2009 Starling-Delay, day three: Monica Huggett on Baroque violin

June 2, 2009, 10:39 PM ·

Wouldn't you like to cast aside all the controversy on Baroque music and simply travel back in time to watch how they really played Bach? Or at least speak to someone who was there?

Last week at the 2009 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard, Baroque violinist Monica Huggett brought that history to life, from Biber to Bach.

Laurie Niles and Monica Huggett

Huggett, who will lead Juilliard's new Historical Performance program starting this fall as Artistic Director, started with an interesting idea.

"I'm waiting for them to discover that the instrument is from the Middle East," Huggett said of the violin. Why? It has to do with King Henry VIII of England – the one who had six wives. Around 1538, Henry VIII wanted to import musicians to raise the quality of music in his court, she said. So he turned to Venice, where he found about a half-dozen skilled instrumentalists to import to his court. Except – these musicians were not actually from Venice themselves. In all likelihood, they were Jewish instrumentalists, from Spain...

Whatever the origin, "all the violins that are considered great violins were made in the Baroque era," Huggett said. During that time, the violin's shape also was perfected, though violinists did not use either chinrests or shoulder rests – those developments came later.

"One of the biggest parts of the equation of the sound of the Baroque violin is the strings," Huggett said. Until 1660, all strings were gut strings, and as rope-thick as they were, "they'd be just as well with tying up your boat." During this time, an "A" was tuned to 465 Hz (in contrast to today's standard range of A440-442). In 1660, they discovered that if you wound the bottom (G) string with silver, you could get the desired pitch with a less-thick string, and better response. But, "they actually preferred the sound of pure gut." Why?

Of course, gut strings are not as durable as our modern synthetic strings. At the beginning of the 20th century, Huggett said, if you were going to play an evening of string quartets, the first violinist would likely go through three gut E strings during that one evening alone!

The violin also did not used to be the hot-shot soloist instrument that it is considered to be today. In fact, in the early days, it scarcely had its own identity. More often, it was used for dance music, or to imitate other instruments and sounds.

"The violin was a tricky instrument, only played by professionals, and they had tricks up their sleeves," Huggett said.

For example, Baroque composer Biagio Marini wrote pieces in which the violinist has to do things like tune the upper string down a third (scordatura), or move a string over on the bridge, during the course of the piece. In other words, the basso continue plays a series of riffs, during which the violinist changes the tuning of the violin!

Huggett played us a recording of another composition that illustrated the second-class status of the violin: Carlo Farina's "Capriccio Stravagante" (1629). As we listened, Huggett narrated the rich (and hilarious) story that may well have flown straight over my head if this piece had been playing on my car radio: in this piece, the violin is made to imitate a hurdy-gurdy, a cat, dog, hen, lire, military drum, clarina, fife, cock crowing, consort of flutes...even "an inadequate organist who can't improvise polyphony," a Spanish guitar...all sounds that the audience would have recognized at the time.

The point is "what a jack-of-all-trades the violin was," she said. "We'll do whatever you want!"

By the 19th century, the violin had come a long way, "from being this instrument that no gentleman would be seen dead with, to the king of all instruments," Huggett said. It transitioned from a gritty, squeaky instrument to a bel canto instrument that was taken much more seriously.

At this point, Huggett started demonstrating, and I don't know if my little Flip video camera completely captures it, but her playing is so full of elegance, expression and a vital sense of history, it was a joy to watch everything she did, as it was to hear her explanations of why she played things in certain ways. Here is a taste for you.

First, Huggett played Heinrich Ignaz Biber's Sonata No. 3, which is one of the Mystery Sonatas (1676), music composed to help the faithful dwell on illustrations about the life of the Virgin Mary. As she played the first part of it, I felt like I was listening to a conversation with someone who had a special ability to travel in time, and who, just last week, had gone back to the 17th century to play a few concerts with Biber himself, including this piece. She was simply and unpretentiously telling us how we might like to approach the piece ourselves:

Then, as she started playing the Passacaglia from the same sonata, I started to notice the sheer beauty of Huggett's playing:

I started wanting more of her insider information, what are the secrets to Baroque playing, what is the real deal? How about this business of not vibrating in Baroque music, is that the way it's really supposed to be? And what do you do with chords, when the music would have you playing four notes at once on four strings? The first time you see such chords, you just think, what the....? And then you are told to follow the melodic line, just how do we pull this off?

A lot of it seems to be the same as today: people did not do everything the same way. And when it came to holding the violin, "there was as much chatter about how to hold the violin then as there is now." People held it at their waist, by their short rib, on their chest, sometimes on their collar bone. Huggett, from what I could see, uses a rolled-up black cloth that was attached to her shirt as a kind of shoulder rest.

