Two reconstructions: an Afro-American proto-banjo and a tackhead minstrel banjo
The banjo originated in West Africa. Close to sixty different plucked instrument types are related to this symbol of American culture, all with long necks passing through the body and under the skin head. The percussive West African playing style as well is reflected in the "clawhammer stroke" style of American banjo picking. The instruments were brought to the Americas by African slaves and have been in use in the Caribbean since the seventeenth century. The earliest eighteenth-century written references to the banjo in America describe it as an instrument with a gourd body, covered with animal skin or hide, a fretless neck and strings, played mainly by slaves, but also by white indentured servants living in close quarters with slaves. A few works of art and one or two extant instruments provide a slightly more detailed image: the proto-banjo had four strings, one being shorter, just like with some old African precursors.
Like many things in music, white people “stole” and adapted this instrument to their own needs. Beginning in the 1830s, Joel Walker Sweeney, who had learned to play from African Americans in Virginia, made the banjo popular on both sides of the Atlantic. His followers often imitated and ridiculized black musicians and their accents in minstrel and other shows. Banjos soon changed from purely homemade folk instruments, with skin heads attached to gourds or to easy-to-find wooden boxes such as grain measures and the like, into instruments of a more modern style and construction. A fifth string was added on the treble side. The instrument in this collection, like many “minstrel” banjos, has a number of "violin" features, such as a flat scroll-and-pegbox-shaped headstock, a short ebony violin-type of tailpiece, and wooden friction violin pins.
The bandura, an instrument of Ukrainian nationalism.
Although this curious plucked string instrument has a separate neck, the bandura in its present form stands closer to the zithers than to the lutes. Most of the sound box extends under the strings, which are not shortened. Around 1700 this folk instrument, also called “kobza”, resembled the lute and had 5 to 12 strings. In the 20th century, the number of strings increased, initially to 31 strings, and later up to 65. Stalin tried to ban this national symbol of Ukraine with bloody repression. In the 1930s, Soviet authorities took measures to control and curtail aspects of Ukrainian culture they considered unsuitable. This also included any interest in the bandura. Whereas in the early 1930s those incriminated received relatively light sentences of 2 to 5 years, in the period starting with 1937-38, the sentences were often fatal and immediate: death by shooting. In recent years evidence has emerged, pointing to an event in 1934 held in Kharkiv, the Ukrainian capital at that moment. Around 300 itinerant, often blind street musicians from all over the country were invited to attend an “ethnographic conference”. All were subsequently executed as unwanted elements in the new Soviet Society. The instrument however survived the Second World War and has been further developed and cherished ever since as a symbol of Ukrainian nationalism.
The instrument from 1993 presented here is a Kyiv-style “Prima” bandura, the most common type in use today in Ukraine. It has 55 metal strings: 12 basses and 43 treble strings, tuned chromatically through 5 octaves, without retuning mechanisms.
Mute violin-silent violin.
The mute violin is a bowed string instrument without or with a very shallow sound box. It has a quiet, lean sound so it can be used for practice in environments where a conventional violin is too loud. It’s been in use since the seventeenth century, and Leopold Mozart made mention of the instrument in his “Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule” first published in Augsburg in 1756. From the twentieth century on, mute violins provided with electronics were produced, and towards the end of the century Yamaha introduced the ‘silent violin’, which can be connected to a pair of headphones, an amplifier or recording equipment. To avoid feedback from the resonances of the hollow body under high amplification on stage, most electric or silent violins have solid bodies, often in a non-traditional, minimalistic design to keep weight down. Lately materials such as kevlar, glass and carbon fibres have been applied. Acoustic violins can also be “electrified” using an add-on piezo-electric bridge pickup, or a magnetic pickup attached to the fingerboard end. Alternatively, an electrodynamic pickup can be installed under an acoustic violin's fingerboard avoiding interference with any tone-producing parts of the violin, and therefore keeping its acoustic resonances and tone intact.
