Time Travelling with Music

by Sophie Simpson

Hello! I’m Sophie, a violin and piano teacher for the Becky Dell Music Academy in the new Manchester branch.

I’m sure many of you are aware of how versatile stringed instruments are; as a violinist there are opportunities to play in a pop band, folk music, in an orchestra, a quartet, as a soloist, at a wedding…etc.

However, I’d like to talk specifically about a particular niche I have found myself being involved in within the performance world: historically informed performance or HIP for short.

The music world is a competitive one and it can be useful to find something different to help you to stand out. I fell into the HIP world sort of by accident, but quickly became hooked, though I continue to perform on the ‘modern’ violin too. It might sound dull at first but I promise it’s not! It’s great when you’re performing to know that you’re creating something that sounds the way audiences would have heard it hundreds of years ago – if you close your eyes you could almost travel back in time…

What is historically informed performance?

The idea with HIP is that the performance reflects academic and practical research into how the music might have been performed at the time it was written. This research can take many forms including analysing surviving letters, treaties or publications from the time, the music on the page, or the instruments themselves can give us clues.

There are even some instruments that are no longer in general use, such as the viola da spalla, which looks a bit like a small cello (or big violin!), but was played with a strap around the neck and in more of a guitar hold and has five strings.

Here is a link to a video of Sergey Malov playing some music by Bach on the viola da spalla: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-H6XAIwZKA

So what counts as historically informed performance?

Taken literally, this could encompass anything that happened in the past, even yesterday!

However, when musicians talk about HIP they tend to think of the Renaissance (c.1300-1600), Baroque (c.1600-1750), Classical (c.1750-1820) and Romantic (c.1820-1850), or even early 20th Century time periods. Early recordings from the 20th Century can be classed as a useful resource for research, though obviously there are no recordings from the Baroque or Classical eras!

As a violinist one of my specialisms within HIP is the Baroque era. How are Baroque instruments different to their modern counterparts?

Instruments have been constantly developing along with technical advances and to adapt to changing styles of composition; there was never one point in history when people woke up and said ‘we are no longer in the Baroque era, today marks the start of the Classical era and we must adapt our instruments accordingly’!

The Baroque and modern violins look relatively similar upon first glance. The shape and dimensions of the body are much the same as they have always been. You may have heard of violin maker or luthier Antonio Stradivari and even today many luthiers try to make copies of his violins.

However, there are some differences: the Baroque violin does not have a chinrest as this was not invented until around 1820 by Louis Spohr; neither did they have shoulder rests, but they may have used a piece of soft leather to make it more comfortable to hold; the strings were made of gut instead of metal as they are today; the angle of the neck was shallower on a baroque violin than a modern violin as the gut strings could not take the tension that comes from a steeper angle.

The bow was also different: the baroque bow is shorter and convex (frowning) in shape whereas the modern bow is concave (smiling) and longer, which makes it more powerful. I play on a replica baroque violin for my historically informed performances of music from the Baroque era. The baroque cello does not have a spike, but instead the cellist balances the cello between their legs.

Wind and brass instruments also differed as they were not able to make metal keys for them in the baroque era, so brass players had to tune notes with their lips only, and wind players had basic holes for their fingers cut into the wood. These instruments feel and sound quite different to their modern counterparts.

In the Baroque era, the piano hadn’t been invented, but they did have other keyboard instruments including the organ and harpsichord. The harpsicord is similar to the piano, except that the strings inside are plucked instead of hit, and there is no pedal so it sounds quite different.

One of the other main differences is pitch.

Today we usually label an ‘A’ (the note an orchestra will tune to) as 440 Hertz, but in the baroque era, their ‘A’ may have been higher or lower than how we hear it today. It varied according to where you lived in Europe and how the church organ was tuned. Because people were not able to travel as far and as frequently as we do today, there was no standardisation of pitch until much later on. Based on research, historically informed performances of works by Monteverdi are often at a higher pitch of A=465Hz and Bach is often played at a lower pitch of A=415Hz.  

This picture is one of the earliest known depictions of a violin.

It is artist Gaudenzio Ferrari’s Madonna of the Orange Tree, painted 1530. A cherub is seen playing a bowed instruments which clearly has the hallmarks of a violin.

I hope this has been an interesting introduction to the world of historically informed performance, and an eye opener to just one of many musical opportunities out there waiting for you!

Over the last few decades, there has been a boom in interest in HIP and there are now many groups and orchestras who perform in a historically informed manner, including the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Academy of Ancient Music. There are also several vocal groups who sing with a historically informed approach, including I fagiolini and Ex Cathedra.

Do look them up if you’re interested in finding out more!