Although the violin was not invented “per se” by one person, its form as we know it today is credited to the makers Gasparo da Salo (1540-1609) from Brescia, Italy and Andrea Amati (ca.1535-1611) from Cremona, Italy in the mid to late 1500’s. The earlier ancestors of the violin date back to the Middle Ages: the vielle, Renaissance viol and fiddle, and the rebec which looked like a pear-shaped, three-stringed violin. A few instruments even more similar in design to the violin as we know it date back to the early 1500’s, but these two makers are considered to be the “fathers” of the violin and some of their original instruments are still around today.
While the rebec’s tone left much to be desired, the violin is known for its singing, voice-like sound. Though many makers have experimented with its design to create the optimal sound, the most revered violin makers are still considered to be the early Italian makers such as Antonio Stradivarius (1640/50-1737), Giuseppe Guarnerius “del Jesu” (ca.1687-1742), and Nicola Amati (1596-1684) . Today, their violins are valued into the millions and are the models for nearly all modern stringed instruments.
The violin itself is made of seventy separate parts, including four strings tuned to the notes (lowest to highest in pitch): G, D, A, E. The front and back of the violin (each made of one or two pieces of wood, usually maple and spruce) are connected by the ribs. The fingerboard is the long ebony piece stretching from the scroll (the curled wooden knob at the top end of the neck) to the middle of the violin’s belly. The violinist presses the strings down onto the fingerboard, “stopping” the strings at different lengths to create different pitches (the shorter the string length, the higher the pitch.)
Unlike the guitar and early viols, the violin has NO frets and therefore good intonation is entirely dependent on the violinists’ technical ability and sense of pitch. The strings are wound into the tuning pegs just under the scroll and are connected to the tailpiece at the bottom of the instrument. The bridge, the thin maple piece standing on the belly of the instrument, holds the strings at the proper height and tension. It is here, between the bridge and the fingerboard, where the bow is used to create sound. The bow is pulled across the strings, causing them to vibrate and resonate within the instrument. The bow itself is made from hard yet flexible wood, preferably pernambuco or Brazilwood. It is strung with a flat ribbon of horsehair which, when taut, will grab the strings to vibrate them. The bows of Francois Tourte (1747-1835) the “Stradivarius” of bow makers, are highly sought after; a good quality bow can make incredible differences in the beauty and control of sound on a violin.
The violin and other members of the string family have an impressive range of timbres that are attainable by executing different techniques on the instrument. Range of volume is controlled by the amount of weight with which the bow pulls the string, as well as the speed of the bow stroke. Vibrato on the violin, like vibrato in the human voice, is created by wavering the pitch rapidly and adds to the beauty and expressiveness of the sound. Twentieth century composers especially have experimented with the range of technical possibilities. Pizzicato (plucking the strings) has been used for centuries, but the composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945) created his own version in which the string is pulled hard enough that it audibly snaps back onto the wood of the fingerboard. Other special effects that the violin can produce are as follows: col legno is hitting the wood of the bow stick on the string, creating a percussive sound; ponticello is playing with the bow as near to the bridge as possible, resulting in an eerie, raspy tone; glissando is audibly sliding the finger between two notes; tremolo is the effect of moving the bow back and forth as rapidly as possible, resulting in a soft , shimmering sound or a loud, frenzied din.
The violin has been a notably soloistic instrument throughout its history. Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840) is perhaps the most revered violin legend of all time: some even thought he must have been posessed by the devil to be able to play the violin with such unbelievable technical ability. He is not only remembered for his playing wizardry, but also his compositions including Twenty-Four Solo Caprices for the Violin and two violin concertos which are part of the standard violin repertoire today. Eugene Ysaye (1858-1931), Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), and Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987) are widely considered to be the greatest violinists of modern time. Some of the most famous concerti for solo violin and orchestra were written by composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) and Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). In addition to its solo capacities, the violin has also played an important role in the orchestra since the Baroque era (1600-1750). It is the most numerous instrument in the symphony orchestra, with an average of around thirty violins for large symphonic works. In chamber music as well, composers have incorporated the violin in many different types of ensembles. Since the violin’s earliest days, it has been used to accompany singers and in a duo format with various keyboard instruments. The string quartet (two violins, viola and cello) has become a very popular ensemble for composers, as well as the piano trio (violin, cello and piano) and the repertoire for each is quite extensive. Although the violin has become best known in Western culture for its role in classical music, it is used throughout the world in a wide range of musical capacities. In addition to its vital role in Irish folk and gypsy music, violinist Stephane Grappelli has influenced the jazz world since the 1930’s and today, fiddler Mark O’Connor is a lively performer of American Bluegrass music.