At the beginning of the 17th century, the bowed instrument of choice in England was the viol, and it enjoyed a massive popularity in the early decades of that century. But by the end of that century the violin was much more popular than the viol, and the German violinist Thomas Baltzar was one of the figures who helped to make this change.
But it was starting to happen before Baltzar's arrival in England. By the middle of the 17th century, a number of composers who had written for viols began to write combining the violins with viol and often organ as an accompanying instrument. John Jenkins, William Lawes, Christopher Gibbons (son of the famous Orlando Gibbons), John Hingeston, Benjamin Rogers and many others wrote fantasia suites and dance suites for one or two violins, bass viol (or sometimes lyra viol) and organ. The violin was also played at the royal court during the 17th century.
The violin of the time was somewhat different from the modern violin, having a neck which was on the same plane as the belly, and not angled back like modern violins. It was held on the shoulder or just below on the chest, and had four strings tuned in fifths. The strings would have been all gut, and the bow quite short, not unlike a dagger! It might also have been slightly thicker in build, but certainly easily recognisable by any modern player. The early violin was also made as a family of several sizes, and there were treble, tenor and bass violins, which were like, but not the precise equivalent of the modern violin, viola and cello.
In his excellent book on the early violin, Peter Holman quotes a letter from Lodewijck Huygens dated 25 March 1652. He and his companions visited the English-born clockmaker and violinist Davis Mell who was also a composer of music for violins, and was one of the Musick to King Charles I and later Charles II.
We went on to our destination, that is, Mr Mell’s, in order to hear some music performed. So we did. When we entered they were performing a concert for organ, which [Christopher] Gibbons played, bass viol and two violins, one of which was played by the master of the house, who performed admirably well. After that they played another concert for harpsichord, lute, theorbo, bass viol and violin.1
Through his court appointments, Mell would have known many of the major composers of his day, and most likely influenced them to include the violin in their ensembles. Mell was reputed to play with a sweet stroke, and the arrival of Baltzar must have been something of a shock to his system.
The violinist Thomas Baltzar (also Baltzer, Balser, Baltazar) was probably born around 1631 in Lübeck, Northern Germany. Despite this, he was sometimes referred to in England as “the Swede” since he served as chamber violinist for a time at the Swedish Court of Queen Christina before coming to England around 1655. Many English accounts exist of Baltzar’s prodigious talent as a perfomer on violin. John Evelyn paid him tribute in his Diary for March 4, 1656, saying that “his variety upon a few notes & plaine ground with that wonderfull dexterity, as was admirable, & though a very young man, yet so perfect & skillfull …”2
Accounts of his death vary, but copious consumption of alcohol is said to have played a key role.
It was Baltzar’s violin technique which had such an effect on the English listeners of the time. Where Mell played sweetly, Baltzar was wild and virtuosic, using scordatura, elaborate chords, and position changes which were not previously known. He foreshadowed the more virtuosic Italian violin school which was to follow. It is also likely that Baltzar’s chordal playing and use of scordatura had an effect on the resurgence of the lyra viol genre in England, which took off again in the 1660s after a lull for a few decades, and developed a large number of new tunings for the viol.
Holman mentions that in the late 1650s, both Mell and Baltzar paid visits to Oxford, where the violin had not previously been mentioned at the Music School. It is said that the Oxford musician Anthony à Wood tuned his violin in fourths like a viol until he took regular lessons in 1653. He was one who entertained Thomas Baltzar on these visits in 1658, and the violin took off locally from this time. It was also at this time that John Playford, the publisher of many 17th century pedagogical works for stringed instruments, as well as dancing, included sections in various of his often-reprinted books on how to play the treble violin.
Baltzar was much less well-known as a composer, though he wrote a number of well-crafted and original works for viols, violins and ensemble. Those surviving works include two sets of divisions for solo bass viol; some dance movements for unaccompanied violin plus another set in scordatura; three particularly nice suites for two violins, bass viol and organ [recorded some years ago by Peter Holman’s ensemble The Parley of Instruments]; one suite for three violins and continuo, and some pieces for violin in The Division Violin, published by John Playford.
Consistent with Baltzar’s performance style, many of his pieces for solo violin have a strongly chordal texture. In the article cited above, Holman points out that Baltzar’s German contemporaries - Strungk, Walther and Biber – only began to write chordal music for violin after Baltzar’s departure, and that the English viol traditions of lyra viol and division playing were more likely to have influenced his compositional style. Other stylistic elements include arpeggios, and a sort of pseudo-polyphony which occurs in a number of passages.
1 Peter Holman. Four and Twenty Fiddlers. The Violin at the English Court 1540-1690. OUP 1995, p. 266
2 Quoted in P. Holman. “Thomas Baltzar, the ‘incomperable Lubicer on the violin’”. Chelys, Vol. 13, 1984, p. 4