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Who Invented the Violin?

Updated on November 14, 2014
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The violin is one of the most popular instruments in Western Music. It is also arguably the most versatile instrument in the world. With so many ornamentations and articulations across a range of over three octaves as well as significant freedom in intonation, there is virtually no melody that cannot played on a violin and no musical genre in which it cannot find a place. Each violin is a carefully, hand-crafted work of art.

Watch David Kim speak about playing the violin.

Reading a label on a violin reveals the name of the individual or shop responsible for making it and, perhaps, the name of another maker to whom that particular design should be credited, such as Stradivari or Amati. If you were to make a timeline showing the development of the violin, it would seem that the instrument and it's nearest relatives, the viola and cello, simply appeared on the scene near the end of the Italian Renaissance. No one is credited with making the first violin, yet several Italian families began making them and accepting apprentices who also wanted to make violins. How did these people know what they were doing?

What's in a Name

A person who makes violins is called a luthier. This might seem a bit strange, since "luthier" sounds nothing like "violin." A person who paints is a painter. A person who sculpts is a sculpter. A person who builds is a builder. Shouldn't a person who makes violins be called…a violiner?

Then again, perhaps it is not so strange. After all, a person who makes horseshoes is a blacksmith. A person who makes shoes is a cobbler. A person who makes barrels is a cooper. None of those products have a name related to their maker, either. We could just accept, then, that "luthier" and "violins" are what they are, regardless of the names given to them. However, then we would miss the answer to our question, since it is actually embedded in the word "luthier."

"Luthier" does not really mean violin maker. It means lute maker. A lute is a rather interesting instrument that looks nothing like a violin. It looks a lot more like a guitar, and it really is a sort of guitar - or rather a guitar is a sort of lute. In fact, any string instrument with frets and a sound box like the instrument shown on the right is a lute of sorts. This family includes guitars, banjos, mandolins, ukeleles, and any other string instrument that can be held under the arm and strummed.

Many new string instruments developed during the Renaissance as luthiers, inspired by the cultural revolution that had sprung out of Italy, began experimenting with strings in pursuit of a specific goal: an instrument with as much versatility as the human voice. As a result, luthiers became much more than lute-makers. They became makers of string instruments in general, and over time each found their own niche as they began to specialize in specific families of string instruments.

One of these families, the viols, included fretted instruments that were played with a bow. They came in various sizes. The smaller ones rested on the knee, and the larger ones stood on the floor. Many viols had C-shaped holes, but others had F-shaped holes like those of the violin family. The upright bass is a viol.


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Eliminating Redundancy

Around the same time that the viol family was gaining popularity, other bowed instruments were becoming the focus of luthiers' experiments. Among these was the viele. The word "viele" is related to several general terms that were being used in various places throughout Europe to refer to any instrument played with a bow. These words include fele, fiedel, fiele, videl, vihuela, and two words that are still widely used today: fiddle and viola.

The viele had been one of the more popular string instruments in Europe during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It was small and portable and therefore convenient for traveling minstrels. It had four strings. Also popular in the same time period was the rebec, which was similar to the viele (although it varied in number of strings from one to five) and often tuned in fifths. Both instruments were held in the left hand, supported against the chest or upper arm the way many fiddlers hold their violins today. It was a sort of mixing and matching of the features of these instruments, as well as further experimentation in continued pursuit of an instrument as versatile as the human voice, that caused the first violins to arise and spread throughout Europe.

All of these bowed instruments did similar things, and their ranges overlapped. Combining them in groups and assigning them voice parts, so they could harmonize like members of a chorus, was therefore impractical. As a result, most of them were abandoned in favor of the violin and viol families in an effort to standardize string ensembles. Something else was happening at that time as well. The development of new instruments was leading to the development of new music, and the next fifty years would break long-held musical traditions, paving the way for the seventeenth century and the Baroque period.

Standards of the Symphony

One of the earliest Baroque composers, Monteverdi, began writing music for specific instruments and dividing these instruments into groups. This led to the development of the orchestra. The idea that instruments should be organized according to the sounds they made in turn led to the idea that orchestras needed to have sections that could cover the instruments the composer wanted. That was not so easily accomplished when some composers were writing for the viol family while others were writing for the violin family! One of them had to be eliminated.

Now, there was never any sort of official meeting of composers in which all of them decided that they simply were not going to have viols in the orchestra anymore. What actually happened is a bit more complicated. Composers were starting to copy each other's formats when writing music for orchestras. Symphonies, pieces written for orchestras, were being streamlined into four-movement works calling for similar instruments. In order to play symphonies by multiple composers, orchestras had to be organized in a way that made them as versatile as possible. As a result, the violin family began to be favored over the viol family because it was fretless and allowed for greater expression.

Symphony at the Lucerne Festival, 2013
Symphony at the Lucerne Festival, 2013 | Source

Courtney is part owner of Treble Strings. She teaches lessons both online and in her studio in Smithville, MO. To contact her, please email: lessons@treblestrings.com

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