The End of Cat Gut. When Strings Stopped Being Made From Actual Cats

The History of Catgut String

Catgut has been used for musical instrument strings for thousands of years. The earliest evidence of musical strings made from animal intestines and gut come from ancient Egyptian harps and lyres dating back to 2500 BC. Catgut strings were also commonly used on ancient Greek and Roman instruments.

Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, catgut remained the dominant material for strings on instruments like lutes, violas, violins, cellos, harps and guitars. Before the modern nylon and metal strings, catgut was prized for its unique acoustic properties and ability to produce a warm, rich resonant tone.

The use of catgut strings peaked in the 17th-19th centuries during the Baroque and Classical music eras. Famous composers from these periods like Vivaldi, Bach, and Beethoven would have written their string quartets, sonatas, and concertos to be performed with catgut strings. Nearly all stringed instruments used catgut until alternative materials were developed in the 20th century.

According to Wikipedia, “Historically, catgut was the most common material for the strings of harps, lutes, violins, violas, cellos, double basses, acoustic guitars, and other stringed instruments.”

When Catgut Was Phased Out

Catgut string production and use started declining in the early 20th century. Though catgut strings had been used on string instruments like violins, violas, cellos, and guitars for centuries, musicians began adopting new materials as they became available.

Steel piano wire was one of the first alternatives, gaining popularity for guitar strings in the 1910s and 20s. Steel provided more stability and ease of production compared to catgut. Nylon strings were also developed in the 1940s and quickly replaced catgut as the dominant material for classical guitars. Musicians appreciated the smooth feel and consistent intonation of nylon.

Synthetic polymer strings like Perlon and polyester offered new options with bright, projecting tones. The increased availability and decreasing costs of air travel in the mid 1900s also made gut strings less practical, as they were more sensitive to changes in humidity and temperature compared to steel and synthetics.

By the 1950s, the majority of string players had switched away from traditional catgut. The artisan craft of catgut string making declined until only a few manufacturers continued to produce premium gut strings for period-instrument performances and musicians still devoted to their warm, organic sound.


Catgut String Production

Catgut strings were made from the intestines of animals like sheep, cows, hogs, and horses. The manufacturing process involved several steps:

First, the intestines were removed from the animal and the fat and mucus membranes were cleaned off. Next, the intestines were slit open lengthwise and the luminal content was scraped away.

The intestines were then twisted or braided together and polished. One method was to tie a knot at one end of a length of gut and affix it to a post, then wrap the other end around a tuning peg, much like a violin. The gut was polished by rubbing it with a piece of leather while twisting the peg to keep it taut.

After polishing, the strings were treated with an alkaline solution to improve elasticity and longevity. They were then dried and bleached. The finished gut strings were sorted into diameters and lengths.1

The highest quality catgut was made from the small intestines of lambs. This sheep gut was used for violin strings. Lower grades of catgut were made from beef, hog, and horse intestines, and used for larger instruments like the cello, bass, and harp.

Other Materials Gain Popularity

In the early 20th century, other materials like nylon and steel started to become popular alternatives to catgut for musical strings.

Nylon was introduced in the 1940s as a synthetic alternative to catgut for strings like violin and guitar. According to research, nylon offered more durability and stability compared to natural catgut, while providing a warm sound quality. However, some musicians argued that the sound of nylon lacked the complexity and nuance of traditional catgut strings.1

Steel piano strings were also developed in the early 1900s, allowing pianos to be built with much higher string tensions. This let piano manufacturers develop modern pianos with bigger, louder sounds compared to earlier instruments strung with catgut. Steel offered more stability and power, but some argue it lacks the subtlety of catgut piano strings.2

The development of these new materials provided viable alternatives to catgut strings. While catgut remained popular for some time, especially with traditionalists, many string players switched to nylon and steel by the mid-1900s for their advantages in tuning stability, volume, and durability.

Differences Between Catgut and Modern Strings

Catgut strings and modern synthetic strings each have their own advantages and disadvantages in terms of sound, durability, and playability. Catgut was the predominant material for strings for centuries, but synthetic options like steel and various polymer materials have now largely replaced it.

Catgut strings produce a warm, rich tone that many musicians still prefer. However, they are more sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity compared to modern materials. Catgut strings need to be tuned more frequently as they can go out of tune quickly. They are also less durable and break more easily than steel or synthetic strings.

Modern steel and synthetic polymer strings offer more power, brightness and projection. They hold their tune better and are more durable for vigorous playing styles. Steel and synthetic materials are more consistent in quality and cheaper to manufacture than traditional catgut strings. This makes them accessible and popular for most players today.

While catgut strings have a unique sound profile, the playability and consistency of modern strings have made them the predominant choice. Catgut is still used by some professional musicians but is rare compared to strings made with newer materials. Each type of string has advantages that suit different playing styles and musical needs.

