Life is full of the oddest coincidences sometimes. For instance, catgut entered my consciousness simultaneously in the worlds of medicine and music, sometime in the late 1980s.
In medicine, of course, in any field involving surgery, one learns about catgut as a suture material. But around my medical student and internship years, I was also exposed (via audio cassettes from VP Sinari) to the music of Concentus Musicus Wien conducted by its founder Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who passed away just months ago (1929-2016).
Concentus Music Wien is a period instrument ensemble begun by Harnoncourt in the 1950s. It was my first introduction to HIP music. ‘Historically Informed Performance’ or HIP is an approach to the performance of Western music and theatre. As far as music is concerned, it essentially means performing music with special attention to the technology and performance conventions that were present when a piece of music was composed.
The stimulus for this concept is believed to have been Johann Sebastian Bach’s second death centenary in 1950, around which time the composer Paul Hindemith wrote: “We can be sure that Bach was thoroughly content with the means of expression at hand in voices and instruments, and if we want to perform his music according to his intentions we ought to restore the conditions of performance of that time.” The concept was even older, but the Bach milestone brought it into focus in the music world.
This idea profoundly influenced Harnoncourt, and with his Concentus Musicus Wien was soon at the vanguard of this movement. So the Magnasound label cassettes I bought (at forty rupees each then!), featuring him directing the Concentus Musicus Wien in performances of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos and violin concertos for instance were ear-openers. I was familiar with the works, but I had never heard them played them anything like that.
It compelled me to think of how music would have sounded in the time it was written. But is impossible to be absolutely certain, even using the most faithfully reproduced, ‘authentic’ period instruments. The contemporary tendency to revere the score as a ‘perfect’, ‘faithful’ representative of the music has turned music itself into a text-based art form rather than a more spontaneous, creative performance-based one.
What has this to do with catgut, you may well ask? Well, the stringed instruments of Bach’s time for example were strung with catgut. When I first learned of this, it excited me greatly; that a mundane workaday surgical material used in the profession I was studying and beginning to practice, was once (and still is, by players of period-instruments and HIP music) pressed into service to produce some of the most sublime music in the world.
In fact, the clue lies in the very term. Catgut has nothing to do with the guts of cats. Catgut, whether used for purposes surgical or musical, is made from guts (or intestines) alright, but of sheep, goat or cattle. So catgut is believed to be a shortened form of ‘cattle gut’. But an alternative explanation attributes the name to a corruption of ‘kit’gut, ‘kit’ being a folk term for a fiddle or violin. There existed a kit violin used by dance masters in royal and noble courts and by street musicians alike, small enough to fit into a pocket, hence also called a pochette (French for pocket). So ‘kit’ is thought to be a reduction of ‘pocket’, or even a corruption of ‘cittern’, the Renaissance stringed instrument.
Surgical catgut of course would need a preparation and sterilisation process very different from the manufacture of strings. In my medical student years, I managed to procure a sufficient length of surgical catgut (I can’t remember whether plain or chromic ie treated with chromic acid salts, but it was a thick diameter) and strung it up on my violin. Both my violin and the suture protested at the indignity of the experiment. The suture seemed to be saying “I was made to thread the eye of a surgical needle, not a lowly violin peg! I’m a life-saver, not an entertainer!” But it did produce a sound under tension when the bow was applied to it. It was more of a rasp than a pleasing tone, and the bow didn’t grip it easily at first. I didn’t try ratcheting up the tension and therefore the pitch further as I feared the suture would break under the strain, and my violin bridge along with it.
In my England years, I was able through my musician colleagues and at luthier ateliers to try out actual period-instrument baroque violins fitted with catgut strings. They produce a warm, rich tone with overtones quite different to the sound created by ‘modern’ strings. But they tend to slip and slacken more easily, and one has to keep re-tuning the instrument.
The thinner, higher-pitched catgut strings are made from plain gut, whereas the thicker, lower-pitched strings have a gut core wrapped in sterling silver wire to improve their tone.
The more I thought about catgut ‘binding’ my profession and my passion, I began to realise that other suture materials have at various points been used as strings on musical instruments as well. Take non-absorbable suture materials like silk, or nylon, polyester or even stainless steel. Ethnic Chinese instruments used silk, and so many instruments use nylon and metal strings.
Perhaps this should not be so surprising as all that. In both cases, we are looking at a sufficient length of “string”, of a certain tensile strength; in surgery, we want knots to maintain their tautness, in music strings need to be resilient enough to be stretched to the required pitch. In both cases, they should not have the ‘wick effect’: in surgery this is to prevent infection and also not to compromise the integrity of the suture, and on a musical instrument, a hygroscopic effect would also compromise the life of the string, perhaps jeopardise the instrument itself (being made of wood) and play havoc with pitch.
And the ultimate requirement for music is the ability to produce a sweet, pleasant tone when plucked or bowed. The mellow sound produced by a catgut E string is unforgettable if you have been used all your life to the metallic shrillness of a ‘regular’ E string. I’m not a convert yet, but I have a healthy respect for catgut, quite apart from all its uses in surgery.
(An edited version of this article was published on 26 June 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)