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A French Relic Has 5 Strings Attached

Music* Bare-shouldered women who loved violin music were in a quandary until they dreamed up a variation on the theme.


ARLINGTON, Va. — In the world of musical instruments, the pardessus de viole--a short, stumpy stringed instrument--is a refugee.

Its history is closely linked to the fickle musical and cultural tastes of 18th century France. Italian violin music was all the rage then, but aristocratic French women who wanted to play it had a problem: Fashion required that they bare their shoulders, and it was a faux pas for a lady to rest anything on a bare shoulder.

Thus the popularity of the pardessus. Similar to a violin, it is played on the lap instead of under the chin. The pardessus also has five strings, rather than the violin's four.

Its brief period of popularity 250 years ago captured the attention of Tina Chancey, one of perhaps four or five people in the United States who play the pardessus professionally.

Chancey said hardly any of her friends who are professional musicians have even heard of the pardessus (pronounced PART-eh-soo).

"It's the most obscure of the obscure instruments," she said.

Chancey, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the instrument, said she was drawn to it initially because of its history as an innovation driven by women who wanted to embrace a new style of music.

She quickly came to appreciate the pardessus for its musical qualities, however. She described its sound as a close mimic of the human voice.

"It was invented for such a silly reason," said Chancey. "But it just turned out to be such a poetic, expressive instrument."

The Arlington resident received two grants in the late 1980s from the National Endowment for the Arts to support her work on the pardessus. In 1990, she played it in her first solo recital at Carnegie Hall.

In 1997, she and Catharina Meints, a cellist with the Cleveland Orchestra, recorded six sonatas written for two pardessus by Barthelemy de Caix, an 18th century French composer.

A few thousand copies of the CD have been sold, said Linda Feldmann, a spokeswoman for its distributor, Dorian Recordings of Troy, N.Y.

She said many music lovers are looking for recordings featuring historical instruments.

"Something like Barthelemy de Caix is not going to go platinum," she said. "But there are people out there who have heard enough Vivaldi. They've heard enough Corelli. They're open to exploration."

Chancey estimated that about 300 pardessus survive from the 18th century. She owns one of them, made in 1745, and uses it for recordings and performances instead of a modern one she had built.

"There's nothing like an old one," she said. "It just really sounds great."

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