Corelli and the Elevator

Go for it. What would you say has been the most important invention over the past five hundred years or so?  The automobile? Nuclear power?  The microchip?  Sliced bread?

My vote…(drum roll)…the elevator!  You scoff, but think about it.  Before the elevator, cities could only expand as far as their geographical limits, hoist themselves four or five creaking stories, and then stop. With elevators, cities can also expand vertically; the sky is literally the limit. In New York City, for instance, where the population in 1900 was already a steamy 2,000,000, it is now inching toward 8,400,000.  You think that’s something?  Tokyo was 1.5 million in 1900. Now it’s 25 million. Both cities have generally stayed within their same borders. How did they do it? They went up!

The repercussions of this aren’t merely demographic, though this consideration alone is earthshaking: the vast migrations from rural to urban areas that began in the late 19thcentury, which changed the geographical and economic landscape of our country, could not have occurred unless there was room to cram everyone in. But look also at the evolution of architecture and technology – from wood and brick to steel and concrete. Look at the social changes wrought by population density made possible by such extensive layering. Work patterns, transportation, trade, commerce – all these things underwent profound change because people could live on top of each other.

What does this have to do with the 17th century Italian composer and violinist, Arcangelo Corelli, you may well ask? Well, just as the innocuous elevator caused a revolution in society, an equally modest invention on the violin created an equivalent jolt to music history. That invention was the chinrest.

The chinrest is that little wooden doohickey clamped to the base of the violin that violinists rest their jaw on. (I’m not sure why it’s called a chinrest when it should really be called a jaw rest; maybe because chinrest is easier to say five times fast.) Before the 19th century there was no such device. It was invented by Louis Spohr, a contemporary of Beethoven, who was a fine violinist and decent composer. The chinrest caught on immediately and spread like wildfire among violinists and violists. Why so popular?

When Corelli composed his glorious music around 1700 almost all of it could be played in first position. (In fact, Corelli expressed disdain for technical extravagances.  There’s a story which may be true that he refused to play a high A that Handel asked of him because he felt it was too ostentatious.) Composing for first position was standard fare for all composers of the time, and one of the miracles of the Bach solo sonatas, for example, is that for all their extreme difficulty the range of pitches is just as extremely modest.

“What do you mean by first position?” ask the uninitiated. What that means is you can keep your left hand in basically the same place all the time; that place being near the scroll of the violin. As a result, you can more or less rest your left elbow against your side and cradle the violin in your left hand. It means you don’t have to slide your hand along the fingerboard in order to shift to higher positions. And that’s a good thing, because without a chinrest it’s a pain in the a— to shift. It feels like you’re going to drop the fiddle every time you go from one position to another. I know this because I’m preparing a recital of sonatas by Corelli and Handel on a Baroque violin, and I’ve had to throw all my tried-and-true fingerings out the window simply because there ain’t no chinrest. (Using colloquial jargon reminds me that country fiddle players traditionally don’t use a chinrest either; most of their playing is in first position, too, and they hardly ever shift positions. Next time you go hear some real downhome country music, watch the fiddler – technically it’s probably more reminiscent of a Baroque violinist than today’s concert artists.)

So why did Spohr feel a need to invent something new when everything was already hunky-dory? The answer is that during the 18th century tastes evolved toward a greater desire for technical brilliance versus music-simply-for-beauty’s-sake, and violinists like Locatelli and Tartini started fooling around with all kinds of unusual effects. When Spohr, with his new-fangled chinrest, made it exponentially easier to shift, it blew the whole lid off technical limitations on the violin. (There’s been an ongoing historical debate whether the legendary Paganini used a chinrest or not. If he didn’t, more power to him. )

What happened to music when the chinrest caught on and violinists could exploit the entire length of the fingerboard all the way into the nosebleed section? The violin concerto became king and grew to heroic proportions:  Consider the concertos of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, all composed shortly after the invention of the chinrest. Violin virtuosos like Paganini and Spohr, and later Wieniawski and Vieuxtemps, swarmed across Europe showing of their dazzling wares.