The mute violin on the left, most probably made in Germany during the nineteenth century, has a body consisting of two small closed resonating chambers, connected to each other by a long narrow open-worked wooden beam. The pegbox is crowned by a lion’s head and the tailpiece is decorated with a small circle and a shield in mother of pearl. The electric violin on the right has a piezo-electric pickup on a guitar-shaped "semi-hollow" body, with both a top and a back in flamed maple. The sealed but hollow resonating chamber provides some approximation of the acoustic violin sound while reducing susceptibility to feedback. The classic neck has a normal fingerboard and a pegbox terminating in a scroll.
Lira and viola da braccio.
One could say that Renaissance began with the “lira” and the “viola da braccio”. In the last quarter of the 15th century fiddles with two or more corners suddenly appear in Italian frescoes, engravings and paintings. In a minimum of time they replace the old guitar-shaped outline that dominated the four centuries before. The upper end of the previously oval pegbox is now elongated, or is replaced by the type that was already used for the rebec, with pegs inserted laterally. Is this the influence of the Spanish vihuela, which made its way through Sicily in the rest of Italy? Or were these experiments intended to bring back to life the lyre from ancient Greece and Rome? Perhaps new construction methods were discovered in which an angular outline offered advantages? In any case it all seemes just the introduction of a few new shapes. The new instruments were still played on the arm (da braccio) and the top of the bridge was still straight, so all the strings were bowed simultaneously. With the "lira da braccio", two of the usually seven strings did not run over the fingerboard, but that had been the case with medieval fiddles on occasion. More was happening to the “viola da braccio”. Soon the number of strings was reduced to three or four, and the top of the bridge was shaped in an arch so that the strings could be bowed individually. Finally, four corners were used on both sides of the constrictions in the outline that allowed bowing the bottom and top strings. It wouldn’t take long before the violin made its appearance.
Lyra and gadulka: the medieval rebec lives on.
The introduction of the rebec to Western Europe coincided with the Arab conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. It was originally called a “rubebe”, developed around the 11th century from the similar Arabic “rabāb”, and it was played vertically. Like the rabāb, the rebec had a shallow, pear or teardrop-shaped body, carved from a solid piece of wood, like a large spoon. Popular from the 13th to 16th century, the rabāb's skin top was replaced with a wooden one, a fingerboard was added, and it was usually held horizontally against the chest now. The three strings were tuned in fifths and no frets were provided. In the 17th and 18th centuries, two different evolutions can be seen: the rebec gradually narrowed and lived on as a boat-shaped dancing master kit, also called a “pochette”, or it retained its usual larger shape and was generally played under strict conditions, for example in France, by poor people who had never received any proper musical training.
Rebec-type instruments are still being used in traditional music in Europe: the “lijerica” in Croatia, the “kemene” in Serbia, the “rabel” in Spain, the “Calabrian lira” in Italy, the “gadulka” in Bulgaria, the “armudî kemençe” (pear shaped kemenche) in Turkey, and the ”politiki lyra” and the “Cretan lyra” in Greece . Both instruments presented here are very similar to the ancient rebecs: the neck and body are in one piece and the soundpost is standing between the right foot of the bridge and the back. Both are played using the left hands fingernails. The “politiki lyra” or "Pontian lyra" like the one on the left is being played in Greece in traditional “Rebetiko” music, and is identical to the “armudî kemençe”, typical for Ottoman classical music. The larger Bulgarian “gadulka” on the right has a small fingerboard under the highest string, and originally it had three additional sympathetic strings.
An Arab "oud" and a reconstruction of a late-medieval lute
The “oud” has already been described by Arab scholars in the tenth century, including Avicenna (980-1037), who considered it to be the most important instrument of all. It was characterized by an egg-shaped sound box that was usually longer than the neck. The latter was equipped with a slightly angled pegbox that was bent backwards. The back was no longer cut in one piece, but composed of an impair number of thin wooden ribs. The origin of the name “lute” for this instrument lies in the fact that a wooden top was used instead of a skin: "al oud" means "made of wood". As for the sound holes, there was a lot of variation. Usually two to three round holes with rosettes were inserted. The number of strings evolved from 5 to 7 single ones to a standard of 5 double strings. The oud is still widely played in Turkey and in the Arab world.
