The Second Revolution in the History of the Violin: A Twentieth-Century Phenomenon

October 1, 1977

The materials and conclusions of this article1 are based upon many years of practice and experimentation on violins strung as they had been before 1920, with E, A, and D strings of pure gut and conventional G string overspun with silver wire. The bows have been the type in common use, the model perfected by François Tourte in the late 18th century. While I have at various times had the opportunity to practice on and experiment with so-called baroque violins and with authentic 18th-century bows, I am not concerned here with the older instrument nor the old bows, but with the modernized instrument, one that might well be referred to as the 19th-century violin, played with its perfect counterpart, the Tourte-model bow. The old recordings cited below to reinforce my conclusions were part of a separate and more recent study done to test the validity of the practical decisions which had been made with violin in hand.

The first revolution in the history of the violin has been well and amply documented. It took place during the late years of the 18th century and was more or less coincidental with the introduction of the Tourte bow. The violin neck was lengthened and tilted back so that the fingerboard rose at a sharper angle, leading to a higher bridge and consequently greater tension of the strings. As a result, the bass-bar had to be enlarged to help support the greater pressure on the belly of the instrument. These changes in the violin were clearly related to the greater sostenuto, larger scale of dynamics, and more vigorous style of bowing made possible by the new bow. The interdependence of composer, performer, and instrument may be made clear with a minimal number of examples: (1) without the new bow and concomitant changes in the violin the long sustained melodies and the more heavily accented and dynamic style of the 19th century (both solo and orchestral) could hardly have been achieved; (2) without the longer thinner neck (relieved of the old thick wedge between neck and fingerboard) and the longer fingerboard, Paganini's dazzling virtuosity would most certainly have been limited to some extent.

While the first revolution changed some of the internal and external fittings of the violin, the body of the instrument, as perfected by the great masters before 1750, remained unchanged. Among the external fittings of the 18th-century violin, the E, A, and D strings were of pure gut. The G string, made by winding fine wire around a thin gut core, had been introduced during the first half of the 18th century. While its use may have been sporadic for a long time, there can be little doubt that the wire-wound G was well established fairly early in the 19th century when almost all old violins had been refitted to the new standards. And such was the violin and set of strings that lasted through the 19th and into the 20th century: a violin that conformed to the new standards of longer neck and higher bridge, strung with three strings of pure gut and a silver- or copper-wound G.

The 20th-century revolution made no changes in the body of the violin or in the wooden fittings; the only change was in the strings. This second revolution started very slowly in the early years of the century and reached its crisis about 1923 with the adoption of the steel-wire E string by professional violinists at every level. A few concert artists had adopted the steel E during the years of World War I, especially those who toured in the United States where fine Italian gut strings were no longer available. There were a few violinists who "on account of excessive perspiration" used the steel E in the very early years of the century.2 While an undue amount of perspiration is likely to affect any gut string, the E, the thinnest and most tense, is most easily destroyed. Thus, the steel E was used in isolated cases before World War I, by some violinists during the war years, and by almost every professional after the early 1920s.

As an explanation for replacing the gut E string, it was said that the steel E sounded "almost the same" and was "more reliable" for numerous reasons. There are two questions: (1) What does "almost the same" mean in terms of any art—in this case, in terms of niceties of style and interpretation of music written between 1780 and 1920 by composers who had the sounds of gut strings in their ears? (2) What is the value of the efficiency found in a "more reliable" string which supposedly changes the tone color only slightly, and yet opens the way to further string changes and finally to a complete subversion of the earlier tone colors?

It was a short step from the acceptance of the wire E string to the use of the D string with gut core wound in aluminum wire; and that was followed by the introduction of sets of all-metal strings, not only for the violin but also for the viola and cello.3 While the all-steel combination was not welcomed by everyone, it was used for a time by several leading artists. It was finally proven unfeasible (at least for professionals) when priceless instruments began to buckle under the unrelenting pressure of the steel. During the mid-1930s many violinists thought they had made an ideal compromise when they used a steel E, an A with steel core wrapped in thin aluminum ribbon, a D of gut core wrapped in aluminum wire, and the usual G of gut core overspun with silver wire. Still, the pressure of the steel E and A strings was, in most cases, too much for good instruments.

