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5 String Violins: The Black Sheep of the Family?

Posted by jfarcher on Saturday, February 6, 2010

Originally Published: Oct. 17, 2008 at 7:48 AM on www.violinist.com

I enjoy the posts and insights that I gain on Violinist.com. The many varied members, and their expertise in their chosen lines of work, are not only educational, but oftentimes makes for an interesting read. But something is missing. Is there a reason that I hear very little about 5-string violins, which technically and structurally is an anomaly, since violins are only "supposed" to have 4 strings? Designs are often left to the individual luthiers, but there are subtle differences in sound production that are dictated by many factors, including the sound desired by the players themselves. The choice between acoustic and electric instruments also comes into play, but I am primarily referring to acoustic instruments here, as electric instruments are a whole different universe. Are 5 strings considered only for fiddle players and somewhat eccentric violinists such as myself? My extensive research produced no evidence that this is a hard rule. On the contrary, there were many early bowed string instruments that resembles the modern violin that utilized up to 6, or sometimes 7 strings, not held vertically, as are the instruments of the viol family.

The instrument a violinist is familiar with evolved from the viols and some other instruments like the viola de amore and Pardessus de viola, or Quinton, a five-string hybrid instrument, in use during the 18th century, that combines characteristics of the viol and the violin.

Its body resembles a violin's, save for the sloping shoulders; but its neck is fretted like a viol's.It was tuned g-d'-a'-d''-g''. Jacques Aubert (1689-1753) composed sonatas (op.4) for the instrument.

First Pardessus of violates had 6 cords, in tune as a viola gives to prawn tenor (g, c', e' or f', a', d", g"). These tunings were often varied a great deal and was a common practice. It still survives to day as a practice among fiddle players, in general, to utilize cross tunings with effective acoustical and artistic results. Later a very astute adjustment arose: Pardessus of violates to five cords with the refining much more next to the violin (g, d', a', d", g"). Numerous composers dedicated works of considerable difficulties: the Family of Of Caix d'Hervelois, Dollé, Marc, Blainville and Barrière emphasize by the quality of their productions. The derivation of the word "quinton" is from the fifth (CINQUIÈME) part in French ensemble music of the 17th century. Some noted makers include Joachim Tielke, Hamburg, ca. 1700 and Louis Guersan, Paris, ca. 1752. J.S. Bach wrote his last solo ‘cello Partita (BWV 1012) for an instrument known as the piccolo cello, which was smaller than the normal size of a ‘cello, with a body length of 59 cm, and possessed an added high E string. I have seen it played by some artists holding it at a 45-degree angle and strapped to their chests! Historically correct, but seemingly strange to those who are not familiar with such details of historical performance. I do recall the "violino piccolo", which is the size of a half size violin, with a neck that can vary in length. And then you have the dancing master’s kit or "ponchette". A pocket-size violin that could be carried to the houses of fine ladies for their lessons in dancing and music. The normal violin would have been considered "vulgar" at that time in noble houses.

To go into too much detail is beyond the scope of this blog, and I fear my last blog entry was a little too involved. Brevity is the key to attentiveness, it would seem. Musicology is a great study for both players of all styles of music and luthiers, respectively. It places the average musician at an advantage to their peers, as it contributes to the ability to interpret music correctly from different eras of history and creates a better artist, respectively. Today, the 5-string violin is a superb instrument for the rendering of both traditional fiddle music, Jazz and an invaluable tool for teachers who teach both violin and viola. Is there any usefulness in having an extra lower C string? What will the future hold for the 5 string? Is it the proverbial "black sheep" of the violin family, or a progression in the art of violin playing itself?

Jerald Franklin Archer

7 comments on “5 String Violins: The Black Sheep of the Family?”

bj Says:
Saturday, February 6, 2010 @1:14:44 PM

Violin? What's that?

Ozarkian DL Says:
Saturday, February 6, 2010 @7:01:45 PM

Hi & welcome ta FHO Jerald.....tha onliest site u'll ever need fer any & all info. bout fiddles, fiddlin & fiddlers. Uh....u'll hav ta pardon us here Jerald......We'z all jus plain folk FIDDLERS here. They'z sum here whut plays tha 5 strang too. I'd guess it'll be progressive in tha fiddle family.

FiddleCat Says:
Saturday, February 6, 2010 @8:01:12 PM

Interesting read! I myself never thought of a 5 string belonging to any one type of music. But I do feel it could come quite handy in certain types of music as you had mentioned.

mudbug Says:
Sunday, February 7, 2010 @5:40:51 AM

I think that it would be fair to say, that instruments evolve as needed. Some fiddlers feel the need for a 5 string, and using one is still within "their" sonic footprint, and doesn't infringe on anyone elses "sonic space". As a violinist, though, who plays with an orchestra or chamber group, wouldn't you be stepping on the "sonic space of the violas. Yes, I know that 3 strings are shared by the two instruments, but other than the tonal difference, that string defines each one's role. If the violin were to start playing on a C string, should then the viola start playing on an E string. Sounds like trouble in River City. With a capital T. Plus, if composers figured that by adding a C string to the violin, they could do away with those pesky violas, they would have done so long ago. So, I think that the only place that you will see the 5 string used, will be as a folk instrument or as a solo violin.

KCFiddles Says:
Sunday, February 7, 2010 @11:14:21 AM

I have a friend who is a soloist with a major symphony in New England. When I was first developing our five-string line, I showed her our prototype, and she was fascinated with it. We spend most of the evening trying to come up with repertoire that would show off a five-string, and couldn't come up with much, just a piece or two from the Baroque period.

The people who buy my five-strings are teachers and fiddlers. The teachers like having a combined violin/viola, and the fiddlers like the additional range and the tone of the instrument. The fiddlers are mostly jazz, swing, country, bluegrass, and "alternative". No OT or Irish Trad so far.

worldfiddler Says:
Sunday, February 7, 2010 @2:39:06 PM

Well, I have one of woodwiz's excellent 5-string fiddles (meaning, I bought one!) :) ...and it's great. You know, a 5-string really does have a middle string, and as a composer, let me tell you, that make a big difference in the range in which you can compose and more importantly, play. It really is a different instrument, in my opinion. To me, it's not just a fiddle with an extra low C - and the sooner people realise that, then the better things will get! In the great long timeline of the "violin", yes, the 5-string is in its infancy, but that will soon change. I know it will. I'm one of these guys who is, slowly but surely, making that happen. As is woodwiz, too :)


FiddlerFaddler Says:
Monday, February 8, 2010 @9:25:24 PM

A very talented young lady featured a five-string fiddle in a video here at FHO where the bottom two strings were tuned down to an A and up to an A, respectively (an octave apart), and I think the rest of the strings were tuned up to an E, A, and down to a C#. She played a very spirited fiddle tune with the low string in sympathy with the G-tuned-A string. That made for some nice resonances both con arco and pizzicato. So in that example the extra low string provided a nice, low drone. It would also facilitate taking a melody an octave lower, which is nice for solo playing to provided variety.

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