The technical side of early Bowed Instruments


Early depictions and data from archeological findings of parts of medieval strings (Novgorod, 11th to 15th century) show that it was common use to hollow club-like pieces of timber for a resonator-body. As tops either flat boards of coniferous woods were glued of fixed with pegs to the resonator-body or the tops were carved out in a shallow vaulting and glued to the body. This second technology proved to be the better one: It avoids irregular vibrations in most cases ("wolf-tones") and can take more pressure from the strings. This way of building tops finally led to the sophisticated vaulting styles developed in the 16th to the early 18th centuries in violin making and is still in use.


As the new technologies of making bowed instruments from several parts glued together spread from Spain to northern Italy in the early 15th century we find countless depictions with flat tops and backs. Late examples of this technology I see in art of Alsace (north-eastern France) and the area of the Bodensee (south-western Germany) as late as c. 1550. Most of the bowed instruments in paintings roughly painted between 1450 and 1510 in Italy, Germany and the Low Countries show this construction.

In the summer of 2015 I made a consequent series of tops for such an instrument with different styles of bars in the inside to achieve tonal results of the possibilities given:



I was searching for a historical approach: If the makers who made these early bowed instruments were in fact makers of plucked instruments, they would first try to support the top with its pressure from the strings with a cross-bar system. I played the instrument and recorded it in a friends recording studio:



The tonal result is not very convincing: Some tones and intervals are much more present than others and the overall tone quality is not stable.

My next attempt: One single bar lengthwise and two smaller bars in an angle in the lower bout as a reminiscense of lute making:



Better, but still not balanced.

So I made another top: This one was from a thicker piece of wood as depicted in contemporary iconography and I glued a slightly out-of-the-angle bass bar to it. As in the other cases I recorded it in the studio (without any soundpost). If not perfect, this option seemed most convincing to me, after all.




One of the questions often discussed is: Did early bowed instruments have a soundpost? As there probably will never be an exact answer I want to give a "limited answer" offering two detailed depictions of fiddles showing technology to link the vibrations from the top to the bottom plates:


- A depiction from the 12th century (Bachmann 1966/english version 1969, picture 57) shows a so called "figure-of-8-shape-fiddle" with a bridge that has one long leg protuding through a hole in the top to the bottom plate.


- A close-up foto of a fiddle playing angel painted by

L. Signorelli (Casa Santa, Loreto) in Winternitz 1967 (plate 54a) clearly shows a soundpost through the bass-side c-hole. Meanwhile the painting has been restored and both c-holes were covered dark black...



As far as I am concearned this issue is overrated: A soundpost changes two characteristics: It increases the volume of the sound a little and also it focusses the sound: An instrument without soundpost has a tone that is a little more blurry than one equipped with it. The individual barring in the top plate, it seems to me, alters more of the obvious tonal qualities - as we could hear.

When doing the recordings in the summer of 2015 I finally did two additional ones with my favourite vielle:

one without a soundpost and one with - to make the difference audiable.



A masterly designed string instrument is the viola da gamba of Raphael's "St. Cecilia" from c. 1514. We can easily find valuable information on technology in early strings in this beautiful picture: The linings are glued to the outside of the ribs, a broken top reveals thick portions of wood in the center and a very delicate edge work. Bridge, fingerboard, pegs and bow can serve as models for a reconstruction.

The artist shows the ribs (very likely cut from flamed maple) in a fluorescent glow of a thin coat of a golden varnish.