TRADITIONS of Baroque Violin Playing


Holding the Baroque Violin

Part II - The Sources

In this part I shall discuss the sources in a little more detail, with the aim of putting the short quotes presented in Part I in their proper setting, and placing the sources themselves in an appropriate social and historical context. At the end I have attached a list of where you can find almost all of the sources freely available on the internet.

Jambe de Fer, Epitome Musciale (Lyons,1556). This is generally recognised to be the first treatise specifically discussing the violin proper (four strings, tuned in fifths). As such, it deserves a place in this discussion, even though it is outside of our defined period. Having distinguished the violin (used for dancing, because it's easy to tune and carry) from the Viol (which “Gentlemen and people of quality play”), he says of the violin:

“The Italians call it the violon da braccia, or violone because it is supported on the arm, some use scarfs, cords, or other things.”

Hardly conclusive evidence one way or another, although “supported on the arm” doesn't particularly bring the chin to mind! It is a very early source - the violin has not yet migrated to general usage. It is also not completely clear to what size of instrument Jambe de Fer is referring with his comment about scarfs and cords. He could well be referring to larger instruments of the family, talking about helping to carry the instrument in “leading weddings or masquerades” (about which he has just written). In any case, there is no further reference that I know of to such aids, nor any pictorial evidence. There are no further relevant written sources from France until the 18th century.

Curiously and frustratingly there are no useful sources in Italy at all in the 17th century. The violin is discussed by the Rognonis (father Ricardo in 1592 and son Francesco in 1610), but nothing about how to hold it

Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum (Wolfenbüttel, 1614-20). This is the earliest source in Germany. He writes, interestingly, but not very informatively for our current purpose:

"Viuola, Viola de bracio: that is Violino da brazzo; called a Geige or a fiddle by common folk, and is called "da bracio" because it is held on the arm. The bass-, tenor- and descant- violin (called Violino or Violetta piccolo, or Rebecchino) are strung with 4 strings; the very smallest (called in French the Pochetto) with three, and they are all tuned in fifths. And because everybody knows about these instruments (apart from the fact that when they are strung with brass and steel strings they produce a softer and sweeter resonance than with other strings), it is unnecessary to point out or write anything more”.

Like Jambe de Fer, “on the arm”, which is exactly what we see in paintings of this period, is the key phrase.

Johann Jacob Prinner, Musicalischer Schlissel (1677)

This next source has assumed nearly statutory importance for the chin-on camp, as it states explicitly (and contrary to every other source from this period), that one should use one's chin. There are various important points about this source.

For a start, as you can see from the above example, the original manuscript is not only very difficult to decipher, but it is also written in a very strong dialect, and moreover is strange and ungrammatical within that - I have tried to give a flavour of that in my rather literal translation below. Secondly, the treatise, Musicalischer Schlissel covers much ground, of which the section on violin playing is but a small part - the whole first part is concerned with theory [counterpoint, the church modes etc], and in the second he discusses thoroughbass, counterpoint, organ-playing and includes a dictionary of musical terms. Although Prinner did play the violin, it appears he was primarily an organist. Here is Schmelzer's opinion of Prinner: “Vors erste verstehet er die Composition wol, anderten ist er ein gar gueter Org., verstehet etwas die geigen, hat wol studirt und ist ein gueter Deutscher poet.” “For a start, he understands composition well, otherwise he's a really good organist, understands something of the violin, has studied well and is a good German poet.”

Here's the relevant paragraph:

“Wan man aber diese Violine recht beherschen will, so muß man solche unter die Kinn fasßen, damit man den linken Arm holl gebogen alß wie einen räff auch mit hollgebogener handt den Halß oben bey den schrauffen zwischen den Daum lege, und mit der Kinn die Geigen souill fast halte, daß man nicht Ursache hat mit der linkhen Hand solche zu halten, weillen es sonst unmiglich währe, daß ich darmit balt hoch balt nieder lauffen und rein greiffen khundte, es seÿe dan daß man mit der rechten handt die Geigen halten müßte damit sie nicht entfalle, und dadurch etliche notten zu strichen verabsaumen wurde, unangesehn ich ansehliche Virtuosen gekhennet, welche solcheß nicht geachtet, und die Violin nur auf die Brust gesezet vermeinderendt es seÿe schen und zierliche, weillen sie eß etwan von einem Gemähl abgenommen, da der Engel dem heÿligen Franciso vorgegeigt, also gemallener gefunden, sie hätten aber wissen sollen daß der selbige maller villeciht woll khünstlich mit den bembsel aber nicht mit dem Geigen gewesen seÿe”.

