Haydn, Schubert, Berlioz, Menuhin, Schumann, Glissando, the list of great violinists goes on and on.
Back then, there was no such thing as online cello tutorials or online violin lessons and only a few people could learn to play the violin. These artists certainly helped bring the violin and its music to everyone. From its inception in the 16th century to the electric version available nowadays, the violin has an interesting history.
Whether baroque music or classic music, an acoustic violin or an electric one, the family of string instruments has changed drastically over time.
Originating in the Arab world, it became famous thanks to Italian luthiers during the Renaissance who changed it; then it was changed again in the 19th century in the form of an electric version.
From classical music to contemporary music, over the course of this article, we’ll be looking at the history of the violin family, the musical instruments of the same name, the best violin makers and what every music lover and budding virtuoso should know about it.
The violin’s birth still remains shrouded in mystery. It would take several centuries before it would start looking like the violin as we know it today. Something you should know before you start taking your violin lessons.
The violin has a big family. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Stringed instruments or anything resembling a violin bow wouldn’t appear until the 10th century. Before that, these types of musical instruments, like the lyre, were played by plucking the strings. Bowed string instruments appeared later in the Chinese Empire, Byzantine Empire, and the Arab-Muslim world.
These instruments were played with a bow made from horsehair. The rebab is often considered one of the violin’s oldest ancestors. It was the first bowed string instrument in the Arab-Muslim world and would arrive in Europe through Spain. It would later be called the “Vihuela” in Spain and the “Viola” in Italian.
Then a new evolution came along, the viol: The viola da gamba and viola da braccio which were used before the violin existed. The viol was a modified chordophone whose performer would use bowing to vibrate the strings and create the sound. Lyres, which are similar to early violins, were only ever plucked, though the left hand manipulated the strings on the neck to change notes.
The first mention of the violin came in 1520. The Italian term “violino” means little viol. We often see this in Italian spec sheets for the instruments, which were a different size to today. These instruments were built in Brescia, Venice, Antwerp and Brussels.
The final version of the instrument was made by the Andrea Amati’s lutherie workshop in Cremona. The look and the sound of the instrument wouldn’t change for another century. It would take a while before there’d be concert music for violins and they’d become part of many orchestra, quartet, symphony, and ensemble pieces.
The first real violin dates back to 1564. Catherine de’ Medici ordered one for her son Charles IX, King of France. The instrument then became a part of the royal court where it has remained ever since. This helped the Amati workshop become famous. Their children and grandchildren continued the family business and would be luthiers.
The quality of violins crafted in the town helped make Cremona the home of the violin. In fact, Cremona was the home to the workshop of the famous Guarneri family (Andrea, Giovanni, Giuseppe, Pietro, and Bartolomeo most famously) of instrument makers. Subsequently, Italy became home to many luthiers during this time and is still the home of the violin.
Aspiring luthiers still travel there to learn the techniques which have been used by Italian workshops for centuries. These handmade violins are, unsurprisingly, of the highest quality.
A luthier chooses their wood (often spruce, ebony, maple, boxwood, willow, and rosewood) depending on its tonal quality, then sculpts it using traditional tools as the first luthiers would have when making violins in the 16th century.
Cremona is the historic home of the violin. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
At the time, king Henry of France was one of the first to establish a programme for learning to make violins, a profession the king acknowledged. The training lasted 6 years and was provided by a guild master.
Before this training existed, musicians had to build their own instrument themselves.
It would take another century after the royal order for Antonio Stradivari to change the violin’s appearance.
The manufacturing methods are still a secret. Out of over a thousand instruments made by the Italian, there are still around 650 in good condition because of the high levels of craftsmanship. The Stradivarius violins remain a veritable legend in the world of music. In fact, these are considered to be the finest sounding instruments of all time.
In the 17th century, the violin became an essential instrument in many orchestras since composers like Monteverdi and Lully were using them in their compositions. Monteverdi was himself a violin player and was the first to use the violin in his compositions. The musician regularly collaborated with Andrea Amati’s children Antonio and Girolamo as well as his grandson Nicolo. The first two were luthiers for Henry IV of France’s orchestra.
The arrival of the sonata would make the violin an essential part of composition in the 17th century. Lully became the royal violinist.
Not only did the composer create musical versions of Molière’s work for Louis the 14th but he also enthusiastically performed them including George Dandin ou Le Malade Imaginaire, in particular.
The two artists basically invented a new genre in doing so.
Lully is one of the greatest violinists of all time. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The violin became an essential instrument for musical composition during this time. It would continue to evolve during the following century.
Violin techniques continued to develop during the 18th century, too. Musicians like Vivaldi, Locatelli, and Tartini kept pushing the envelope. Mozart wrote many sonatas for violin during this time.
During this period, the violin was already established as part of the orchestra. A lot of important conductors were violinists themselves. The city of Paris became the meeting place for Europe’s greatest violinists. Mozart spent a lot of time composing there.
Vivaldi also composed his famous violin concerti in France’s capital. His most famous concerti, Le Quattro Stagioni, composed in 1723 represent each of the main parts in a year. These tunes are some of the most famous pieces of classical music in the world.
The violin continued to establish itself as a serious instrument during the 18th century. During this century, the violin’s shape and manufacturing methods changed. In fact, the increased usage of the instrument led to more and more composers and musicians looking for better violin. To meet their growing needs, luthiers lengthened the neck, bass bar, and the diameter of the sound post.
Thus, the luthiers of the time took the designs of the violins made by Amati and Stradivarius and modified them. The violin has remained relatively unchanged since then.
While modern music doesn’t tend use older instruments like the violin, the violin is still an instrument people are learning to play nowadays.
However, it does have the image as an instrument of the upper classes rather than the working classes (except in the case of folk music). The cost and the years of practice required have turned many aspiring musicians away.
If you’ve attended a wedding, you’ve probably heard Pachelbel’s Canon. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
However, we’ve all heard Canon played millions of time. Thanks to cover versions of the piece on YouTube, it’s become popular again. In fact, there are even covers of the piece on the electric violin.
Furthermore, the new ways of buying things have changed things up. Rather than calling a luthier to build you a violin, you can now get an acoustic or electric violin for a reasonable price from online stores.
Aesthetically speaking, the violin hasn’t really changed since the end of the 18th century. The birth of the electric violin is the first major change in a while.
An instrument that was once used for royal courts can now be used in rock, pop, or folk music. The electric violin comes in a whole variety of shapes, some more outrageous than others since they don’t need to be carved and can do away with traditional manufacturing techniques. Some do away with the sound box and the wood commonly used in making violins and look very unlike the violins of old.
What better way to make the violin appealing again?
There are famous modern groups using the violin. In fact, some of these groups are combining traditional music education (often from reputable conservatoires) with modern sensibilities when they play instruments like the cello or violin.
If you’re a beginner, you should check out our violin playlist.