Some Thoughts from a Switch-hitter:

Baroque/Modern/Cape Breton

Violin and Bow Talk


by David Greenberg

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from Silver Apple News, November 2000


Sometimes when I pull out my baroque violin at a concert or music session, people ask how it's different from a modern violin. Here are some answers....

The modern violin is under more tension than the baroque violin, for various reasons: the neck is angled more sharply, the pieces of wood that help the vibrations get where they need to go are smaller or thinner (i.e., bridge, sound post, bass bar), and the strings are tuned higher (standard modern pitch is a half-tone higher than standard baroque pitch). The result of this tension difference is a difference in the force necessary to make the violin come alive. The baroque violin responds to the slightest touch, and incredibly subtle nuances are possible at a quiet-to-moderate dynamic range. But on the other hand, the sound 'breaks' past a certain force of playing. The modern violin needs more force to get a good-sounding response. Subtle nuances are possible at moderate-to-loud dynamic range, but as you play softer, the sound becomes hoarse (not enough force to get a good tone). However, on a modern violin you can use just about as much force as you can crank out, which in most non-classical venues is not nearly enough! It's almost always amplified to sound exponentially louder than its acoustic potential, in today's public traditional music events.

Early bows (1600-1750) have no standard length, but they are all shorter than modern bows. They are less cambered or non-cambered (i.e., not curved towards the hair in the middle of the bow), and they taper off to a point at the tip of the bow. The lighter weight of the early bow, due to less wood at the tip and shorter length, matches the lighter touch needed to make the baroque violin awaken.

Transitional bows (1725-1800) are somewhere in between baroque and modern bows in construction. Modern bows (1800-present) have a standard length (longer) and a standard shape within subtly different styles of bow making. They are cambered more (have an increased curve toward the hair in middle of bow) and have an elbow at the tip of the bow. There is also a metal ferrule at the frog and metal in the tightening screw. The heavier weight matches the heavier touch needed to make the modern violin resonate.

There are differences in playing techniques between baroque and modern violin. On a baroque violin, lots of energy and intensity can be used, and since the baroque violin reacts to light touches, much baroque music involves lightening-fast bowing and articulation. For slower passages, the baroque player is mostly 'coasting' or 'hanging' the bow lightly on the string, moving the bow just fast enough to keep the desired sound going. It is mainly the start of the stroke that gets pressure/weight/thrust, and an immediate release of pressure is required following nearly all bowstroke beginnings. Obviously, on a modern violin, lots of energy and intensity can be used as well, but since the modern violin reacts to heavy touches, most of the time the player is 'digging in' with the bow more often and more continuously.

How about holding the different violins and bows? A baroque violin is held balanced between the top of the collar bone (note no chinrest!) and the left hand. The great freedom of motion that this hold makes available works well with the light touch required. Conversely, a modern violin usually is more 'wedged in' under the chin or left jaw and shoulder, often with the aid of a shoulder rest. The tighter hold works for the heavier touch/force needed. Finally, the baroque bow is held loosely with right wrist bent up, while the modern bow is held not so loosely with the right wrist straighter. Of course, folk fiddle players often develop their own way of holding the violin and bow that is often very personalized!

Don't forget that in the baroque era, the folk violinists used baroque violins and bows, and gut strings. I find that the accents, ornaments, bowstrokes, and articulations that make the Cape Breton style so spirited and heartfelt can be accomplished on the baroque violin setup using much less force. Only... it's better suited to a living room rather than a modern dance hall.


David Greenberg has made four recordings as the featured fiddler:

With Puirt a Baroque (1995-1998)

  1. Bach Meets Cape Breton
  2. Kinloch's Fantasy
  3. Return of the Wanderer

His latest album is with Cape Breton pianist Doug MacPhee:

Over the years he also appeared on dozens of recordings with Tafelmusik and other baroque ensembles. Many of these CDs are on the Marquis label.

In 1996, David, and his wife Kate Dunlay, published The Traditional Celtic Violin Music of Cape Breton DunGreen Collection

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last upddate 11/3/2000