However, for the player, there was no turning back: violinists who had played on steel wires and covered strings could no longer produce professionally satisfactory sounds from strings of pure gut. Since that had all been "drawn in" by one "practical" string after another, their technical styles had changed to a greater or lesser extent, both in the application of the fingers and of the bow. Proper performance, on gut once again, would have required an extensive period of mental and physical retraining, something that was hardly possible when most had a day-to-day living to be earned, and some, international reputations to guard. Some hardy souls continued to use a pure gut A string on the violin, and a minimal number have never given it up. In spite of the fact that the pure gut A is a strange neighbor to a steel E and an aluminum-wound D, it still helps the violin retain some of its original tone color. Today the standard stringing for almost every professional is the steel E, either a steel A or an A with gut or nylon core wound in aluminum wire, a similar aluminum-wound D, and a G wound in silver wire.

There has been, in this second revolution, a cumulative effect, not only the minimal but clearly discernible change when a pure gut string was replaced by an aluminum-covered one, but also a series of other changes, effected by the artist's response to what the string offered him. Interaction between the artist and his medium of performance can hardly be discounted.

Since there has been so little support during the past half century for the presumably old-fashioned idea of using gut strings on the modern violin (almost none from the professional violinists), perhaps the statements of two eminent British authorities should be considered here. Thurston Dart said: "The true gut-string tone of a violin is now as obsolete as the tone of a crumhorn or regal."4 Cecil Forsyth, referring to the standard gut strings of his time, wrote in 1914:

Perhaps the best explanation of the fiddle-quality is connected with the material of which the strings are made. These, owing to their extreme lightness, are rich in harmonics which, in their turn, are quickly damped out by the low elasticity of the catgut. Thus "the ultimate quality of the note" is appreciably softened. No confusion exists. The moment the note stops all harmonics cease.5

Forsyth may truly have touched upon the most important point of all. The steel-wire or the metal-wound string announces its presence with a slight but appreciable "extra ring."

It may be that that "lingering bit of resonance" has had quite an effect on an ensemble sound and ensemble playing. When a first class string quartet today (using the conventional metal and metal-wound strings on the violins, viola, and cello) plays a four-note chord there is a homogeneous sound produced by the four instruments that may be very rich and beautiful; however, it does differ from the four perfectly matched tones of similar chords to be heard in a recording of the famous Flonzaley Quartet (playing on gut strings).

All of the records mentioned below are rare, but not so rare that they cannot be heard in many private collections, and, in most cases, procured by dealers who specialize in old recordings. I have heard each of them many times and have made every possible effort to judge tonal and other qualities as objectively as possible. In each case I shall list recording company, matrix number, and, when known, date of recording or date of first appearance in the company catalogue.

Of all the Flonzaley Quartet recordings likely to be available, I recommend most strongly the single disc recording of the first movement of the Haydn "Lark" Quartet, Op. 64, No. 5 (Victrola 74726). It appeared in the Victor Red Seal Catalogue in 1923 and was probably recorded the year before. It should prove to be a revelation to many chamber music lovers. Later recordings by the Flonzaley group are not quite as impressive; the quartet was approaching the end of a long and glorious career.

The second violin revolution is surely of no less moment than the first. The universal adoption of metal and metal-surfaced strings may have made the most drastic acoustical change in the entire history of the violin. Now that that change has been accomplished, it becomes difficult to look back beyond the years of World War I with more than an imperfect comprehension of performance practices at the turn of the century, or with any real basis for an understanding of the tone colors which were so important to the music of the Romantic Century. The literature written for the 19th-century violin, the violin "between the revolutions," includes not only Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, but also a grand virtuoso literature and a great number of genre pieces. That literature is dying, and most of the genre pieces are already gone because the typically beautiful and varied tone colors possible on the gut-strung violin have ceased to exist.

