You love your violin! It goes with you just about everywhere. You practice in the
basement each evening after school. You show up for practice on time; you’re
even trying out for the local symphony orchestra in town. Why not? You’re
already in the one at school, but how much do you actually know about the instrument you are playing? Sure,
it sounds great. It should. You just had an upgrade to a more intermediate stringed
instrument. Your last violin was serviced regularly. You absolutely appreciate the
importance of maintaining your violin to get the maximum quality of sound and
play-ability based on your needs as a musician. You even selected a violin made from quality German tone woods, chosen for maturity of sound and depth of resonance, but what about it’s history? Stradivarius was the inventor right? That’s pretty much when violins came on the scene. Well. Stradivarius certainly didn’t hurt the
reputation of the violin. More about that later. But it starts even earlier than
Stradivarius of the eighteen century.
Purists contend, the Italian luthier Amati, during the Italian Renaissance in the
sixteenth century, invented the violin in a fashion similar to what we recognize
Stop Beating that Stone Piano
However, in real terms, a trip on the Way Back Bus pretty much keeps going.
There really was never a single point in time where someone yelled; stop beating
that stone piano! I’ve just invented this carved out wooden thingy and strung a
couple of spare strips of sheep gut down the middle. Wow, if I slide this olive
branch along it sideways, it sounds mighty fine…..
In essence, the violin evolved as an instrument over a long period of time, gaining
greater exposure as the movement of people increased.
The Renaissance, a period in European history of rapid cultural growth, witnessed
major developments in literature, art, sciences, politics and philosophy. During
this early modern era stretching between 14th and 17th centuries, great strides were
made in intellectual developments, much of which was shared in homes and guilds.
It is against this backdrop of intellectual and artistic explosion that Amati
developed the modern violin.
Straddling the 17th and 18th centuries, the Stradivarius family, notably Antonio
Stradivarius, produced the most well known family of stringed instruments in
violin history. Many since have attempted to reproduce the exquisite sounds made
by a Stradivarius without success. Although others argue this is not the case.
Nevertheless, discovering a Stradivarius in your attic may likely earn you enough
to take your next violin lesson at Carnegie Hall.
The Smithsonian Museum currently has a 1701 Servais Cello made by the
Stradivarius family. There are estimated to be around 650 surviving instruments
made by this family.
Evidence suggests, stringed instruments may have arrived via Central Asia,
notably Mongolia. Trade routes opening across the Asian continent may have
eventually brought the violin into Europe. Once in Europe, craftsmen, interested in
producing the instrument themselves, further developed the violin in a manner
suitable for musicians traveling between villages. Eventually, as history
demonstrates, violins made their way into the hands of notable composers such as
Bach and Vivaldi.
Worth mentioning is that the violin was not the only stringed instrument making
the rounds during the 16th century. The lira da braccio, a possible fore-runner of
Amati’s violin, may have influenced his more modern design. Similar to the
violin, the lira da braccio was a bow shaped instrument popular during the
Renaissance era. Nevertheless, it is argued that the oldest surviving ‘modern’
violin named Charles IX and made by Amati, at least supports popular theory
Amati was in fact, the creator of the violin which we recognize today.
The deep, resonance of a well made violin; the mature sound, in addition to its
portability, made this instrument greatly popular with traveling musicians and
composers. As the Italian Renaissance era invaded a cultural sweep across the rest
of Europe, larger venues for musical performances became popular. The violin
with its incredibly rich sound projection made it a favorite with composers writing
for larger venues, often by Royal Command.
Industrial Era Changes
The unprecedented growth of towns and cities across Europe during the Industrial
Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries lent itself to technical improvements in the
violin. Technological advances, factories and later the development of mass
movement of goods by train provided opportunities for the violin to enter the hands
of an increasing middle class. This affluent class were keen to obtain goods and
services deemed non-essential to everyday living. Music lessons indicated a families increasingly upward mobility, facilitating the movement of the violin into
During this time, changes were made to the violin. The fingerboard, made longer
gave greater range and flexibility to playing. The tension of the strings were
increased, making for a greater range and even better sound projection than before.
With increasing popularity, the violin went into mass production. Some violins,
made more cheaply than others made their way into the hands of less classically
inspired players who produced popular folk music for working people. This
music is recognizable as Irish, Bluegrass and Cajun styles, and was played on a
fiddle. Meant as an uplifting distraction from everyday life, this mass market style
of music populated venues such as music halls and public houses. Today, these
violin styles have become widely popular across the globe, thus giving the modern
violin player a greater choice of playing styles compared with many other
Today, the portability and versatility of the violin has made it one of the most
popular instruments in the world. After the more mass-produced violins typically
used by beginners, older violins tend to be sought after by the intermediate and
advanced players, seeking a greater depth of tone and range. Players at this level
will often work with a luthier knowledgeable about the type of violin best suited to
a particular player, and where to source such an instrument.
So, there you have it. A brief history of your violin. Play on and play well.. You
just might have a Strad’!