Find out more about some of the Baroque instruments played by our ensemble in our new series, Bach’s Band. Our first post is by Aliye Cornish on the Baroque viola!
What are the essential features and sound of the Baroque viola?
The Baroque viola occupies a warm middle space in the spectrum of the orchestral sound. We share the lower end of our pitch with the high end of the cello, and the high end of our pitch aligns with the lower end of the violin. It has softness and warmth to it because of the gut strings. The pitch range makes it rather more mellow than the violin.
How does the Baroque viola differ from its modern successor?
Unlike its modern counterpart, the Baroque viola has quite a short fingerboard, and some models are surprisingly broad across the tailpiece, taking inspiration from early pioneers such as Amati. We don’t use modern ‘scaffolding’ on Baroque violas generally speaking – no chin rests or shoulder rests for us! For comfort, players will employ a piece of chamois leather laid on the instrument for the chin, or a little bit of sponge to help the instrument to sit more naturally.
How did Bach write for the Baroque viola?
Bach’s writing for the Baroque viola is always more nuanced than a third violin part. Think of the opening bars of the St John Passion for example. In the fifth bar the viola part joins the moving semiquavers, and immediately there is more depth and strength to the sound. Or the Qui Tollis in the B Minor Mass, where the sighs and wails of the quavers in the viola part are plaintive and visceral.
It strikes me that Bach really knew what the viola could do, and made the most of the colours that it could offer. We don’t always have the most important part by any means, but when we do you know that it’s a real gift!
Why is it important for Baroque instruments to be used when performing Bach’s work?
When teaching Bach to pupils on modern instruments sometimes I will get them to try with a Baroque bow. The most common response when I ask them for their observations on the experience is ‘it just works’. With that in mind let’s look at the bow first. The weight is in the lower half, with the point shaped so finely that with some of them you really want to make sure that you are keeping a safe distance from your colleagues. The consequence of this weighting is that bow strokes are shaped differently. It’s very difficult to play a slur through the whole bow where you would sustain all of the notes equally.
When using gut strings, a ‘sweetness’ to the sound is achieved which you really don’t get in the same way with modern strings. We don’t generally use vibrato on Baroque instruments as vibrato was initially only ever conceived of as an ornament; a little golden crown to be bestowed on only the most special of notes. Over time it became the trend to use it more widely. Consequently with Baroque ensembles you hear a sound that is purer and cleaner.
Any final thoughts on the viola?
We’ll never know for sure of course if we are playing in the way that Bach would have expected. We don’t even know if the initial performances of his big works in Leipzig were quite as he expected! But using the most appropriate equipment that we can, and taking the dots off the page to speak his musical language based on contemporary treatises and sources, at least gives us a strong foundation.