Kuijken Quartet: A Family Affair

Friday, 19 May 2017
Sigiswald Kuijken

Sigiswald Kuijken, a world leader in establishing historical performance practice, founded the baroque orchestra, La Petite Bande in 1972 and the Kuijken Quartet in 1986. The Kuijken Quartet is a family affair, with Sigiswald and his wife Marleen Thiers (viola), with daughter Sara (violin) and for this CMNZ tour, Michel Boulanger (cello).



The Kuijken Quartet will be performing Haydn and Mozart string quartets on period instruments for their CMNZ tour. Period musical instruments are either originals or copies of instruments from the time the composers were writing.


But what's the difference between an 18th century violin and a modern one?

We asked Sigiswald to give us a quick overview.

“The 18th century violin was different from our modern violin not so much in the overall shape and dimension of the body (this was already quite like what we see today), but mainly by the material used to make the strings. The upper 3 strings were pure gut and the lowest string (the thickest) was silver-wound gut. This traditional material still defines the standard of violin tone and you might find players today praising the tone of a new, synthetic string by saying it sounds "as warm as a gut string. The bridge is a different shape and often the position of the neck is not quite so angled back as that of a modern violin.

Inside the instrument the bass bar [an internal brace running the length of the violin’s body] does not exert as much force, which results in less string tension on the bridge. The sound that is created tends to be a more free and flexible, but also a slightly smaller sound than that of modern instruments.

There was also a great variety in the shape and weight of the bows used in Mozart and Haydn’s time; in general, the bows had less hair and the tip of the bow was lighter.” 

Let's talk pitch.

Pitch has gradually become higher over the past few centuries, with most musicians today playing at around A=440 hz. (440 refers to the vibrations per second and the “A” is the A above middle C on the piano). The Kuijken Quartet’s classical instruments are tuned to A=430 hz (so lower than what we are used to today) and here Sigiswald writes about the complex matter of choosing pitch.

“The 430 pitch is mainly used today for historical performances of classical music - although in Classical times it was quite usual for each local area to choose their own preferred pitch. Today due to globalisation, pitch is more standardised for practical reasons.

But with this globalisation we have lost a lot of local colour as well. In 18th century Vienna, Paris or London, musicians in the different cities did not even necessarily play at the same pitch in the same years, and sometimes more than one pitch would be used within one city (for instance in Paris: at the Opera, the traditional pitch was much lower than for other instrumental concerts in town). The 430 pitch would be too high for one city and too low for another. It is impossible to know exactly what was the "right" pitch for Haydn or Mozart’s string quartets as they would be played differently in the various cities all over Europe! Lower pitch generally gives a warmer ensemble sound - but if you go too low, you will lack the necessary brilliancy perhaps. Too high pitch and it will result in a tense and 'screaming' sound. There is no absolute truth.”


Kuijken Quartet

Touring NZ 8-20 July. Find out more here.