Of course, the big question for everyone was, what did Monica Huggett have to say about the Bach Sonatas and Partitas (1720), the solo violin works at the heart of our repertoire? As Joel Smirnoff said the previous day, there's just no winning with these pieces. Do we play them as period pieces, or do we find a modern way? Will anyone ever accept anyone else's Bach? Probably not. And yet there's no losing with these pieces, either. We'll ever be interested in how to play these pieces, ever seeking wisdom and exploring alternatives.

"My parts are covered in white out, and little pieces of paper, and more white out, because I change my mind so much," Huggett said of her music for the Bach Sonatas and Partitas.

She had everyone play the Preludio from Bach's Partita III in E major together, and it kind of fell apart around the triple bariolage. Here's how she addressed that issue, as well as a few other aspects of this movement:

BTW, here's a link to that Sarasate recording of the Bach Preludio she spoke of at the end of the above video.

She moved on to the Bach Loure from Partita III in E major, and her story was familiar to me. When I first played this piece as a teenager, I had some romantic notions about how to play it (also about how to pronounce it, I liked pronouncing it "Laurie"!). She talked about the feel of the dance, and also about bringing out the bass in similar passages in the Sarabande from Partita I in B minor:

Huggett talked about the challenges of the B minor Partita, with its "Doubles," and how to choose the appropriate tempi. You will want watch until the end of this one, as an audience member asked her to play the Tempo di Borea Double for us, and much to everyone's delight, she did so!


June 3, 2009 at 12:15 PM ·

It's nice to see these Laurie.  They offer a lot of insight into these.  Monica actually has one of the most extraordinary and unique bow arms I've seen.

I was playing in a concert in Vancouver with a baroque orchestra, and Monica was the guest.  It was all French baroque stuff.  The things she was doing with her bow were extraordinary.  She sort of prescribed these bowings for us, and literally nobody could do them.  I had to stand in awe of this.  (Complex series of up and down bow staccato - although not sticky and into the string - very refined.  What made it amazing was that she could use it amongst series of notes which had no pattern, and completely off the fly.

I liked the advice about the bariolage from the Preludio.  Any help with that I'll take,



June 3, 2009 at 12:51 PM ·

Great job. Ms. Huggett is so wonderful and such an appealing speaker. I'm not sure I understand what she means by A = 465. I thought it was more like A = 415 or 430, but my understanding of baroque tuning is pretty shallow-- could you elaborate on that? 

 For some reason, videos 1, 2, and 4 are coming up as "private" right now, but the others work. The tiny flip camera does a decent job, even if it's sometimes a strain to hear what she is saying. Still, it's wonderful to be able to be a "fly on the wall" for a few minutes during these conferences.  

This is certainly a blog to bookmark and return to many times.

June 3, 2009 at 03:11 PM ·

Thanks for letting me know, Karen. Sorry about that everybody, the videos should work now!

June 3, 2009 at 03:45 PM ·

Thanks Laurie, how exciting that this world is opening up in NY.  New York musicians tend to be very weary of baroque style but with Monica Hugget being here it will open up a whole new world to us. 

Oh and also there is speculation about tuning - it is recently being discovered that in Italy around Vivaldi's time they were tuning up to an A-465.  This is new research though so I don't know how stable this information is yet.  I'm learning baroque violin now and mine is tuned to 415.

June 3, 2009 at 05:06 PM ·

Indeed, if I am correct, the "A" started high (perhaps because of the limitations of the all-gut G string?) but then it was lowered. Both. If anyone has better info please chime in; Monica touched on this but only very briefly.

June 3, 2009 at 06:30 PM ·

 These videos are truly enlightening, particularly in the way she uses the bow. The bow seems to float over the string, dipping into the string to give each note a very slight swell, much as is described in the writings of the period -- I think I read about that in CPE Bach or Quantz. Ms. Huggett achieves a natural and musical way of doing this that I find very convincing, and not grossly exaggerated like so many of the older generation of "authentic" players such as Harnoncourt & Friends.

June 3, 2009 at 10:36 PM ·


when I were a lad I heard Ms. Hugget play many times.  She was great then. Now she is better!

But then look at thtatbeautiful smiling face.  This is someone who enjoys life.  Wonderful.



June 7, 2009 at 03:24 PM ·

Thank you for posting this.  If I may point out a few things: The Biber sonata which Ms. Huggett played is not from the Roasary/Mystery Sonatas, it is from the eight Sonatae violino solo (1681).  The Passacaglia, however, is an independent movement which was published along with the Rosary Sonatas.  About the pitch question: There was no standard pitch in the baroque period.  Most present-day baroque groups use A=415 out of convenience, because this was Kammerton (chamber pitch) in Bach's Germany.  However, there was no standard pitch, and it could vary from a whole tone higher than modern pitch (in 17th-century Italy) to a tone lower than modern pitch (some areas of France, if I'm not mistaken). 

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