As the scope of the music expanded, so did the size of the concert halls in which it was played, and this required concomitant changes in violin technology in order to project the sound for greater distance. The length of the fingerboard actually increased, enabling violinists to play higher and higher notes. The angle of the neck of the violin was altered to create greater tension on the strings, thereby producing a more powerful sound. But with this greater tension there arose two vexing problems: the top of the violin, for centuries designed to accommodate only so much pressure, could cave in; and strings, traditionally made of gut, would often break. To counter these negative effects, a stronger bass bar was placed under the top of the violin, and gut strings were now wound with various metals or, in the case of the E-string, was no longer gut at all but a steel wire. (A third problem: the Baroque-style bow, unable to satisfy the needs of greater sound production, also underwent a revolution in design, but that in itself could be the subject of another essay.)

So now, thanks to the chinrest, we have violinists’ fingers zipping up fingerboards to dizzying heights along metal strings, like a high-speed elevator ascending a skyscraper on a cable, punching out an impressive powerhouse of sound with ever more technical audacity.

But when we visit an old east coast city like New York, Boston, or Charleston, or even older ones in Europe – London, Paris, Rome – what is it we want to see? New skyscrapers with their high-speed elevators? Perhaps for some. The technological feats are admittedly nothing short of mind-boggling, and undoubtedly there is that peculiar Freudian allure. I think most of us, though, pack our bags to witness the historical, the charming, the elegant…the handmade. And whenever possible we want it painstakingly restored, to see as it was originally conceived. We want to feel the connection with a quieter, more intimate, more human, time; to feel we’re a part of that history.

That, essentially, is why I’m performing this concert of Corelli and Handel violin sonatas on a Baroque instrument with gut strings, with a Baroque bow…and without a chinrest, on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Corelli’s death. Corelli was the gold standard for composers and violinists at the turn of the 18th century. In that regard he was like Mozart on the piano about a century later. Also like Mozart, he put musicality on a pedestal first and foremost; technical brilliance – though both composers had technique coming out their F-holes – was servant to the master, music.

Per the Baroque tradition, I will be accompanied on harpsichord and cello. If that sounds more like a trio, a few words of explanation. In Baroque style the bass line (i.e., the music played by the left hand of the keyboard) was as essential a component of the music as the melodic line of violin, or voice, or whatever instrument had the tune. Many Baroque scores, in fact, are no more than bass and solo lines, with numbers affixed to the bass indicating to the keyboard player how to fill in the harmony. This is called “figured bass.” So important is the bass line that it is typically doubled by a low instrument – cello or bassoon or viola da gamba.  This doubling is called “continuo.”

The concert includes sonatas in E major and F major by Georg Friedrich Handel, and sonatas in A major and F major by Corelli. Handel, in the post-Corelli generation, was a prolific composer of opera and oratorio. As a result he added a perceptible degree of vocality to his sonatas, but the debt to his esteemed predecessor is clear. To top off the concert is Corelli’s masterpiece “La Follia,” a set of variations based upon a tune of such ancient origin that it only seems proper to play it on instruments made of wood, gut and horsehair.  I look forward to providing a glimpse of the handcrafted world long before the elevator was ever a gleam in Elisha Otis’s eye.

Reprint courtesy of Reichel Recommends.

About the author

Gerald Elias
Gerald Elias

Gerald Elias is an acclaimed author and musician. A former violinist with the Boston Symphony and associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony, he has concertized on five continents as violinist and conductor, and his compositions have been performed throughout the United States. Since 2004 he has been music director of the Vivaldi by Candlelight concert series in Salt Lake City, and since 1989 a faculty member of the University of Utah. His award-winning Daniel Jacobus mystery series, based upon experiences gleaned from his lifelong musical career, takes place in the dark corners of the classical music world and has won extensive critical praise.

Leave a Reply