Although many of the finest professionals were being won over to the steel E between 1915 and about 1923 (by which time almost everyone had capitulated), there were, nevertheless, some strong expressions of dissent. The following are quotations from interviews published by Frederick H. Martens in 1919. David Mannes said:

. . . if Stradivarius, Guarnerius, Amati, Maggini, and others of the old-master builders of violins had ever had wire strings in view, they would have built their fiddles in accordance, and they would not be the same we now possess. First of all there are scientific reasons against using the wire strings. They change the tone of the instrument. The rigidity of tension of the wire E string where it crosses the bridge tightens up the sound of the lower strings. Their advantages are: reliability under adverse climatic conditions and the incontestable fact that they make things easier technically. They facilitate purity of intonation. Yet I am willing to forgo these advantages when I consider the wonderful pliability of the gut strings for which Stradivarius built his violins. I can see the artistic retrogression of those who are using the wire E, for when materially things are made easier, spiritually there is a loss. . . .6

Tivadar Nachez said:

. . . I cannot use the wire strings that are now in such vogue here. I have to have Italian gut strings. The wire E cuts my fingers, and besides I notice a perceptible difference in sound quality. Of course wire strings are practical; they do not 'snap' on the concert stage. . . .7

Toscha Seidel said:

. . . As to wire strings, I hate them! In the first place, a wire E sounds distinctly different to the artist than does a gut E. And it is a difference which any violinist will notice. Then, too, the wire E is so thin that the fingers have nothing to take hold of, to touch firmly. And to me the metallic vibrations, especially on the open strings, are most disagreeable. Of course, from a purely practical standpoint, there is much to be said for the wire E. . . .8

There were others who sang the praises of the wire E string, usually emphasizing that it was unaffected by humidity, stayed well in tune, and seldom snapped on stage.

As noted above, the change from pure gut to various steel or wire-wound strings was a one-way process. The player who returned to gut after using metal strings found that he produced a weak or inadequate sound; and, if he tried for greater volume, his tone became scratchy. Not surprisingly, there have been some otherwise intelligent musicians who rationalized that gut strings had always been small in tone and probably scratchy, but no one had realized those facts in the "old days" because "they had never heard anything better."

Nothing said here is meant to belittle the artists of our own time. They play differently because the strings they use respond differently. Well-planned and deeply felt interpretations are not lacking. What is missing is the necessary variety of tone color for the romantic music and the purity of sound of the gut. Properly produced, the tone of a modern long-necked violin strung with gut is unusually pure throughout the entire dynamic range from pp to ff. That type of purity should be considered indispensable for music of the classic period, and for baroque music too, if one plays it on a modern violin.

Since violin style has changed so drastically during the 20th century, perhaps something should be said about the violinists' portamento, the slides used to connect some of the tones of the melodic lines. A more or less audible slide has always been a matter of taste; the shift, on the other hand, refers to a change of position, executed as nearly inaudibly as possible. There is no question that some of the older violinists made greater use of the portamento or slide than do any of the violinists living today. Changes of musical taste over a period of years cannot be disregarded. However, the following may be a large part of the total explanation. The well-executed portamento on a pure gut string in a romantic legato melody played in a large hall may have been fairly unobtrusive and entirely in place as it emulated vocal style; a portamento done in the same way on an aluminum-wound string stands out too obviously and may be objectionable. The present-day violinist who shifts nimbly from tone to tone, with only an occasional suggestion of a slide, does not necessarily have better taste than Joachim or Ysaÿe had; it is more likely that he is accepting the possibilities and limitations of his medium—doing what he can most artistically with the steel and aluminum strings under his fingers.

The masterworks of the violin literature will last; they have much to offer even if the metal-strung violin tone color should become monotonous. However, the lesser works and genre pieces are important, many for their own sakes, almost all for a knowledge of the performance practices of their era. Left-hand pizzicato, artificial harmonics, and one-finger glissandos may seem like juggler's tricks—probably no one would have invented them for metal strings; on gut they have some quality to commend them.

The earliest flat-disc recordings made by a world-famous violinist were those of Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908), recorded shortly after the turn of the century. Although the original discs are extremely rare, it is fortunate that in the late 1950s a single LP was issued (American Stereophonic Corporation—ASCO, A-123) made up of re-recordings of a startling collection: one complete side is devoted to Sarasate, the other to rarities by Auer, Joachim, Ysaÿe, and Jan Kubelik. Of the Sarasate pieces the variations of his Caprice Basque are outstanding. The sound of the harmonics and the grace of the slide into a natural harmonic high on the E string will never be duplicated on a wire string. As for the passages of left-hand pizzicato, one can hardly refrain from saying that the present-day virtuoso produces pitches; on gut strings Sarasate produced music. The E string tone is notable, both in the technical passages of Caprice Basque and Zigeunerweisen, and in the legato melody of an arrangement of a Chopin nocturne.

