Charles de Bériot and the chinrest

The 19th century saw the evolution of the violin and its technique from essentially a baroque instrument to that which we know today. One of the many innovations made to the instrument, and which in turn influenced its technique, was the chinrest. The reader will undoubtedly be familiar with the story of Louis Spohr’s chinrest invented in the first decades of the 19th century. This invention appears to have been rarely adopted by players.

French and Belgian violinists resisted the use of a chinrest until the early 20th century, with some notable exceptions such as Pablo de Sarasate and Eugène Ysaye. A Google Image search for either of these violinists will show multiple photos of them performing with and without chinrests. In La Grammaire du violon of 1924, Martin-Pierre Marsick, who had studied with Désiré Heynberg, Hubert Léonard and Lambert Massart, expressed his dislike of the chinrest when discussing shifting:

Shifting

No work on the violin has explained the manner of “shifting”.

This constitutes, however, the “Secret of playing the violin”.

From the 3rd position and higher on the violin, the left hand extends supported by the thumb, on the neck, and descends to 3rd position; but from the 3rd position to the 1st, we discover the difficulty of descending the thumb easily, and it is in this last descent that the terrible vice of raising the left shoulder to squeeze the violin and preventing it from coming away from the neck.

From this, cushions upon cushions, mechanical chinrests, all sorts of artificial things to support the instrument. While the violin is pushed behind the line of the left foot, the right arm follows the movement, both arms are deviated to the left, a vicious position which negates and stiffens all the movements of the performer. …[1]

Charles de Bériot’s Méthode du violon of 1857 makes no mention of a chinrest, however in a later edition[2], published by Schott frères in Paris a few years later, a newly invented chinrest by de Bériot is mentioned. This chinrest did not appear in any of the subsequent translations or editions of the method. De Bériot describes it thus:

New Chinrest

Something which has always preoccupied me is the hold of the violin between the chin and the clavicle.

I have remarked, as all violinists can, that this sort of vice that the chin and the shoulder are obliged to form, in order to hold the violin when the left hand passes from one position to another causes irreparable damage to the instrument.

As we can see on all violins that have been played a lot, the rubbing of the chin removes a part of its varnish, the wood becomes worn by impregnating it with the natural moisture of the skin, which is increased more by the act of playing.

A greater inconvenience still, is that this pressure which the artist is obliged to create and which increases more in the fear of having the violin slip from the collar, forms a mute which reduces a part of the vibrations of the instrument.

In addition, the efforts of the shoulders of the performer in order to maintain his violin deprives him of all grace and ease.

We even see artists use their handkerchiefs as small cushions, in order to secure the instrument.

We have searched in vain up until now for a way to avoid this inconvenience.

However in Germany, they tried a sort of little plate on which the chin pressed that, without touching the belly of the instrument, put no pressure on it; but, either because of the weight of this device, or because of its lack of elegance, artists did not accept it. I think as well that its principal fault was distancing the artist from his violin; and all performers like to feel their instrument, we could say to become one body with it. This aids inspiration.

All the inconveniences which we have just discussed led me to discover, after lots of trials, the simplest way in the world, for which I am complimented on its efficiency each day.

This device consists of a small plate of ebony above the violin. A piece of paper the size of the wood is first glued to the violin and which will then receive the device, this permits it to be detached without damaging the instrument. The upper part of this device being adorned with little decorations which are lightly carved into the ebony, effortlessly inhibits the instrument from sliding and slipping from the collar, and thus giving the artist a great security in the shifting of the left hand.

Custom will without doubt make some observations on what the eye could find disgraceful in this small device. I have little to say to deter this objection. While performing, my device, being hidden by the chin, does not hurt the eye; otherwise, it is in its case.

As routine is the antithesis of progress, we can only succeed by freeing ourselves from this laziness, and logic demands above all that we try something new before rejecting it.[3]

De Bériot also includes an illustration of his newly invented chinrest:

Figure 1- C. de Bériot, Méthode de violon, p. 6.

As we can see it is indeed quite small in relation to the tailpiece and the curve of the lower bout of the instrument. There are two well-known photographs of de Bériot by Ghemar frères. They both show de Bériot and his violin. The first shows de Bériot holding his violin on his knee and upon close examination we see this type of chinrest. I have also been informed that a similar type of chinrest is in the Hill Collection but have not been able to verify this.

If de Bériot invented a “better chinrest” in the late 1850s why was it not adopted by French and Belgian violinists of the time? I feel that it is important to take the following points into consideration.

De Bériot suffered from ill health from the mid-1840s until the end of his life. These illnesses included some form of paralysis to his left arm and at least a partial loss of vision. This type of chinrest may have offered some reassurance to him given his unique physical limitations.

In addition, de Bériot was not an active teacher at the time of the publication of his method.  While he did teach some students privately, his direct influence on the next generation of violinists was greatly diminished in comparison to his years as a professor at the Brussels Conservatory. The leading teacher at the Brussels Conservatory, Hubert Léonard, did not use a chinrest as seen by the following indication from his 1877 method:

The chin must not lay too much on the violin, neither should it be placed on the tailpiece, but right next to it.[4]

De Bériot says that a piece of paper must first be glued to the violin under the chinrest. The installation of such a chinrest would not have been easy and would possibly damage the violin. Also adapting the chinrest to the individual curve of the belly of each violin would have been complicated.

Another factor to take into consideration in the history of the development of the chinrest and its gradual adoption during the 19th and 20th centuries, and one which deserves to be further researched, is the influence of the style of dress on the position of the violin. In the other photo of de Bériot by Ghemar frères, which I am able to reproduce, we can see the typical type of dress of the period. This included a high collared shirt, bow tie, vest and outer jacket.

Figure 2-Charles de Bériot

The violin in the photo is the same as the previously mentioned photo. If we look at the lower left bout of the instrument, we can see that the chinrest is imperceptible. De Bériot says in his method:

The violin is placed on the left clavicle, pushed against the neck, and supported by the collar of the shirt and the jacket which naturally make it incline towards the right.[5]

A shift away from the high collared shirt towards a more modern collar caused the chin and neck to come more into contact with the instrument. As de Bériot mentions in his chinrest description, this can be harmful to the varnish. If we compare the above photo to a photo of Eugène Ysaye in 1883, we see that the style of dress has changed, and the high collared shirt is gone.

Figure 3-Eugène Ysaye, 1883

Personal inquiry to the Brussels Fashion and Lace Museum revealed that the type of clothing worn by de Bériot would have been at least 2 cm thickness in total above the shoulder. I would further hypothesize that the use of a shoulder rest could coincide with thinner clothing. The abundance of photographs of violinists from the late 19th century provides abundant material for a very interesting study on this subject.

© Text and translations, Richard Sutcliffe 2020


[1] M. P. Marsick, La Grammaire du violon, Paris, L. Maillochon, 1924, p. 72.

[2] This edition has the plate numer S 229.

[3] C. de Bériot, Méthode de violon, Paris, Schott frères, s.a., p. 6.

[4] H. Léonard, École Léonard pour le violon, Paris, Richault, 1877, p. 1.

[5] C. de Bériot, Méthode de violon, p. 4.

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