Neck grafts obliterate all evidence of where the original fingerboard ended on an early instrument, and finding original necks on mainstream violins of the past is a very difficult, making meaningful interpretation hard. Benjamin Hebbert looks at four London-made violins from 1685 to 1740 and explores what the original nut positions can tell us about playing styles of the time.
Original necks on baroque violins are very rare, especially from before about 1740, and when they do appear, they have often been re-angled and modified to a classical setup. Yet even in adapted form they can provide important evidence of original practice.
Whilst orthodox ideas of baroque necks maintain that they are “always shorter” – an absolutely false notion – there is no discussion hitherto about the relation of the “nut” (the raised bit at the end of the fingerboard) and the pegbox. This is important because it establishes the positioning of the hand on the fingerboard.
All four photographs below are from original necks, although they have all been raised and re-angled in the late eighteenth-century with solid ebony “classical” fingerboards. In each case, the nut is positioned at the end of the pegbox trench, so its positioning is original and undisturbed. The placement is such that with a standard length of nut, the forward edge sits immediately above the “chin” at the bottom of the pegbox. This is exactly the modern specification, and is also found in the few original Cremonese necks that survive from Amati and Stradivari instruments.
All four necks are from violins by mainstream London makers, so there is no question of amateur or regional workmanship. The Robert Cuthbert is a near-copy of a Nicolo Amati, and the Joseph Collingwood is deeply indebted to Daniel Parker’s interpretations of the Stradivari long pattern (for those who are observant, it is the original neck, the sides of the pegbox have been re-cheeked).
Over the years I have occasionally seen violins made in England and elsewhere in from the late seventeenth century or the early eighteenth century with similar nut placement. My theory born out by experiment, is that this has an advantage when playing the violin on the arm. This method of playing results in the wrist tipping back a little, and as a result the fingers pointing forwards as they form around the neck of the instrument, falling a little higher up the fingerboard than a violin with the usual setup. Hence the semitone difference in length has a pronounced advantage. Without having to twist the hand, the thumb naturally sits prominently along the edge of the fingerboard – another characteristic found in old paintings.
The difference in nut positions can be compared to minor changes in the technology of flutes and other instruments where the minor addition of another key or similar can make significant differences in terms of repertoire and range. My hypothesis, based on the very few examples I have seen, is to suggest that it is a nascent element of earlier English (or Northern European) violin playing that endured as late as the 1720s when Joseph Collingwood made this violin. Performers wishing to play in this style should take note, because many of the challenges of stretching back with the hand are relieved by the strings starting further up the neck, so experimenting with this technique without the appropriate setup may be adding unnecessary difficulty to your performance.
Taste in violin playing seems to have been divided in England in the late seventeenth century. On one side, there seems to have been a taste for traditional English tunes, and divisions on a ground, in a world where John Bannister and Davis Mell were considered the greatest musicians of their age. The other side, as exemplified best by Nicola Matteis’ reception in England was for Italian music with the affectations that came with it, and he attracted aristocrats and members of the wealthy merchant class as his students. The idea of different styles of playing existing concurrently, with instruments made to suit is not far-fetched to my mind. Robert Cuthbert’s violin of 1685 is an impeccable Nicolo Amati copy right down to the shaping of the neck and position of the nut. He was sufficiently integrated into promoting the new Italian fashions that Nicola Cosimi purchased violins from him in 1705 on the eve of his return to Italy.
Nothing is straightforward however, and before assuming there is a simple answer, there are two Stainer violins with their original necks from 1668 and 1679. Here the nut position is proportionately further back from the chin of the pegbox. Whether this appeals more to the stretches required in Biber, Walther, Schmelzer and Bach, as opposed to the fast passage work of the Italian style, is perhaps something worth thought and exploration. The chin of the pegbox always delineates the furthest back position of the hand, and these variations of nut design all seem intended to find the optimal position for the fingers to rest over the fingerboard depending on fashions of holding the violin.
These incremental differences seem trivial to the point of pedantry, but they make an enormous effect on playing. More experimentation by musicians will be much appreciated and worthwhile, but as these English examples seem to demonstrate, the variety of playing styles found in any one place seems to have been varied.