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Centre for Research Collections series: Violins Without Sides

ByLily Settari

Jun 7, 2019

Edinburgh student life typically includes frequent trips to Niddry Street off the Cowgate, home to a real institution within Edinburgh’s nightlife: Hive. But there is another hidden jewel on Niddry Street, just opposite the infamous nightclub.

St Cecilia’s Hall, where the University of Edinburgh’s musical instrument collection lives, is a space which celebrates music throughout the year with a diverse range of events and workshops. Furthermore, just like other departments under the umbrella of the Centre for Research Collections, St Cecilia’s is open to students who wish to use the musical instrument collection for their research. The opportunities for research are as vast as the collection; but special attention must be given to a pair of rather mysterious instruments: the violins without sides.

Only three violins without sides are known to exist in the world, and all three are to be found in Scotland; two live at St Cecilia’s Hall, and one at Dean Castle in Kilmarnock. Their name stems from the fact that their soundboards are directly attached to the back, which is why they do not have sides. They have also been referred to as “mute violins”, “practice violins” and “dance master fiddles”.

To this day, it remains unclear what exactly they are, why they were fabricated in such an odd way and why there are so few of them. So far, the research on violins without sides is spotted with ambiguous attributions, conflicting dating, and confusing taxonomical cataloguing. The original necks of all three exemplars have been replaced; which leaves questions about the original number and length of strings, as well as the shape and style of the peghead open. Some have even questioned whether the violins without sides can be considered violins despite displaying violin features like f-holes, an arched soundboard, narrow centre bouts, and the anchoring pin for a tailpiece.

In terms of body length, the violins without sides resemble a violino piccolo: a baroque stringed instrument. However, there are good reasons to assume that the violino piccolo sound makes them suitable for solos, which is not true for the violins without sides which produce a poor-quality, high-pitched sound. The origin of the two violins without sides at St Cecilia’s is similarly dotted with question marks, even though it may be assumed that they were produced by the illustrious Bassano family in the 17th century.


Image: Stinglehammer via Wikimedia

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