“If you want to master the violin, then you must hold it under the chin so that the left arm is curved like a hoop, and also with a curved hand you should lay the neck at the top near the pegs between the thumb, and the violin must be held firmly with the chin so that you have no reason to hold it with the left hand, because it would otherwise be impossible that I could run quickly from high to low, or to play in tune, unless one held the violin with the right hand so that it didn't fall, and thereby several notes would be missed out, disregarding respected Virtuosi that I have known, who didn't observe this, and just set the violin on the breast, being of the opinion that it be nice and charming, because they took it from a painting, where the Angel plays the violin to St. Francis, created by a painter, but they should have known that this same painter might have been very artistic with his paintbrush, but not with the violin.”

Before we leave Prinner, it is perhaps worth discussing briefly who these “respected Virtuosi” might be, who, he acknowledges, play with a low (i.e. chin-off) position. We know that Prinner moved in the same circles as Biber and Schmelzer. Schmelzer, indeed, recommended Prinner for the post of Kapellmeister at the court of the Prince-Bishop of Olomouc at Kroměříž recently vacated by Biber, although in fact he was not appointed. Are these “respected Virtuosi” indeed Biber and/or Schmelzer? Certainly, Biber's music, in spite of its virtuosity and high position work is indeed manageable without the support of the chin, sufficient opportunity always being given to return to lower positions. And surely, in any case, a respected Virtuoso wouldn't simply adopt a position from a painting because it looked nice! Could it be that Prinner - who after all (according to Schmelzer) understood only “something of the violin” - needed to use his chin to shift, and therefore made a point that others should?

Subsequently we have Georg Falck, Idea boni cantoris (Nürnberg, 1688) and Daniel Merck, Compendium Musicae Instrumentalis Chelicae, (Augsburg, 1695) both apparently proposing the lower (on the chest) position:-

Falck: “[One should] place the violin on the left breast, so that it tilts slightly to the right. The two arms should absolutely not rest on the body, but should be held free from the body, so they can move easily”

Merck: “One should hold the violin nicely straight under the left breast, not resting the arm against the body but leaving it free one should also get used to a proper posture so that one doesn't stand hunched over, crooked or with bowed feet (legs?)”

Both use the German word “Brust”, which could be translated either as breast or chest. So, “on the left breast” could also be understood as “on the left side of the chest” - in any case certainly does not suggest any involving of the chin (although see Crome below). Merck's advice is also unclear in German as in English; - hübsch gerad unter der linken Brust, which could mean, “nicely, just under the left breast”, or “nicely straight, under the left breast”. This latter would fit more with Geminiani's advice, to hold the violin horizontal:

“...the Head of the Violin must be nearly Horizontal with that Part which rests against the Breast, that the Hand may be shifted with Facility and without any Danger of dropping the Instrument.”

Merck's treatise is expressly written for students and amateurs, and similarly the section on violin in Falck's treatise (mainly about singing and vocal ornamentation) is entitled “Introduction to playing the violin for beginners”. It could be, then, that neither of these tutors have anything to tell us about how the professionals of the day were playing.

And before we leave Merck, one other important observation - in the paragraph after the one just quoted he writes:

“He who still has short arms [i.e. a child] should rather have a half-violin made, for if one takes a large Violin under the chin it [i.e. a bad habit] hangs on lifelong and is a hindrance to many”

Slightly opaque phrasing (like his previously discussed hübsch gerad unter der linken Brust) - but I guess he means that attempting to learn on a too-big violin results in bad habits which can endure a lifetime. What concerns us here is his exact wording: “for if one takes a large violin under the chin” - this could mean that a child trying to hold a large violin has to put it under the chin so his arm can reach - or it could be a standard expression for playing the violin - “taking it under the chin”. If this latter, then how does that add up with “under the left breast”?

Next comes Daniel Speer, Grundrichtiger Unterricht der musikalischen Kunst (Ulm, 1697), with his frustrating but apposite observation, that you need a trusted teacher (treuer Informator) to show you how to hold the violin correctly. Once again, though, we see that expression “an die Brust ansetzen” - place it on the breast.

