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The History of the Violin

Updated on October 24, 2021
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The Violin Family

The members of the violin family are the violin proper, the viola, the violoncello, and the double bass (this last, often called contrabass viol, may be viewed as a development of the deepest size of viol rather than as a true violin).

The Violin family is the backbone of the orchestra, and in its various members some of the greatest musicians of all time - Spohr, Paganini, Sarasate, Joachim, Ysaye, Kreisler, and Casals, to name a very few - have found the perfect medium for their art.

The Violin family, consisting of the violin, viola, cello and double bass, emerged in its modern form almost abruptly towards the end of the sixteenth century. Instruments played with a bow had been known for many hundreds of years, but lovely as many of them were in sound, and sometimes appearance, none of them compares in beauty, strength and range of sound with the modern instruments.

History of the Violin

While the earliest history of the family is obscure, the lineage is believed to be traced from the Egyptian kithara, through the Greek and Roman kithara, the Spanish vihuela, the famous and wonderful viol family, and so, by means of many other minor links, to the violins of Italy.

The remoter ancestors of the violin were plucked. The branch which was to bear such rich fruit in sixteenth-century Cremona although of the same family is separated from the others by the use of the bow; these became lutes, lyres, guitars and even banjos and ukuleles.

Stringed instruments played with a bow were unknown to the Assyrians, the Hebrews and Egyptians (the translation of a Hebrew word as 'bow' is probably a mistake for 'plectrum').

When bowed instruments arrived from the East is unknown: the earliest illustration dates from the ninth century A.D., and shows a blind musician with a harp and a curious spade-shaped instrument accompanied by a bow some ten feet long. From this time onwards various fiddle-like instruments are seen in manuscripts, drawings and carvings, primitive in construction and doubtless unsatisfactory in performance, but wearing something of the aspect of the true violin to come.

In the tenth century there appeared the vielle, or fiedel, which was pear-shaped and was played on the shoulder (later, in the larger versions, on the knee). The oldest representations in England are painted on the roof of Peterborough Cathedral: these date from the twelfth century, and the resemblance to the violin lies not only in the general shape but extends to the shaped sound-holes.

The viols were of two main kinds, viola da braccio and viola da gamba ~ that is, played on the arm or held on the knees. The family differed from the violins in having generally flat backs, C-shaped sound-holes, sloping shoulders, broad, thin necks, fingerboards marked with frets for the notes, and on an average six strings.

Birth of the 'Modern' Violin

It is generally believed that it was Gasparo da Salo, an excellent maker of viols working in Brescia, who first produced instruments of the true violin type about 1580. His instruments were stronger in every way than the viols - sometimes to the point of crudity - but they gave for the first time in the long history of evolution, experiment and error the true singing tone of the violin.

Other Brescian masters learned their trade in his workshop, while in nearby Cremona was born Andrea Amati, now renowned as the first really great violin-maker. A man of noble birth, and with no record of apprenticeship to the craft, he produced instruments of such beauty of tone, such elegance and quality, that his example was directly responsible for the great makers of Cremona who followed: Stradivari, Guarneri, the Ruggieri, and Bergonzi were all pupils in his workshop; with their respective families and other great makers of Cremona - Seraphin, Guadagnini, Gagliano - they reached a peak of style and artistry that has never been equaled.

Much of their success has been attributed to a closely-guarded formula for varnish, now lost beyond recall; whether the particular excellence of Cremonese violins depended on this or on some intangible quality we cannot now tell. The instruments were recognized as exceptional at the time of their creation, and were in demand, but they have improved with playing and matured with age. Many of the finest Amatis and Stradivaris are even now at their prime, others are tired and old, and will never recover their former warmth.

Dignified Respect

  Violin, viola, cello and double bass are a truer family than any other instrumental group, for their similarity of tone joins them in perfect consort, and their individual characteristics add variety without spoiling the blend. 

 The violin is the brilliant member of the family, passionate, cool and sparkling, with a nimbleness of voice and a soaring song that are unrivalled by any other instrument; the viola is melancholy, with a brown, husky whisper that can swell to a great richness; the double bass is ponderously masculine, though even those gruff tones can be sweetened; while the cello sings its tunes with infinite variety. 

 Whether as solo instruments, in the string quartet (two violins, viola, cello) or in the orchestra, this is a group with a sympathy that would be the envy of any human family, the highest development of a line of aristocrats. It is a far cry from this honoured position of today to the surly ordinance of 1685 whereby 'if any person or persons, commonly called fiddlers, or minstrels, shall at any time ... be taken playing, fiddling, or making music in any wine, alehouse, or tavern, or shall be proffering themselves, or desiring, or entreating any person or persons to hear them play ... they shall be adjudged rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars'.    


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