It’s a figure of romance, intrigue, and tragedy. Since it’s earliest beginnings the violin has inspired and captivated musicians and listeners alike. But the history of the violin is far from straightforward and involves dynastic rises and falls, the likes of which are exemplified in museums around the world.
Many musicologists believe that the violin, like many stringed instruments, has its roots in the early Middle East. Stringed instruments go back as far as the Greek lyres, but bowed instruments, it is beloved, have always had links to horses and equestrian nations such as the early Persians. To this day, bows are traditionally strung with rough, durable horsehair.
The cultural exchanges of the Arab nations and the Europeans created a melting pot of all kinds of art. Much western architecture, for instance, has its roots in the Byzantine, and it was probably around this era when these early ancestors of the violin came into being. There are records of a similar instrument, the Arabic Rebab, being used by Bedouin, Iraqi and Egyptian music. This instrument, bears little resemblance to the modern violin, having as it does only two strings. and a thin, rudimentary neck.
From the Rebab, it is likely that the Byzantine Lira was born. An upright, five-stringed instrument that existed at least as far back as 900 AD, it is a more developed, bigger-bodied form. It is sometimes known as a medieval fiddle – the term fiddle having been derived from the old Norse Fiola.
The lira eventually became a well popular instrument of two types, the da brachia, and the de gamba. The latter was seen as an aristocratic and elegant instrument, which was supplanted by a variant of the former.
Records of the Violin
Much of the early documentary evidence of violins come from the art world. The devotional Madonna of the Orange Tree features a cherub at the feet of St Mary playing an instrument which looks very much like the violin of today, though with a more exaggerated form and with only three strings.
Similarly, the records from the treasury of Savoy, record payments for trumpets and violins in at court. The prevalence of this evidence points to an idea that violins as we know them came into being somewhere in early 16th-century Italy. Indeed, then as a now, the areas of Milan and Cremona were known as centers of excellence when it came to musical craftsmanship.
Though delicate in construction, it is clear that early courts treasured violins enough to maintain and preserve the best specimens. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, there is an Amati Violin which some claim dates back as far as 1558. Another Amati is the Charles IX violin which resides alongside an early Stradivarius at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
The Great Families of Violins
There is much made of the early makers of Violins. Modern manufacturers spend a great deal of time, money and effort attempting to emulate the techniques of the old master luthiers, and, from 18th century onwards, very little has changed in the construction of Violins.
It is likely that the first of the true Violin-makers of northern Italy was Zanetto Micheli. Some 20 documents of his creations survive, indicating that he may have been at work from as early as 1527. Certainly, by the 1530s he is noted as a master luthier of sorts, specifically of the violettis. It would be twenty years before the term violin would be coined though. His existing instruments are very rare, mostly found in private collections and the occasional exhibitions.
One of the greatest of early violin makers was Andrea Amati. Born in 1505, he would eventually capitalize on the ideas of violin makers of Brescia. He is credited with having given the modern violin family their distinctive features. He was well sought after, receiving a commission from the powerful Lorenzo de Medici. He asked Andrea to create an instrument with the quality of a lute but simpler to play. This first instrument is now lost. Andrea continued to create for the Medicis, but sadly only 14 of his original works have survived to this day.
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Guarneri del Gesu, a descendant of Andrea Guarneri who was a student of Amati, is one the most revered historic luthiers of all time. Though his career only lasted between the 1720s until his death in 1744, his instruments are among the most prized works in the world. There exist only around 200 examples of his work today, but they have been in the hands of some of the most accomplished players of the last 400 years. These have included Nicolo Paganini, George Enescu, Yehudi Menuhin, and Sarah Chang. They are known for a dark, rich tone that rival the better known Stradivarius.
Austria’s first and best-loved luthier was Jacob Stainer. He was believed to have associated closely with the luthier families of Cremona, including the Amatis and the Klutz of Mittelwold. Few of Stainer’s instruments survive to this day, but it is clear from his clientele that he commanded an illustrious career. His instruments would eventually find their way to the hands of both Bach and Mozart. Sadly, Stainer would undergo religious persecution following his success and would die in 1680 as a manic depressive. His violins are known for elaborate designs such as a carved head of a lion on the cut scrolls.
Perhaps the most famous of luthiers in any field is Antonio Stradivari. A prolific worker, he is said to have made around 1200 instruments, the vast majority of which were violins. By 1680 his name had become international – his instruments were commissioned by both Cosimo de Medici and James II of England. Since his death, luthiers the world over have sought to emulate his style.
The remaining Stradivarius instruments are among some the most expensive items to be found at auctions anywhere in the world. Some notable examples are owned by Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, and Yo-Yo Ma.
The history of the violin is an interesting one and continues to evolve into the 21st century with the advent of electric violins. But what should be clear is that the violins of the past were made by people utterly dedicated to their art, and hopefully these iconic instruments will continue to inspire and enthrall the musicians of the future.