The Freiberg Instruments and their Significance in Current Historical Performance Practice


No surviving sixteenth-century instruments of the violin family can offer as much historical information about instrument building and performance practice as the Paul Klemm violins in the Freiberger Dom. Even the so-called Andrea Amati violins, violas, and violoncellos commissioned for the French court of Charles IX in the third quarter of the sixteenth century—which are most probably early nineteenth-century forgeries—have been so deeply altered, that they are no longer capable of providing any useful information of a historical and acoustic nature.


Working with these excellent copies of the Klemm instruments has made us discover some unexpected sounds. Trying to force a “traditional” violin or even viola da gamba sound out of them made no sense, and in any case, it did not work, so we let the instruments “teach” us how to be played. The result was a type of sound we never really heard before. In addition, the Klemm violins only work well as a consort: each instrument individually produces a fairly thin, piercing sound, but it only really flourishes within the context of the ensemble.


Using copies of the short bows present in the chapel has also helped us finding a type of sound and playing positions that are unconventional, but close to what we found in iconography of this period in Saxony. The smallest violin is held on the arm, the ‘regular’ violin against the shoulder, the tenor instrument is strapped around the player’s neck, and the basses are played standing (held with a strap as well), while the bow grip is underhand.


In Renaissance polyphonic tradition we have transposed the music to where it best fits the instruments as a consort and for the voices. As far as ‘delivery’ of the music itself is concerned, we opted for an approach that corresponds to either the rhetorical text prosody, or a ‘pronunciation’ of the notes based in the older solmization-syllable hierarchies. In sum, discovering Scandello’s music with copies of instruments he may have heard in Freiberg in the 1590s has given us the opportunity to explore new sounds and a different approach to performing polyphony, and taught us for example that not all instruments were necessarily made to be heard individually, or that they can teach us how to deal with a repertoire that was in the first place conceived for them. It certainly made us completely rethink several performance practice issues of late-Renaissance consort music in Saxony.