Now we have three sources from England. John Playford, A Breefe Introduction to the Skill of Musick was first published in London in 1654. In the revised edition of 1658 a new part was added, entitled Instructions for the Treble Violin, which opens with the wonderful phrase: “The Treble Violin is a cheerful and sprightly Instrument, and much practised of late ...” In the section entitled, “Rules to be observed by Practitioners on the Treble-Violin”, Playford gives the following directions:

“First, the Violin is usually plaid above hand, the Neck thereof being held by the left hand; the lower part thereof is rested on the left breast, a little below the shoulder”

Again, clearly proposing a chin-off technique. But perhaps it's worth mentioning that Playford himself was not a violinist, and quite where or from whom the instructions come from is not altogether clear. When we look, for example, a couple of paragraphs further at his instructions on bowing, we find they are verbatim the same instructions as for bowing on the Viol - even to the point that he confusingly gets “up” and “down” bows the wrong way round.

Next comes a wonderful description of the Italian violinist Nicola Matteis (recently arrived in England in the 1670's), by the writer, musical amateur and commentator, Roger North. He wrote:

“His [Matteis'] manner of using the violin was much out of the comon road of handling ...He was a very tall and large bodyed man, used a very long bow, [and] rested his instrument against his short ribbs...”

And elsewhere, “[he] held his instrument almost against his girdle.”

So, a very low position, but “much out of the comon road of handling” - from context (see Lenton, below) it sounds indeed like quite such a low position was by now uncommon in England. But was it representative of a norm in Italy?

Our next source is John Lenton The Gentleman's Diversion, or the Violin Explained (London, 1693). Like other tutors published around this time in England, the Gentleman's Diversion (as suggested by its title) was intended for amateurs and beginners. But at least Lenton himself was a violinist. He wrote:

“as I would have none get a habit of holding an Instrument under the Chin, so I would have them avoid placing it as low as the Girdle, which is a mongrel sort of way us'd by some in imitation of the Italians, never considering the Nature of the Musick they are to perform; but certainly for English Compositions, which generally carry a gay lively Air with them, the best way of commanding the Instrument will be to place it something higher than your Breast”

Well, he certainly does not seem enamoured of “the Italians”. Is this a general bias, or could he perhaps being referring specifically to Matteis, who was after all very prominent at this time in England. And he does seem to be advocating a slightly higher position than hitherto proposed (Prinner apart) - not “under the chin”, but “something higher than your Breast”.

As we move forward into the 18th century, the general tenor of the sources changes - essentially from chin-off to chin-on. Staying in England, we have Robert Crome, The Fiddle new Model'd, (London, c. 1735). This is an introduction to the violin (again directed at beginners and amateurs) in the form of Dialogues. As Crome says, “the Fiddle is a difficult instrument to learn, because there are no fix'd places to stop the fingers on”. His dialogues are designed to take the learner step by step through the learning process. Only towards the end of the fourth dialogue he gets to the business of holding the violin:

“Take the Fiddle and hold it in your Left Hand. Let the Neck lie between your fore Finger and Thumb, turning your Wrist, that your Fingers may lie over the Finger Board to be in readyness when you want them: then let the back part rest on your left Breast, the best way is to stay it with your Chin, that it may remain steady.”

Interesting here, is that we have the clear advice to use the chin, but we are still resting on the left Breast. Could this mean that even in the earlier treatises, a position “on the breast” does not rule out the steadying function of the chin? Unlikely, but a thought worth entertaining.

In France at the beginning of the 18th century we have two treatises. First, Michel Pignolet de Monteeclair, Méthode facile pour apprendre à jouer du violon (Paris 1711/12). This is a modest tutor, with not much more to say than quoted in my main topic. At least Monteclair was a violinist, and the treatise starts with the instructions concerning how to hold the instrument. But other than the instrument being placed “against the neck, just under the left cheek”, there is no further relevant information. Certainly such a hold will allow the use of the chin to steady the violin, but it is not mentioned specifically.

A couple of decades later comes the treatise from Michel Corette, L'école d'Orphée, méthode pour apprendre facilement à jouer du violon (Paris, 1738). This treatise is the first of seven such treatises for various instruments by Corrette, covering, violin, cello, gamba, guitar, bass (and viola) and musette. He starts with five chapters covering the principle of music (including valuable information about inegalité). And then we have the Méthode pour apprendre a joüer du violin. Here is Chapter 1 in its entirety:

Chapter I.

