4. Criteria for judging gut strings
What were the criteria for distinguishing a good string from a bad one? Before answering this question we must stress that the professional musicians seem to have developed an acute skill in detecting high quality material by touch and by sight, and in distinguishing a false string from one that vibrates well. These skills were transmitted orally from master to pupil, according to a tradition that probably began to decline at around the beginning of the twentieth century, when musicians tended to trust blindly in the products of the large string manufacturers. (45)Thereafter the main choices, in terms of manufacturing strategies and standard gauges, tended be imposed by the large firms that emerged at the turn of the century in France and Germany (but not in Italy). As for the Italian string makers, before and after the First World War most of them either closed shop or emigrated (chiefly to America), thus bringing to a rapid end a glorious tradition that had lasted for centuries.
The existence of a deeply rooted oral tradition probably goes a long way towards explaining why so little written documentation has survived on the criteria governing string choice. The following is a list of some of the relevant sources known to us:
- "La buona corda dev'esser diafana; color d'oro; cio√® che dia sul gialletto, e non candida come alcuni vogliono; liscia; e levigata, ma ci√≤ indipendentemente dal-1'esser pomiciata; senza nodi, o giunte; al sommo elastica, e forte; e non floscia, e cedevole " (A good string must be transparent and golden; that is, it must tend towards light yellow and not white as some people want; smooth and polished, even regardless of whether it has been pumiced; without nodes or joints; supremely elastic and strong; and not limp and yielding) (46).
- "La corde la meilleure et qui doit faire le plus long usage, est celle qui change le moins d'aspect quand on la monte sur rinstrument: celles qui se ternissent et perdent leur transparence ne doivent pas resister" (The best string and that which should last longest is the one which changes its appearance least when it is mounted; those that tarnish and lose their transparency will probably not last) (47).
- "Die √§ussern Kennzeichen einer guten Saite sind: weisse Farbe, Durchsichtigkeit und glatte Oberfl√§che. Doch darf letztere nicht, wie bey den deutschen Saiten, durch das Abschleifen mit Bims-Stein hervorgebracht seyn, da geschliffene Saiten stets schreiend und falsch im Ton sind" (The distinctive external characteristics of a good string are: white colour, transparency and smooth surface. However, this last quality must not be obtained, as happens with German strings, through polishing with pumice stone, for the polished strings are always strident and false in tone) (48).
- "Les chantarelles, dit M. Ph. Savaresse, doivent √™ntre transparentes, parfaitement unies et assez r√©gulier√®s de grosseur. Elles ne doivent pas √™tre trop blanches, car cela prouverait qu'elles ont √©t√© faites avec des agneaux trop jeunes, et lorsqu‚Äô on serre un paquet de chantarelles sous la main, elles doivent paraitre √©lastiques et revenir promptement comme le ferait un ressort d'acier. [...] Les grosses cordes, deuxi√®me et troisi√®me, doivent, au contraire, √™tre'transparentes et tr√®s blanches. II faut, en outre, qu'elles soient tr√®s molles quand on en comprime un paquet, mais elles ne doivent pas changer de couleur et elles doivent revenir promptement √† leur √®tat cylindrique; si elles pr√©sentaient trop de raideur, cela indiquerait qu'elles ont √©t√© faites avec des boyaux trop r√©istants, et, dans ce cas, elles auraient une mauvaise qualit√© de son" (The chanterelles, says Monsieur Ph.Savaresse, must be transparent, perfectly united and very regular in thickness. They must not be too white, for that would show they have been made with lambs that were too young; and when you squeeze a packet of chanterelles they must feel elastic and return promptly as a steel spring would do. [...] The bigger strings, the second and third, on the other hand, must be transparent and very white. Moreover, they should be very soft when the packet is pressed, but they must not change colour and must return promptly to their cylindrical state. If they are too stiff, that means they have been made of over-resistant gut, in which case they will have a poor tone) (49).
- "In selecting the E string, choose those that are most transparent; the seconds and thirds, as they are made with several threads, are seldom very dear. The firsts never have more than a few threads in them, and hence, absence of transparency in their case denotes inferior material" (50).
Finally, the last document cited here is probably the last source testifying to the criteria adopted in the nineteenth century for choosing strings:
Le corde tedesche hanno il pregio della resistenza e, come tutti i prodotti di quella nazione, hanno anche quello del buon prezzo. Sono corde levigatissime, dure al tatto tanto da sembrare di acciaio: anche il suono risente di tale durezza. [...]
La buona corda deve essere non troppo liscia e bianca, ch√© 1'azione della pomice non giova alla buona sonorit√†: deve essere molto elastica e perfettamente cilindrica [...]. Per provare 1'elasticit√† baster√† comprimere con le dita una corda ancora attorcigliata e fare 1'esperimento, per esempio, fra una tedesca ed una italiana (51).
(The German strings have the merit of great strength and, like all the products of that nation, have a good price. They are very smooth, and hard to the touch, to the extent that they seem to be made of steel. Even the tone is affected by such hardness. [...]
The good string must not be too smooth and white, for the use of pumice is not good for the sound. It must be elastic and perfectly cylindrical [...]. To test the elasticity it is sufficient to press with one's fingers a string in its bundle and then compare, for example, a German and Italian string).