It is thought by many that the violin probably went through its greatest transformation in Italy from 1520 through 1650. Famous violin makers such as the Amati family were pivotal in establishing the basic proportions of the violin, viola, and cello. This family’s contributions to the art of violin making were evident not only in the improvement of the instrument itself, but also in the apprenticeships of subsequently gifted makers including Andrea Guarneri, Francesco Rugeri, and Antonio Stradivari.
Stradivari, recognized as the greatest violin maker in history, went on to finalize and refine the violin’s form and symmetry. Makers including Stradivari, however, continued to experiment through the 19th century with archings, overall length, the angle of the neck, and bridge height. As violin repertoire became more demanding, the instrument evolved to meet the requirements of the soloist and larger concert hall. The changing styles in music played off of the advancement of the instrument and vice-versa. In the 19th century, the modern violin became established. The modern bow had been invented by Francois Tourte (1747-1835). Its weight, length, and balance allowed the player to produce power and brilliance in the higher ranges. It was Louis Spohr’s invention of the chinrest around 1820 that made it possible for the player to hold the violin comfortably and play in the higher positions. Spohr’s chin rest also resulted in the significant advancement of playing technique and allowed the violin repertoire to reach its virtuoso level.
Italy – City of Violins:
The advent of the shoulder rest (no known date) was also an important contribution to the ease of playing. Players in Bach’s day held the violin by placing a chamois on their shoulder so the violin would not slip but stay in place by gentle pressure from the chin and shoulder. The instrument was angled towards the floor constricting the movement of the arm underneath the neck and thereby prohibiting playing in the upper positions. The Bach E Major Violin Concerto was composed at a time (ca. 1720) when the violin had no chin or shoulder rest, had a shorter fingerboard, and was strung entirely of gut strings. Players also used little or no vibrato. All this combined with the bow in use (shorter and lighter than the present day Tourte bow), made for a soft, muddy, rough sound. Today’s performances sound louder in volume, but softer in texture. The sound has a brilliance and clarity to it that would not have been possible in Bach’s day. Despite the fact that violins in Bach’s time were not “modern” by today’s standards, his solo string instrument compositions are some of the most challenging repertoires for any serious student of the violin, viola, or cello.
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It is believed that the violin originated from Italy in the early 1500s. It appears to have evolved from the fiddle and rebec, both were bowed string instruments from the Medieval period. The violin is also believed to have emerged from the lira da braccio, a violin-like instrument of the Renaissance period. The viol, which came before the violin, is also closely related.
It is Andrea Amati who is the known developer of the violin.
Amati apprenticed as a lute maker and in 1525, he became a master instrument maker.
The earliest noted violin makers were Gasparo da Salò and Giovanni Maggini, both Italians, but it is during the 17th and early 18th centuries that the art of violin making reached its peak. The Italians Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri, as well as the Austrian Jacob Stainer, are most noted during this period. Stradivari was an apprentice to Nicolo Amati, Andrea Amati’s grandson.
The earliest form of the violin is very different from that of today. The early violins had a neck that was shorter, thicker and less angled. The fingerboard was likewise shorter, the bridge was flatter and the strings were made of gut.
At first, the violin wasn’t popular, in fact, it was considered a musical instrument of low status. But by the 1600s such well-known composers as Claudio Monteverdi used the violin in his operas, thus the violins’ status grew.
The violins’ prestige continued to rise during the Baroque period, made more notable by such celebrated figures in music as Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach.
By the mid-18th century, the violin enjoyed a vital place in instrumental music ensembles. In the 19th century, the violins’ rise to fame continued in the hands of virtuoso violinists such as Nicolò Paganini and Pablo de Sarasate.
In the 20th century, the violin reached new heights both in technical and artistic aspects. Isaac Stern and Fritz Kreisler are some of the well-known icons of this time. Truly, the violin has come a long way.
WELL KNOWN COMPOSERS FOR THE VIOLIN
- Baroque and Classical Period – Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven
- Romantic Period – Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
- 20th Century – Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, Bela Bartok, and Igor Stravinsky.