From the tenth century on, the oud was also imported into Europe via Byzantium in the east and via Spain in the west. The Crusades and the presence of Muslims in Sicily certainly played a role in this evolution. In Palermo and on the Iberian peninsula we find interesting representations of early European lutes, among others in the “Cantigas de Santa Maria” dedicated to Alfonso X “El Sabio” of Castile (1221–1284). Initially, the European lutes were very similar to the Arabian ones. The drawings Arnault Van Zwolle made in Dyon in 1440 fully correspond to those of Safi al-Din al-Urmawi from thirteenth century Baghdad, as far as the sound box is concerned. However, the lutes are being increasingly Europeanized: the strings are closer together, the pegbox becomes straight, and the circular sound holes with rosettes take on a different configuration, a small one near the neck and a large one closer to the bridge. From the fifteenth century on, frets were tied around the neck and later the plectrum became obsolete: finger picking was required for polyphonic playing.
Two reconstructions of “archaic” violins from around 1600
Until the mid-17th century, the average violin is not a Cremonese or Brescian instrument. It is usually built closer to home by the musician himself, although more and more players start to specialize in violin and cittern construction. Some instruments are still left unvarnished and only receive a protective layer of linseed oil or egg-white. Bridge, sound post and bass bar have no fixed place yet. The use of glue is limited to a minimum. The bass bar is carved out of the mass of the top, and the neck and upper block are made from one piece of wood. The ribs are let into a groove following the back’s outline.
They display very distinctive stylistic features: the f-holes have sharp wings, large incisions and circles of equal diameter above and below, while the corners are very long, because of the construction without corner blocks. The pegs are sickle-shaped and the tailpiece is often baluster-shaped. The violin is mainly used in public places by professional musicians.
In Northern Italy before the end of the 16th century, as in music, there was a new tendency in violin making, when makers started to integrate elements from the lute into their violins. This evolution was almost exclusively embodied by Cremona and to a lesser degree by Brescia. So in a way this should be considered as a regional style that arose amidst “archaic” traditions. Slowly this “school’s” reputation grew outside Italy, and it gradually started affecting Western European lutherie. Around 1650 the “archaic” style, and later the “archaic” construction methods started disappearing.
The violin on the right is permanently exhibited in the Museum Vleeshuis in Antwerp since 2006. I finished it a few years before. The one on the left is the result of “reworking” a cheap old Saxon violin from around 1880 with “archaic” features.
"Pardessus à 5 cordes" and "quinton": same use, different shapes!
At the end of the 17th century, the "pardessus" was developed as the smallest member of the “da gamba” family to perform solo music within the reach of the violin. At the beginning of the 18th century this music became more and more popular, also in noble circles. The preservation of the viol form, the use of frets and the vertical playing position made it acceptable for gentlemen and especially ladies of the upper class who still considered the violin below their dignity.
Around 1730 a variant of the "pardessus de viole" was created in France. With only five strings, the three lowest were now tuned like a violin and the two highest maintained a quarter interval (GDAdg). The name "quinton", generally used for the violin-shaped variant, indicates the hybrid character of these instruments, which are fully interchangeable in terms of social context, playing method and repertoire.
Both these "pardessus a cinq cordes" and the violin-shaped quinton were played vertically, contained five strings and were partially tuned in fifths. In order to make the use of the left hand in this position more comfortable, given the number of strings and the usual techniques at that time, the fingerboard had to be wide enough, and the neck not too thick and not overly rounded. In addition, as with instruments of the viol family, the shoulders run even into the wider neck, which was provided with frets. The vertical violin position on the shoulder would be, to say the least, impractical for the left hand. So these are clearly members of the "da gamba" family.