How to hold the Violin

One should take the neck of the violin in the left hand, holding it with the thumb and first finger, without gripping too much with the hand, round the first, second and third fingers and extend the little finger.
It is necessary to put the chin on the violin when you want to shift, this gives complete freedom to the left hand, specially when you need to return to first
[lit. ordinary] position. See the picture at the front [which I have included in Part I]

Corrette, then, regards the use of the chin as necessary for giving security to the left hand in shifting.

Only a few years later comes one of the most important sources we have, namely, The Art of Playing on the Violin, by Francesco Geminiani, (London, 1751). Geminiani was a first class violin virtuoso, teacher and composer, and his treatise carries a completely different weight to the amateur tutors that we have seen to date in England. The thing is that Geminiani's treatise is unique in recommending the chin-off position at such a late date, and very nearly on the strength of this alone we have created a whole new tradition of chin-off playing for the entire baroque period. As I hope already to have made clear, the establishment of such an exclusive technique is not really tenable on the evidence - and moreover, perhaps a couple of other points should be made. Our 20th/21st century chin-off tradition is characterised by a relaxed “violin resting on the collar bone” position - not unlike the picture of Veracini on the frontispiece of his 1744 Sonate Accademiche - but Geminiani says clearly and unequivocally, “below the collar bone”. Is our attempt at re-creating an old tradition built on sand? I particularly like one explanation of this rather surprising preposition - namely that Geminiani's grasp of the English language (as an Italian) was sufficiently poor to muddle up above with below. In any case, the treatise makes it clear that whether the violin is placed above or below the collar bone, a chin-off position was expected. The weight we give to this opinion depends on our answer to the question, is Geminiani describing accepted practice (and if so, Italian or - more likely? - English), is he a reactionary holding on to old ideals, or is he an oddball? Contemporary reports of Geminiani are mixed - it seems his style was by no means to everyone's taste - this for example from Hawkins:

“It is much to be doubted whether the talents of Geminiani were of such a kind as qualified him to give a direction to the national taste;”

The Art of Playing on the Violin is too important to be ignored, but it must be read in acknowledgement of Geminiani's place in musical life.

Next, chronologically, comes, Leopold Mozart, Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule (English: A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing), Augsburg, 1756. This, quite probably, is the most important treatise in understanding and coming to terms with mid-18th century violin-playing style. Leopold Mozart was a serious and perceptive musician, and his writing and advice is clear and precise. He is particularly clear about holding the violin, so much so that I have already quoted the relevant material in Part I. Most important to point out here, is that the chin-off position was known to Mozart, and was presumably still current. He does not exclude it as a possible technique, only pointing out that long practice is needed to master it, and indicating a clear preference for chin-on.

Joseph Herrando, Arte y puntual explicación del modo de tocar el violín (Paris, 1756).

Quite little is known about the Spanish violinist, Joseph (José) Herrando. It's possible that he studied with Corelli, he performed and composed for the court in Madrid, and his Treatise on violin playing, published in Paris, was the first such work in Spanish. We seem to know nothing about its distribution and influence.

The last “baroque” treatise is Abbé le fils, Principes du Violon, (Paris 1761). Like Geminiani and Leopold Mozart, this is a major and signifiant work, telling us much about the current state of violin technique. In fact, it consists more of music than text, but nonetheless is full of useful information. Of relevance and interest here is not so much that the chin should be used (that is by now perhaps to be expected) - but that it should be rested on the side of the fourth string, that is the G-string, to the left of the tailpiece. This is the very first treatise to mention this position which has today become the standard.

As a postscript, it is perhaps interesting to look briefly forward into the classical era with Francesco Galeazzi's Elementi Teorico-Pratici di Musica (Rome. 1791). Galeazzi writes, as his first rule on holding the violin (which comes, as ever, after a long section on the basics of music):

“Place the chin on the left side of the violin, that is to say on the G-string side immediately next to the tailpiece, and not on the opposite side.” And immediately following: “Furthermore this position [chin on the e-string side] is unattractive and causes those ridiculous contortions all too characteristic of those who hold the violin so.”

So even at the end of the 18th century, although the chin has firmly approached the violin, the whole issue seems still to be a matter of some controversy and heated rhetoric!

Sources on the Internet:

... a list of what is openly available on the internet - simply click on the link description after the source name and the source, or link direct to it, will open in a new window

© Copyright 2011-2020 by Richard Gwilt and Irmgard Schaller. All Rights Reserved.