October 1997 Issue 25
Hearing the Original Instrument
This article is based on a talk which Robert Barclay gave to the V&A on 1 May 1997 as part of the V&A Conservation Colloquia.
It is commonplace that the great bowed string instruments of Cremona, made during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, continue in use in the hands of fortunate virtuosi. It is also commonplace to restore historic musical instruments to playing condition so that the music of earlier periods can be explored. There are three categories of treatment for an historic musical instrument: the instrument can be maintained it in its current playing state, it can be restored to a conjectured previous condition, or it can be preserved in the condition in which it now stands, unplayable but with the unique information it possesses intact. These categories are termed here currency, restitution and preservation, and each possesses unique features that characterise it.
Currency is concerned with keeping the valuable aesthetic and historical qualities of the instrument alive through a continual process of playing, repair, restoration and improvement. It is seen most clearly in the treatment of early violins, especially those of the Cremona school, some of which have been in constant playing condition for over three centuries. Three axioms should be kept in mind:
1. Playing necessitates repair and maintenance
2. Fashions change
3. 'History' is selective
The following paragraphs offer a deconstruction of a classic Italian violin in the form in which it has come down to us today (Figure 1).
- The neck angle of the violin changed radically at the end of the eighteenth century in response to musical fashions. The neck angle evolved as it was adjusted to support the higher string tension demanded of a louder instrument. Usually, the neck was replaced and the original scroll spliced onto it. During this process the string length was increased by up to half an inch. The bridge was required to be much higher to complement the increased neck angle.
- The top block1 was removed and replaced to allow the new neck to be set in, instead of nailed flush as was traditional. The bottom block and corner blocks were often removed, sometimes temporarily, but quite often replaced with enlarged ones.
- The fingerboard became progressively longer in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the range of the instrument was increased as far as possible. The old fingerboard was removed and a new one glued on. Fingerboards wear out and are either planed down or replaced on a regular basis.
- Changes within the instrument were the most far-reaching in terms of acoustics. The bass bar, which lies under the bass side of the bridge, was removed and a much larger one inserted. The soundpost, which lies under the treble side of the bridge, became thicker.
The third axiom, '"history" is selective', refers to all the social and intellectual transactions that surround objects of cultural value. There is a natural winnowing process where good is preserved and improved, while irretrievably bad is discarded. And the result is a highly selected and refined sample; 'improved' in the case of violins by generations of restorers and connoisseurs to the point where distinctions become blurred or lost. The violins of Cremona, happening to respond magnificently to changes their makers could never have anticipated, gained prominence. The result is that the entire mechanical and acoustic character is utterly transformed, to the extent that it can be regarded as a new instrument.
Restitution, on the other hand, attempts to return the instrument to a previously understood condition. An argument articulated in the field of restoration is that only by being returned to a previous functional state can an historic musical instrument justify its continuing existence. If it is silent by policy, it can no longer be regarded as a musical instrument. An untreated and dilapidated musical instrument has lost all point to its existence. Thus, if enough information exists concerning the early history of an instrument, it is possible to return it to a previous state in order to learn from it. By measurement, by comparison and by the study of relevant historical sources it is possible to establish a definitive state.
The term 'restitution' is used to describe this activity of reinstating a previous condition because the word restore is problematic. The Oxford English Dictionary defines restore as 'To bring back to the original state; to improve, repair, or retouch (a thing) so as to bring it back to its original condition.' Even in the mid-nineteenth century, Ruskin had referred to restoration as a lie, and we know now that it is, in fact, physically impossible. However, in the nineteenth century 'to restore' contained much more of the flavour of maintaining currency, of keeping in good condition. If there was ever an intention to return an object to an imagined previous condition, it was overlaid by a very confident and long-standing craftsmanly aesthetic.
The effectiveness of restoration to an assumed previous condition is based upon two interlocking assumptions: that all the necessary information to effect the transformation exists, and that the resulting transformation will, indeed, restore the lost character of the instrument. Modern historical thinking, and experience with past restoration attempts, show that neither of these assumptions is tenable. The restored instrument becomes a modern facsimile of the original in its essential mechanical and acoustic features.
The above are the two categories of functioning instruments - currency and restitution. It is clear that the instrument, either returned to some earlier condition or continuing in daily use, can say nothing meaningful about the same instrument when new. Minute adjustments to the set-up of an instrument have profound consequences to the action and tone quality, so on-going repair, maintenance, and restoration over centuries will have a concomitant effect. Any trace of the original set-up and acoustic spectrum must have been totally obliterated. The contention, therefore, that listening to the original instrument provides any information about its past performance is simply not tenable.
The third category, preservation, encompasses museum conservation of musical instruments. Application of conservation standards implies silence because, firstly, bringing the instrument into working condition requires intervention and secondly use of the instrument incurs a falsified interpretation. The dilemma of any caretaker of historic musical instruments is in reconciling these views with the prevalent and quite justifiable desire to bring the instruments out of their dusty display cases and let them sing. What must be found within conservation is a workable contextualism: a reestablishment of the boundaries between the three kinds of activity outlined here. The status of a particular musical instrument must be based upon its unique value as a carrier of aesthetic and technical information, and how best that information is expressed and exploited. In the case of the violin illustrated above, the decision is comparatively easy. These working instruments have had so much done to them, over such a long period of time, that they are virtually copies of themselves, and they should continue in the traditional role that has been assigned to them.
A key future role of museum conservators of musical instruments will be to show to the museum and concert-going public that there can, indeed, be a real working space where all aspects of the musical instrument - aesthetic, historical, social and technical - are weighed and evaluated in their context before action is taken.
1. The blocks are reinforcements inside the body of the violin, placed between the sides and the top and bottom plates. There is one at the top of the instrument where the neck is attached, one at the bottom where the tailpin is set in, and four at the sides above and below each bout (or inward curve).