebec, created by Nikolas Zalotockyj.
By the 16th century, though, the violin was coming into its own. The earliest description of a violin comes from a treatise written by the French composer Philibert Jambe de Fer in 1556. The oldest surviving violin hails from just a few years later, in 1560, and was crafted by Andrea Amati for King Charles IX of France. The only immediately recognizable distinction between modern violins and their surviving counterparts from the Baroque era is the varnish, which ages and changes color over time.
H+H assistant concertmaster Susanna Ogata—who plays a 1772 violin made by Joseph Klotz—helped me understand some of the subtler differences. For one thing, Baroque violin strings are made of sheep and cow intestines. These so-called “gut strings” weren’t replaced by modern strings until the 20th century. According to Ogata, their sound is warmer and more resonant, but players have to be careful: Gut strings emit a hissing or whistling squeak if not bowed correctly. They also break much more easily than modern strings, which are usually made of metal and string.
In addition, the neck of a modern violin is attached at a steeper angle, creating more tension in the strings. Many other pieces of the instrument—the bridge, the soundpost, and tailpiece—are also shifted to accommodate it. Changes to the violin’s fittings mean that violinists trained using modern equipment must get used to differences in feel and sound when learning to play on retro-fit instruments. You might also notice some of them using cloth to cushion their instruments; the cloth takes the place of modern violins’ chin and shoulder rests, allowing for greater comfort and control.
Image: H+H assistant concertmaster Susanna Ogata plays her Klotz violin from 1772. (Photo by Robert Torres)
Baroque violinists also use a different style of bow, one about 20% smaller than its modern counterpart. The tip of the bow is also pointier, further reducing the weight—though some of that loss is offset by leather strips used to tighten the bow hair, a manual analog to the modern mechanism for controlling tension. According to Ogata, the physics of playing with a Baroque bow allow violinists to more closely mirror the articulation, diction, and rhythm of speech. At your next H+H concert, keep an ear out for how Baroque composers wrote their violin lines almost conversationally, and experience their work as it was originally intended to be heard.
As with the violin, the size and shape of the cello has been standardized for several centuries. However, there are still several differences between a modern cello and the Baroque version played by H+H principal cellist Guy Fishman, which is a 1704 version crafted by David Tecchler.
Image: H+H principal cellist Guy Fishman plays his cello, which was created by David Tecchler. (Photo by Sam Brewer)
Like Ogata, Fishman has spent his career perfecting the technique of playing on gut strings. Modern cellos use steel strings, he explained to me, in large part because of marketing efforts by American guitar companies in the 1920s. These companies claimed that steel strings would provide more power and stability, but Fishman disagrees: “Power and stability are subjective,” he said, “and professional orchestras who use gut strings—like H+H—have no problem creating music that can be heard.”
You also may notice that Fishman holds his cello aloft between his legs, whereas modern players have an endpin protruding from the bottom of the cello to hold it firmly to the floor. According to Fishman, while endpins were available in the 18th century, they didn’t become standard until the 20th; the best cello players of the Baroque and Classical periods did not use them at all. To be sure, endpins offer some advantages: The sound is less muffled when you use one, for example, because the musician is not pressing against the body of the instrument. However, when cellists use endpins, their instruments do not move with their bodies as easily. Fishman’s playing style allows for more fluid, dynamic playing, and a clearer connection between the musician and the sound from an audience perspective.
Whether you’re listening to H+H perform Handel, Haydn, or anyone in between, you have the unique opportunity to hear the music the way listeners would have in the 18th century, thanks in part to the use of period instruments. In that way, H+H is sort of a time machine transporting audiences to a different era and enabling them to revel in a musical authenticity that is hard to find elsewhere today. As Fishman says, period instruments allow the listener to imagine “what might have been.” And since H+H captures that glorious musical past, “what might have been” actually still is, right here in Boston.
John Tamilio III, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Salem State University, Pastor at the Congregational Church of Canton, and Board Member of the Handel and Haydn Society. He holds degrees in Theology, Literature, Philosophy, and English from Boston University, Andover Newton Theological School, Northeastern University, and Salem State University, and conducted post-doctoral research at Harvard University.