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Out of ordinary sized violins at the mim

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The violin family today

Since the 19th century, the violin family has been a standardized instrumental ensemble consisting of three members: violin, viola and cello. The violin and viola are played on the shoulder. The cello, because of its size, is placed on the floor (fig.1 to 3).

Usually included in the violin family, the double bass occupies a special place. Its origin and development deviates from those of the violin, viola and cello. Certain characteristics betray its hybrid character. On the instrument below, for example, we notice the drooped "shoulders" (fig.4), like those of a viola da gamba. Some double basses also have a flat rather than a rounded back (Fig.5). The number of strings may vary. Without going into detail, these elements show a proximity to the viola da gamba as much as to the violin.

Forgotten instruments

The Musical Instrument Museum preserves many instruments of the violin family built in the 17th and 18th centuries in the Southern Netherlands. Several of them have dimensions that do not correspond to today's standard. Here are three examples by to Gaspar Borbon, violin maker at the court of Brussels.

The study of the scores of composers active in Brussels at the same time reveals that some instruments do not correspond to those we are familiar with today either. Their nomenclature is very diverse. Surprisingly, the terminology used to indicate the parts is generally Italian: violino, viola da braccio, violetta, alto viola, tenore viola, violoncello, basso viola. If the violino, alto viola and violoncello correspond to the violin, viola and cello, what exactly are the other instruments? To date, this question has not been answered conclusively. Nevertheless, the mention in the period scores of these forgotten members of the violin family helps to explain the presence of "out of the ordinary" instruments in the museum's collections. Their true role that in the ensembles of the time remains a mystery.

Text: Anne-Emmanuelle Ceulemans

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Images: 
Violin, Joseph Darche,  Brussels , 1857, Inv.2015.1273
Viola, Hilaire Darche, Brussels, 1912, inv.3507
Cello, Hilaire Darche, Brussels 1912, inv.3514
Double bass, Alphonse Giboreau, 1918, inv. JT0048
Double bass, Alphonse Giboreau, 1918, inv.JT0048
Violin, undated (non-original neck), inv.2774, compared to violin 2015.1273
"Great viola or tenor violin", 1692, inv.2836, compared to viola 3507 (in grey)
Bass Violin, 1702 (non-original neck), inv.2879, compared to cello 3514 (gray)
P.A. Fiocco, Sonata a 4 ©Library of the Royal Conservatories of Brussels
P.A. Fiocco, Missa S. Josephi, ©Library of the Royal Conservatories of Brussels
P.A. Fiocco, Sonata a 4 ©Library of the Royal Conservatories of Brussels
Pietro Torri, Credo, ©Library of the Royal Conservatories of Brussels