Press release

The New Violin Family: Augmenting the String Section

Exhibition dates: May 10 - March 30, 2003
Exhibition location: The André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments

The mysteries behind making a violin sound like a violin is explored in The New Violin Family: Augmenting the String Section, now on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 30, 2003. Featuring 13 instruments, including a famous Hutchins Violin Octet, the exhibition chronicles the work of Dr. Carleen Maley Hutchins (b. Springfield, Massachusetts, 1911), a luthier and acoustical scientist who pioneered modern techniques of violin making. In order to demonstrate the scientific approach she employed to create ideal acoustics, a model depicting her process of plate tuning is on display.

This exhibition is partially funded by The Amati, Friends of the Department of Musical Instruments.

Developed in 1964, the Hutchins Violin Octet – also known as the New Violin Family – is a consort of eight finely matched instruments, ranging in size and tuning from an oversize contrabass (seven feet in length) tuned as a double bass, to a tiny sopranino (just 16 inches long) tuned one octave above the violin. The traditional members of the violin family, consisting of violin, viola, and bass, have acoustic characteristics and construction that differ from one another. Hutchins's acoustically consistent instruments, having a homogeneous timbre across the range of the entire string section, augment traditional violin sound by providing greater volume and balanced tone, an expanded range of dynamics and frequencies, and an extraordinary palette of sounds.

The Hutchins Violin Octet on view includes: Treble Violin (1986), tuned an octave above the conventional violin; Soprano Violin (1979), tuned an octave above the viola; Mezzo Violin (1976), an enlarged version of the conventional 14-inch violin; Alto Violin (undated), an enlarged version of the conventional viola; Tenor Violin (1971), tuned an octave below the normal violin; Baritone Violin (1985), tuned like the cello; Small Bass Violin (1989), about the size of a three-quarter bass; and Contrabass Violin (1985), larger than its conventional counterpart, the double bass.

Dr. Hutchins and her colleagues worked from 1957 to 1964, building upon the acoustical ideas and experimentation of Félix Savart, Ernst Chladni, Hermann von Helmholtz, Frederick Dautrich, Frederick A. Saunders, and others. The rich cross-fertilization of ideas and research, along with advancements in acoustical test equipment, enabled her to construct experimental instruments and to tune them electronically before assembly. This work resulted in the creation of the consort instruments.

Ken Moore, Frederick P. Rose Curator in Charge of the Department of Musical Instruments, mentioned: "Performers of traditional instruments are resistant to and cautious about changes in playing technique and training or any reconfiguration of the traditional orchestra, which they fear may be demanded by the total adoption of this new family. In spite of this, most react enthusiastically to the responsive touch and powerful sound of the Hutchins Violin Octet instruments."

Octets comprised of Hutchins's instruments have been established, music has been composed for them, and recordings have been made. Yo-Yo Ma, the renowned cellist, recorded Bartók's Viola Concerto using a Hutchins alto violin. His CD including the concertos, The New York Album, was a 1995 Grammy Award® runner-up, and Ma exclaimed that playing the alto violin ". . . was an amazing experience . . ." Other CDs on which consort instruments are played include three by the St. Petersburg Hutchins Violin Octet and one by the Hutchins Consort.

The New Violin Family: Augmenting the String Section is co-curated by Ken Moore, Frederick P. Rose Curator in Charge, and Stewart Pollens, Associate Conservator, of the Museum's Department of Musical Instruments. Exhibition design is by Daniel Kershaw, Exhibition Designer, with graphics by Barbara Weiss, Graphic Designer.


May 15, 2002

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