Exploring Historical Nuance in the Festival Orchestra

A Boulder Bach Festival patron recently asked me about our May 23, 2019 program, and if there is a substantial difference in the set up of the string instruments between the Haydn symphony and the Chopin concerto. Great question!


Popular reductionist myth in the field of early music would have us believe a simplistic view of music history. In fact, the reality is more nuanced:

In 1768 Haydn's Esterhazy orchestra used classical bows (often referred to as transitional bows) of varying designs, but by the early 1790's certain players had acquired the modern, Tourte bows, including Viotti, (Haydn's concertmaster in London during the 1794-95 season). I play a John Betts bow from the 1770's, and it already features concentric arches in the "tongue" area that are similar to father-and-son Tourte designs of the following decade. In short, the tools and stylistic changes were happening all along, within various orchestras and conservatories. Having an orchestra with all classical bows for Haydn and all modern bows for Chopin isn't an accurate picture of the performances from those composers' lifetimes. 


By 1829 many players had acquired modern bows but many had not (including Paganini). That said, the modern bow had already become Viotti's chosen tool in the 1780's and the influence on Baillot and Kreutzer (after 1783, Viotti’s arrival in Paris), was such that it is the tool utilized throughout the Paris Conservatoire violin method book of the period, (and of course, that school of playing had a huge impact on Beethoven). In short, Viotti bridges the gap between what we now call classical and romantic period instruments, but again, those labels are too black-and-white to illustrate music history accurately, in all its crucial nuance. 


With chin rests it is the same. We won't use chin rests in May as they alter the violin tone in a way I find undesirable with gut strings, however, by 1829 chin rests were the norm. I have an original chin rest from the period, but I rarely use it as it changes the left hand relationship to the instrument in ways I certainly don't require for Haydn (nor Chopin), but I enjoy using it for Wieniawski. As late as the 1920's a few professional violinists still preferred to play without them, (evidenced in a Flonzaley Quartet interview and elsewhere).


The decision to play our concert at A=430 has to do with the period winds in the Haydn as much as it does with the 1845 Érard, which is most harmonious at that pitch level. Making practical decisions is perhaps the most authentic practice of all. 


Another classic example of a misreading of history that has turned into historical performance dogma is notion that the violin metal wire E string was invented during WWI. In fact, violin soloist Marie Tayeau used steel E and A strings in 1876 and probably long before, (well within Brahms’s lifetime).


Suffice it to say, the art form has always been living, breathing, changing. The best way to look at the instruments and how they were played is to embrace the complexity that comes with reading a multitude of primary sources that are often in opposition with one another! And of course, the musical score communicates with our intellect in a manner that illuminates the elements in the score, and the work as a whole. 


In May, our orchestra will include the diversity that is representative of orchestral playing from 1768 to 1829, the years of the Haydn and Chopin works we will perform. Classical necks, romantic necks, gut strings, transitional bows, Tourte model bows, cellos without end pins, etc… Just as music was in transition from the sturm und drang works of Haydn to the unabashedly romantic concertos of Chopin, our Festival Orchestra will reflect that transition in the style and esthetic we seek to communicate.