History of the Violin

James D. Coleman

The contemporary violin can trace its origins to Asian stringed instruments such as the rebab. However, the western European violin as we know it today, a four-stringed instrument held on the shoulder and played with a bow, emerged in the 16th century. In that era its function was limited to doubling a singing voice or accompanying dancing. It was not until the 17th century that the flexibility and expressiveness of this instrument was more fully appreciated by composers. Its ability to capture a wide range of moods, timbres, and tones approximate the expressiveness of the human voice.

This expressiveness led to its prominent role in many new forms of music in the 17th century, including opera, solo concerti, and duo and trio sonatas. In all of these genres, you can hear the emerging personality of the violin as it supports melodic ideas, delivers soliloquies (in solo concertos) or converses with other instruments (in duos and small ensembles).

Many instrument makers poured their life effort into making perfect violins. The years from 1650 to 1750 have been called the most illustrious century for violin manufacturing; though violins were being made all over Europe during this time, this era in violin making history undoubtedly belongs to a town in northern Italy, Cremona where it is estimated that 20,000 violins were made. There were many violin makers in the town, including Nicola Amati (1596-1684), his apprentices Antonio Stradivari (c.1644-1737) and Guarneri del Gesu, among others. The family of every craftsman were also instrument makers, so that each established a lasting dynasty. Stradivari, better known by the Latin version of his name with which he signed in his instruments, Stradivarius, gave scrupulous attention to every detail, experimenting with different types of wood, structural techniques for arching the back and front, and even varnish. Despite this painstaking effort, he still produced at least one instrument per week during the years from 1700 to his death, each instrument with a slightly different timbre, a slightly different character. About 1000 Strads still exist; most of these are cellos.

A number of the major composers of that era who wrote for violin were also Italian, such as Archangelo Corelli (1653-1713), who is called the father of modern violin playing. He is known mostly for his chamber music, including trio sonatas and concerti grossi. Though he wrote music for the church, he also enjoyed the patronage of the high society in Rome, and wrote much music for the court and for soirees. The younger Venetian Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), on the other hand, is mainly known for his solo violin concerti, and the contribution he thus made to the rise of modern concepts such as the virtuoso performer and public concerts for profit.