The history of the violin is an interesting one since it’s one of the most popular instruments in the world. Its versatility and ability to suit a variety of distinct musical styles make it one of the best options for musicians who love different genres and styles. From fast and energetic sounds to slow and sanguine melodies, the violin can handle it all. Despite it being widely associated with classical music, the violin can be used in country, rock, and even jazz styles.
The history of the violin is extensive and dates back centuries, and spans different cultures and continents. We may know the ins and outs of the modern violin, but the expressive instrument has undergone a number of transformations before reaching the final version we know today.
In order to fully understand the modern violin we know and love, it’s important to explore how it came to be. This was a long process that was completed over centuries. This article will explore the extensive history of the violin, its origins, and how it has changed and evolved into the versatile instrument we use today.
A Brief History Of The Violin And Its Origins
When we listen to Mozart and Beethoven, it’s easy to get lost in their beautiful violin concertos. These masters play the instrument with such ease that we forget the full history of the violin and its complex nature. Here, we’re going to delve into the origins of the instrument and how it came to be.
Before The Violin: Ancestry And Forerunners
The violin is a bowed, stringed instrument. However, it’s not the first of its kind. The violin may have become popular in the 16thand 17thcenturies, but it has slowly evolved into what it is today. In fact, the history of the violin dates back to the 9thcentury.
Long before luthiers like Stradivari and Amati became famous for their craftsmanship, bowed, stringed instruments were popular across the globe. Therefore, the history of the violin is rooted in instruments like the ravanastron, erhu, rebab, and lira, which span geographical locations and traditions. We’ve discussed some of the most prominent forerunners to the modern violin below.
One of the earliest bowed instruments in history was the ravanastron, or the ravanahatha. The two-stringed instrument originated in India and surrounding areas like Sri Lanka and is the oldest known ancestor to the modern violin. The ravanastron dates back to approximately 5000 BCE and consisted of a single 22-inch string spanning three octaves. The total tonal range of this was similar to that of all four strings on a modern violin. According to some reports, other versions consisted of 1-4 strings.
The erhu is a two-stringed instrument with origins in China. This bowed, stringed instrument was first seen during the Tang Dynasty in 618. The erhu is an alto/middle range instrument and consisted of a soundbox, and a long, thin neck with two tuning pegs for the two strings. The lack of fingerboard meant that the strings had to be vibrated by pressing them against themselves, as demonstrated here.
The rebab is another bowed, stringed instrument originally developed in the Byzantine era in the Middle East. This quickly gained popularity spread across Europe in the 11thand 12thcenturies, eventually becoming known as the lira by Europeans. As time passed, Europeans developed their own bowed liras. The most popular of these are the lira da gamba and the lira da braccio.
While the rebab was a two-stringed instrument, the rebec went further and consisted of three strings. This 10th-century instrument was held under the chin while played and spread across Spain between the 11thand 13thcenturies because of the Crusades. It also affected the design of the modern violin that we know and love.
Another important ancestor was the French vielle. This was usually used by troubadours in the 13th, 14thand 15thcenturies and accompanied dancing and singing. Like the rebec, it was either supported under the chin or on the musician’s chest.
Other Notable Instruments
There are a number of other stringed instruments that are said to be predecessors to the violin, including the Greek kithara and the Mongolian morin khuur. It’s clear that the history of the violin was influenced by these and other stringed instruments.
The Evolution Of The Modern Violin
The history of the violin consists of a number of stringed instruments, but most experts agree that the violin we use and know today emerged in Italy in the early 16thcentury. In fact, most of the world’s best luthiers are Italian and have influenced the modern build of the instrument.
Luthiers and Craftsmen
Northern Italy was famous for violin production and continues to be the violin-making capital of the world. The two types of woods most favored by Luthiers, i.e., spruce and maple, were readily available in the Lombardy region. Brescia and Cremona emerged as places that homed the best luthiers in the world, including the Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari families.
Some of these master craftsmen were renowned for their work on violins, with the most popular being Antonio Stradivari, Giuseppe Guarneri, and the Amatis. All originated from Cremona and are highly regarded to this day. In fact, the oldest violin in existence today was built by the famous Amati family. It was crafted by Andrea Amati in 1564 for the French king, Charles IX.
Composers and Musicians
The skilled craftsmen and luthiers clearly had a considerable influence on the history of the violin. However, they’re not the only ones who affected the instrument’s development. Even composers made important contributions to the modern violin.
One of the best examples of this was when the violin became popular in the 17thcentury. Instead of being used simply to accompany vocals, it was used as a solo instrument. As a result, the bow became more curved as it allowed for more agility and maneuvering multiple strings simultaneously. Many refer to this curved bow as the “Bach bow” because of his compositions. His work and the subsequent style for playing influenced and changed the bow and its shape and make.
As the violin increased in popularity and was embraced by composers, musicians, and the courts, who made further changes. While the design for the modern violin was standardized in the 16thcentury, a few other changes had to be made to get it to where it is today.
One major change is the fixing of the fourth string and the design of the f-curve. This wasn’t a part of the standard design beforehand and was put into motion when Catherine de Medici placed a large order with Andrea Amati. The sheer scale of the order resulted in these changes.
Furthermore, the f-curve and its shape and dimensions kept changing until the 19thcentury. Changes included lengthening the fingerboard and neck and the bridge height. Even the dimensions of the bow weren’t standardized until 1786 when Frenchman François Tourte designed and created the modern bow. The chin rest wasn’t introduced until 1820 but helped increase the range of the violin and made it easier to hold.
All of these changes show us that the violin didn’t just appear out of nowhere. The history of the violin dates back centuries and consisted of many changes over time to result in the instrument we use today. Violin’s rich history behind the instrument that has contributed to its versatility and popularity today.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.