A few years after the Sarasate recordings, Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), almost too old to play, recorded two of his arrangements of Brahms' Hungarian Dances (opposite side of the same LP). A tremendously solid, rich tone, almost no vibrato, and a lesson in 19th-century Hungarian style is presented in about five minutes of recorded music. It is comforting to know that Joachim, leader of a most famous quartet, performer of the Beethoven Concerto and the Bach Solo Sonatas, and advisor to Brahms in the writing of the solo part of his violin concerto, was not above giving his best in his extreme old age to a few genre pieces.

In 1912 Eugen Ysaÿe (1858-1931) recorded eleven short pieces for Columbia Records. They were the only commercial recordings he ever made. Some of the old discs are still available but most are in very poor condition. Fortunately, a complete set in good condition was transferred to a single LP disc in 1963 (Delta Record Company Ltd., London—TQD 3033).9 Ysaÿe was the last world-famous violinist to play on gut E, A, and D strings throughout his active career. His was one of the purest and yet most sensuous tones produced by any violinist. Good examples of that tone quality on the three upper pure gut strings may be heard in his recording of Wilhelmj's arrangement of the Prize Song from Die Meistersinger and also in the arrangement of Wagner's Albumblatt. In some of the other pieces there is a special verve, technically the result of a magnificent bowing style. He could obviously attack the gut strings to get whatever accentuation he wished; and with no worry at all about the strings buckling under the pressure of his bow or producing the faintest scrape or scratch. In fact, none of the artists who recorded on gut seemed to have had any problems with purity of sound. In Caprice Basque, Sarasate hammered out triple-stops with the greatest clarity, sounding all three tones at once. Joachim, old as he was, had no trouble with strongly accented double-stops and chords.

Of the violinists younger than Ysaÿe, only very early recordings made when they were still using gut E strings will be mentioned. Two recordings by Mischa Elman, one made when he was fifteen years old, the other made at the age of twenty-one, demonstrate clearly why he achieved the fame he had during the years before the first World War. These recordings substantiate everything that was ever said about his style or about the famous "Elman tone," described at one time by an older generation as the most beautiful violin tone ever produced. The first Elman recording is of Saint-Saens' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, truncated to fit one side of a disc (Victrola 74165, 1907); the other is the Cavatina, Op. 85, No. 3, by Joachim Raff (Victrola 74336, May 1914).

There is one early recording by Efrem Zimbalist which is remarkable in its purity of tone, most especially in a long passage of double-stopsLégende by Henri Wieniawski (Victor 74337).

No recordings by Fritz Kreisler or by Jascha Heifetz may be suggested. In each case, the earliest commercial recordings seem to have been made with steel E, gut A, and gut D.

Now that modern violin methods have helped to solve all technical problems for the most talented of the younger generation of virtuosos, a new challenge arises: how to get the variety of tone color, the necessary bravura, and the proper sentiment back into performances of the violin music of the 19th century. Careful listening to the recordings discussed above may persuade many that a good approximation of 19th-century style may never be achieved on metal strings.

1This article expands upon ideas originally expressed in a lecture-demonstration given by the author at the Smithsonian Institution in November of 1974, for the meetings of the AMS.

2Carl Flesch, The Art of Violin Playing, revised edition (New York, 1939), Vol. 1, fn., p. 11.

3In more recent years complete sets of all-steel strings have become standard for professional double bass players.

4Thurston Dart, The Interpretation of Music (London, 1955), p. 33.

5Cecil Forsyth, Orchestration, 2nd edition (London/New York, 1941), p. 305 (1st edition, 1914).

6Frederick H. Martens, Violin Mastery: Talks with Master Violinists and Teachers (New York, 1919), pp. 157-58.

7Ibid., p. 172.

8Ibid., pp. 225-26.

9The original list first appeared in the Columbia Record Catalogue of 1913. The eleven pieces are on ten single discs. The matrix numbers are: 36513, -14, -16, -19, -20, -21, -23, -24, and 36525.

5115 Last modified on November 12, 2018