Four Seasons at the Chan — A Coda on Gut Strings by Bassist Curtis Daily
Tuesday, April 28, 2015 My friend bassist Curtis Daily promised to write an essay on the difference between the strings for baroque instruments and modern instruments. When I posted the blog Four Seasons At The Chan — Barking Dogs Included this morning, Daily had not sent me anything. I understood that he was extremely pressed for time as he was rehearsing with the Portland Baroque Orchestra the music for this Friday’s concert. This early Tuesday morning his essay arrived. You will find it below!
The question was: “Could you write for me a description on the differences between baroque and modern strings for string instruments and how the average idiot (me) might perceive how they sound?”
This is something that nerds do doctoral theses on, but because I don’t have time to do one I’ll try to keep the answer to a manageable length.
Baroque strings for bowed and plucked instruments are a product that existed towards the end of an era of musical string production using animal intestines for its basic core material, that was continuous for at least 2,000 years. In one of the Egyptian tombs was discovered a harp, strung with gut strings, that was still playable. That discovery also answers the question about how long gut strings last, if stored in a cool dry environment — a very, very long time.
Though the beginnings of gut string production are definitely lost in the foggy mists of time, we can look back a few centuries and see that the quality of the gut was good. The level of virtuosity that was required in order to play the higher level of compositions for viol and lute, especially, of the early baroque era, certainly necessitated a string of very high quality so in this brief treatise we will make that assumption.
However, not everything was perfect, largely due to the lower strings speaking more slowly than the upper strings, and the human condition of trying to improve something when possible in everything, also prevailed with strings. With any instrument, when the pitch is lowered, if the tension and scale remains the same, the string must become larger in order to maintain sufficient playing tension. When the string becomes larger in diameter without increasing the density in some way, the response slows. Lower strings of all fixed speaking length suffered from this phenomenon, and it is completely due to some basic concept of physics (Newtonian?) that I do not understand. Harps don’t suffer from this so much because at some point a long time ago harp makers figured this out and created the characteristic shape of the harp, which takes into account the length/pitch issues between strings.
Something that was discovered at some point in time that we will never know for sure, is that if the density of the lower strings of a fixed length instrument, such as the violin, could somehow be increased, the response of that string would be faster and more sonorous. There are a few ways to accomplish this andcouple that have been tried are; impregnating the gut with a material that adds density, cinnabar for example, which would definitely contribute to the description of “crazy musician”. Or by applying a winding of wire of some sort to the surface of the string. Silver and copper would be obvious choices, given their workability. However, just watch someone pull silver wire from a piece of silver if you have an opportunity, and you will be filled with awe at the process.
What we know for sure is that there is an advertisement in an English publication, dated 1664, that promotes gut core strings that have a wire winding on top of the gut, and that was probably the beginning of the modern technological era with regards to strings.
What we see to start happening after this date is the predominance of the cello over the viola da gamba, almost certainly because of the more powerful, and fewer, wound lower strings. We also see the advancement of the guitar vs. the lute family plucked instruments for the same reason.
This is largely because of those instruments’ greater ability to project when the lower strings were strung with wire wound strings, and the desire to project very well at a reasonable vibrating length of the string. At this time, too, was a transition to larger and larger performance spaces, in which instruments with better projection would have been very desirable.
Instruments were also being modified during these times in order that they would have better projection by changing neck angles.
One issue that has been an issue all along is that the top strings of violins are very highly tensioned and tend to test the quality of a gut string. The standard method of determining the correct gauge of a violin e’’ string historically has been to tighten it until it breaks, then back off by 1/2 step.
Wire strings, which have been used on harpsichords for a long while, have also been tried on violins as early as the mid-18th century, in the search for a more reliable top string.
After the acceptance of wound lower strings in the late 17th century, things probably remained relatively predictable, while developing better polishing techniques, until World War I. Gut strings, in addition to being excellent conveyors of sound, are also excellent thread material for other applications, including gut sutures. There was such an incredible demand for suture gut during WWI (let’s try not to dwell on the overwhelming sadness of this reality right now) that the gut making regions of Italy, which were the centers of gut string making in Europe, were sequestered for suture gut production and there was no gut available for music strings.
Logically speaking, if something isn’t available and people absolutely need something, they will figure out something else that will work for whatever they can’t get.
Hindemith, in his book “The Composer’s World”, postulates that the advent of radio and its tinny sound, contributed to an acceptance of a more wiry sound.
The transition to wire top strings for violin and viola occurred during this time so it could logically be suggested that those two circumstances ushered in a new era of stringing.
Further, we have now firmly arrived in the technological era and string makers are experimenting with all kinds of ultra-modern strings for violin family, using different core and winding materials.
Heifetz was known to use a wire e’’ string with a gut a’ string, so we can observe from the stringing of a 20th century musical icon that gut still was an important material for musical strings between the two world wars.
However, for the upper instruments gut has been superseded to some degree as a core material by much denser, and/or more reliable, materials that allow for a smaller diameter string that speaks just as quickly. Just as important, the design of the bow was also changing, also contributing to a stronger and brighter sound.
I came to this party very late, but by virtue of being a bassist, which is a group of musicians who are known to be late for everything except for arriving at the gig, I discovered from interviewing the older bassists I worked with that all had started out playing on gut, which was still common among bassists into the 1960’s. Listen to recordings of Jimmy Blanton, Paul Chambers, Oscar Pettiford, Israel Crosby, and hear double bass gut stringing at its finest. They all knew exactly which gauges of string their basses wanted for any occasion.
In closing, technology has driven most things since the mid-18th century, and stringing of bowed and plucked instruments is no different from anything else, so updates have always been periodically necessary, but not quite at the pace of current times with Apple/MSFT.
At the beginning of my historically informed music career in the late 1980’s I used Aquila Corde’s ‘loaded’ gut lower strings on my bass, instead of wound strings. These strings were based on early densified strings but instead of using cinnabar for the densifying material, copper solvents were used. Even though there is little historical evidence for these, when one got a really good string of this formula, it was nirvana.Sadly the ratio of good strings to bad was pretty low so Aquila discontinued them in about 1996. On the plus side, I didn’t become a mad hatter.
Now I am using a more modern stringing for my lower strings that is densified by winding a layer or two of silver wire on top of a core string of gut. This setup works well but because silver reacts to temperature much faster than gut, the lower strings of the double bass go out of tune quicker than the plain gut upper two strings.
In the end all this does is to point out that for everything gained through technology, something is also probably lost. High tension modern stringing produces a brighter and louder sound, but subtlety is diminished. The tonal result for violins can be something like a Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
If one reads the recent article in the “New Yorker” about the viola da gamba, and its relative value in today’s musical lexicon, it will only help to solidify, or dissolve, whatever opinion one might have.
And if lastly, while listening to a very modern recording, one feels that gut stringing is somehow an anachronism, it is advised to also listen to the strings in a different modern recording, where the opinion will almost certainly be changed. Gut stringing is still alive and while not really well, is not dead.
Curtis Monica Huggett — A Phenomenal Four Seasonal Fenómeno
Originally published at blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com.