minstrel: Medieval fiddling

Fred Ross fred at horace.ls.net
Tue Nov 7 20:40:30 PST 2000

Interspersed below.

Fred Ross
s.k.a. Philippe de Minerve
a.k.a. Sgath

On Tue, 7 Nov 2000, Craig Mills wrote:

> I am interested in the history of the violin (specifically fiddle
> music).  I have found that the fiddle changed form many times over the
> years, not just in shape but in number of strings, drone strings,
> frets/non-fretted, etc.  ?? Is the viol d'gambe a predecessor of the
> violin?  It is a fretted instrument, isn't it?

The violin appeared in the sixteenth century, initially standardized by
the Guarnari family of Cremona.  Theories abound as to why it superseded
the viol, but, as Gregory Blount drilled into my head, we really don't
know for sure.

The violin has had four strings tuned in fifths since the sixteenth
century.  The body was a little shorter than it is now, the fingerboard
was broader, thicker, and not raised off the body, the bow was an arc
rather than the modern recurve (bows themselves are a completely separate
topic of evolution).  The viola de gamba was indeed fretted, as was all
the viol family.  The internal bracing was different from the violin

My violin teacher does a lot of Baroque performance on an instrument
restored to that period.  The fingerboard was left at modern length
(significantly longer) because modern violinists would be eternally
troubled by trying to use a period length.  She is still working out
oddities of this: during my lesson yesterday she received a phonecall from
her luthier to discuss how to fix the trouble she had bridging strings for
fifths in sixth and higher positions where the strings moved farther

> I am especially interested in the "period-ness" of Irish/Scottish jigs
> and reels.  Especially in the "jig" or "reel" music format itself, not
> specific tunes at this point.  Secondarily I find myself interested in
> Scandanavian folk music, and what they were playing there pre-1600.

The jig is period.  We can trace it back through the seventeenth century
as a commoner's dance, and into the sixteenth century.  The reel, I'm
really not sure, though I am initially inclined to doubt it.

> I don't see anything right off of the SCA minstrel page that seems to
> address this specific area, maybe I'm just not seeing it.

<shrugs> Violins are an odd item, really.  I play on a modern instrument
because I don't have a pseudo-period one, and I play in a modern style,
since I can't manage the Italian hold (resting between the shoulder and
the fingering hand at about forty five degrees).  The French style (modern
hold) superseded the Italian quite quickly, though exact dates are hard
since they overlapped.  We have Corelli publishing his first work in 1610,
and he certainly played held between the shoulder and the chin.

Period violins also didn't have chin rests, and they certainly didn't have
shoulder rests.  This will play havoc with modern sized mucisians: we've
gotten bigger and the violins haven't.  As late as Baillot and Kreutzer in
the Conservatoire in Paris, codifying violin pedagogy in the 19th century,
they didn't use chin rests.

> Websites I've seen are either selling instrument kits, or talking about
> performers who perform "in the style of..." or "performing medieval
> pieces..."  I don't seem able to find histories of fiddle music
> evolution, or if I do it's starting in 1710 or so.

Williamsburg has a lot of resources, including a lot of references that go
back into the sixteenth century - their performers tend to specialize in
the seventeenth and early eighteenth century stuff.  First of all, if
you're already an accomplished violinist (even a moderately accomplished
one) forget the instrument kits.  Get a proficient luthier who has done it
before to make the modifications to an instrument, or get one of the
hundreds of Cremonese makers to build such an instrument.  I can get you
in touch with the luthiers over there (who are far more moderately priced
than the importers in the US would suggest - about three times more
moderately priced).  I have my eye on a certain copy of a Guarnari model
that a fellow made...what a gorgeous instrument!  His price was $10,000,
but importers here sell such an instrument for $30,000.  The markup is
fairly consistant.

> Additionally, I have been told that the "Cape Breton" style of fiddling
> which is growing in popularity is, in fact, not a new style at all but
> is instead the ancient Scottish fiddling technique that was nearly lost
> forever to Scotland when all of their fiddlers emigrated here to North
> America.  

I'm not very knowledgeable at all about it, but if you really want I can
give you the email address of someone who is, and who can point you to
resources and people beyond him when his knowledge runs out.

> Any help would be appreciated!  Either e-mail me privately or on the
> list, as in-depth, gruesome detail would appeal to me but might not be
> appreciated on the bandwidth of the list proper.  

I'd be more gruesome, but I don't feel like hauling out my books or going
into the evolution of bows.

> Thank you for the resource!!!
> Vilfred Josefsen
> Kingston, WA

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