Rare Uses of Catgut Today

While largely supplanted by synthetic materials, catgut still sees limited use for specific niche applications, mostly of interest to historians and enthusiasts trying to recreate authentic historical musical experiences.

Some of these rare uses today include:

  • Certain boutique string manufacturers offer catgut strings for historically accurate restorations of antique string instruments like lutes, viols, and harps.
  • A small number of professional musicians seek the unique sound qualities of real catgut for historically informed performances of early music from the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque eras.
  • Catgut may be used in reconstructed historical bows to match original materials as closely as possible.
  • Collectors interested in antique instrument restoration may require catgut sutures for repairs.
  • Catgut sutures continue to be used in a few specialized surgeries, again typically for historical accuracy rather than technical superiority.

While synthetic strings have largely taken over professional markets, catgut remains a unique niche material for early music enthusiasts. It offers a tangible connection to the past, even as music continues evolving with modern materials.

Famous Pieces Composed For Catgut

Many of the most famous classical music pieces were originally composed and performed using catgut strings. Pieces by famous composers like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, and more were written during the height of catgut string popularity.

For example, Mozart’s violin concertos were composed in the late 18th century for catgut string instruments. The rich, warm sound of catgut strings would have shaped the original sound imagined by Mozart. Today, these concertos are more often performed on modern steel strings, which create a brighter and more projecting tone.

Bach’s Cello Suites were also composed in the early 18th century for cello with catgut strings. The more mellow and subdued tone of catgut complements the introspective nature of these suites. Modern performances on metal or synthetic core strings can change the tonal color and articulation of the music, requiring adaptation by the performer.

The same is true for many of Vivaldi’s violin concertos written for catgut strings. Pieces like The Four Seasons have a more resonant and organic quality on catgut that conjures up images of the scenes Vivaldi intended to portray. Synthetic strings provide a different palette of sounds for modern interpretations.

In all of these cases, the change of strings from catgut to modern materials impacts the tone, timbre, articulation, and feel of playing these compositions. While modern strings allow projection in larger halls, the original sound conceived by these composers is worth considering when evaluating different performances.

Myths and Misconceptions

Despite the name, catgut strings were never actually made from cat intestines. This is one of the most common myths about catgut strings. In reality, catgut strings were made from the intestines of sheep, goats, and cattle. The name “catgut” likely comes from the term “kitgut” or “kyttegut”, referring to the intestines used for string making. Some sources suggest the name came from the Italian word “catta” meaning lowest quality string.

Another common myth is that top violinists still prefer the sound of catgut strings. While some argue catgut produces a warmer, richer tone, the truth is most elite string players today use steel or synthetic core strings. Catgut fell out of favor as it is more susceptible to tuning issues and weather changes. Modern materials like Perlon and steel produce more consistent, stable, and durable strings. Still, a small number of musicians continue to use catgut for period performances or a traditional sound.

There’s also a belief that catgut strings produce a superior sound for classical guitars. However, nylon and fluorocarbon strings have largely replaced catgut since the mid 1900s. While catgut provides a mellower tone, it’s also much more expensive and delicate than modern materials. Most experts agree properly manufactured nylon or composite strings can achieve a comparable sound.

Notable String Players Who Used Catgut

Many famous violinists and other string musicians preferred the warm, rich tones of catgut strings. For example, violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz was known for using Thomastik Sendorfer stradivarius catgut strings exclusively throughout his career according to a discussion at Heifetz praised the “singing” tone quality of these strings.

Yehudi Menuhin, one of the great violinists of the 20th century, also used catgut strings by Thomastik according to WQXR. Menuhin favored the warm, mellow sound of gut strings and believed they brought out the best tone from his instruments.

Many early pioneers of the violin such as Antonio Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesù designed their instruments to be used with gut strings. Later prominent violinists followed suit, including Niccolò Paganini, Fritz Kreisler, and Isaac Stern. According to Shar Music, most classical violinists used catgut strings up through the first half of the 20th century.

The Future of Catgut Strings

Though catgut strings were largely phased out in favor of synthetic materials like nylon and steel in the mid-1900s, there are those who believe catgut may make a comeback due to renewed interest from musicians and enthusiasts. Historically-informed performance practices have led some musicians to seek out authentic instruments and strings to recreate the sounds of centuries past. A small but passionate group of luthiers and string makers continue the tradition of handcrafting catgut strings, keeping the old techniques alive.

While catgut strings may never again gain widespread popularity, their unique sound continues to fascinate historians and performers. According to an article on Gamut Music’s website, “Making Gut Strings — Gamut Music. Inc.,” catgut’s warm, mellow tone lends itself beautifully to certain instruments and repertoire. As knowledge and craftsmanship persists in niche communities, there remains hope that catgut strings may enjoy somewhat of a revival or find renewed appreciation in historically informed performances.

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