THE ARPEGGIONE
THE ARPEGGIONE

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eveloped in 1823 by the Viennese guitar luthier Johann Georg Staufer (1778-1853), the arpeggione (also known as the bowed guitar/bogen-guitarre, guitarre d'amour, and guitarre-violoncell) was a bowed, six-stringed, fretted instrument, which was tuned exactly like a classical guitar. Its body shape was also similar to a guitar, with smooth rather than pointed violin corners. Because the instrument lacked an endpin, it was held between the knees like a viola da gamba. Presumably, Staufer used a thread of logic similar to the 15th century creators of the viol family when he envisioned the arpeggione: a bowed version of an existing plucked instrument (in the case of the viol family, the lute) that could easily be learned by players of the existing instrument after only a few simple bowing exercises.1

Staufer was arguably the most important figure of the Viennese guitar luthierie in the early 19th century. He introduced several critical innovations to the shape and structure of the guitar, many of which are still in use today. The "Persian slipper" shape of the headstocks—a defining design element instigated by Staufer—is currently brandished on all Fender Stratocaster electric guitars. The most striking of his innovations, however, was the "flying fingerboard," which allowed the performer to set the action of the instrument according to his taste by raising or lowering the height of the fingerboard. Refinements such as sloping, violin-style backs, pronounced upper and lower bouts (like those of modern guitars), and range-increasing 22-fret fingerboards are also attributed to Staufer's shop in Vienna.

The arpeggione itself, though not well received generally, did breed a small group of players and enthusiasts. According to the preface of the sonata's first edition, it was for one of these enthusiasts—Vincenz Schuster—that Schubert wrote the piece. In addition to being the first person to perform the sonata, Schuster also published the only method book for the instrument in 1825 (Anleitung zur Erlernung des von Herrn Georg Staufer neu erfundenen Guitarre-Violoncells—Diablelli). But despite his and others' better efforts, the arpeggione only remained in use for just over 10 years.2

The arpeggione's rapid extinction could have occurred for many reasons. Any luthier who has attempted to design, build, and then introduce a new instrument to classical performers will tell you that it is an uphill battle; the likelihood of failure is extremely high. In the case of the arpeggione, Staufer's miscalculation was twofold, both of mechanics and aesthetics. Like the viola da gamba3 and other fretted stringed instruments with more than four strings, the arpeggione was a delicate instrument, whose bridge curvature was very slight, making it difficult to apply pressure on a single string without touching off adjacent strings. The late 18th century proliferation of the brighter (and louder) pianoforte as the keyboard instrument of choice4 (surpassing plectrum-based keyboard instruments like the harpsichord) demanded more volume from solo instruments in order to achieve the appropriate balance between the instruments. The absence of an endpin also made it awkward to play and hold.

If the mechanical shortcomings contributed to the arpeggione's quick demise, then the evolving aesthetics of this era in music history sealed its fate. The fretted members of the string family (such as the viola da gamba) were regarded as musical archaisms5 in the 18th century and were long out of fashion by the early 19th century6. The sound of the viola da gamba and its odd cousin, the baryton, was described in the most pejorative terms, as evidenced by this statement by Burney in the late 1760s:

[The baryton] was practised longer in Germany than elsewhere; but since the death of the late Elector of Bavaria… the instrument seems laid aside. […] The tone of the instrument will do nothing for itself, and it seems with Music as with agriculture, the more barren and ungrateful the soil, the more art is necessary in its cultivation. And the tones of the viola da gamba are radically so crude and nasal, that nothing but the greatest skill and refinement can make them bearable. A human voice of the same quality would be intolerable.7

If the viola da gamba was held in such low esteem in the latter half of the 18th century, then one can only imagine the chilly reception the arpeggione must have received in 1823. Much had happened in the intervening years, and the sound of the viol became more and more anachronistic. Musical expressiveness—as represented by an expanded and more colorful palette of markings and dynamics, the changing nature and function of vibrato, and so on—had been redefined by Beethoven, which established a forward-moving course that presumed itself uninterested in the reserved aesthetic of the Baroque and pre-Baroque periods. Unfortunately for its maker and devotees, the arpeggione was anathema before it was even built.

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1 Walter Kolneder, The Amadeus Book of the Violin: Construction, History, and Music, trans. Reinhard G. Pauly (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1998) 83.
2 Peter Clive, Schubert and His World: A Biographical Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University, 1997) 230.
3 "Viol." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. "[The viola da gamba] is a chamber instrument with a soft, sweet tone, incapable of the dynamic extremes and brilliance of the violin; this helps to account for its decline."
4 Richard W. Maunder, Keyboard Instruments in Eighteenth-Century Vienna (Oxford, England: Oxford University, 1998) 106. Maunder cites 1783 as the year when sales of pianofortes and fortepianos overtook sales of harpsichords.
5 William S. Newman, The Sonata in the Classic Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963) 92.
6 Julie Anne Sadie, ed. Companion to Baroque Music (New York: Oxford University, 1998) 366. "[The stringed instruments] were… the first to be affected by changes in taste, for… they were already going out of fashion in England. Purcell, in the late 17th century, was the last major English composer to write for viols, and he was regarded as old-fashioned for so doing."
7 Ibid.