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This article is part
of the Fiddle & Violin series.
Basic physics of the violin
History of the violin
Musical styles
Making and maintenance
Playing the violin
Violin construction
Violin family of instruments

The history of bowed string musical instrument in Europe goes back to the 9th century with the lira (or lūrā, Greek: λύρα) of the Byzantine Empire, a bowed instrument (held upright). The Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih (d. 911) of the 9th century, was the first to cite the bowed Byzantine lira as a typical instrument of the Byzantines and equivalent to the rabāb used in the Islamic Empires of that time [1]. The Byzantine lira spread through Europe westward and in the 11th and 12th centuries European writers use the terms fiddle and lira interchangeably when referring to bowed instruments (Encyclopedia Britannica. 2009). In the meantime rabāb was introduced to the Western Europe possibly through the Iberian Peninsula and both bowed instruments spread widely throughout Europe giving birth to various European bowed instruments.

Over the centuries that followed, Europe continued to have two distinct types of bowed instruments: one, relatively square-shaped, held in the arms, known with the Italian term lira da braccio (meaning viol for the arm) family; the other, with sloping shoulders and held between the knees, known with the Italian term lira da gamba (or viola da gamba, meaning viol for the leg) group [2]. During the Renaissance the gambas were important and elegant instruments; they eventually lost ground to the louder (and originally less aristocratic) lira da braccio family of the modern violin.

The violin first emerged in northern Italy in the early 16th century especially from the Brescia area. Many archive documents testify that from 1585-95 Brescia was the cradle of a magnificent school of string players and makers, all called with the title of "maestro" of all the different sort of strings instruments of the Renaissance: viola da gamba (viols), violone, lyra, lyrone, violetta and viola da brazzo. So you can find "maestro delle viole" or "maestro delle lire" and later, at least from 1558, "maestro di far violini" that is master of violin making. From 1530 the word violin appear in brescian documents and spread all around north of Italy. While no instruments from the first decades of the century survive, there are several representations in paintings; some of the early instruments have only three strings and were of the violetta type. Most likely the first makers of violins borrowed from three different types of current instruments: the rebec, in use since the 10th century (itself derived from the Arab rebab), the Viola da Braccio (or Renaissance Fiddle), and the lira da braccio. The earliest explicit description of the instrument, including its tuning, was in the Epitome musical by Jambe de Fer, published in Lyon in 1556. By this time the violin had already begun to spread throughout Europe.

An Amati violin possibly created as early as 1558.

For the fact that documents shows that the Brescia school started half a century before Cremona, is debated if the first real violin was built by Andrea Amati, one of the famous luthiers, or lute-builders, in the first half of the 16th century by order of the Medici family, who had asked for an instrument that could be used by street-musicians, but with the quality of a lute, which was a very popular instrument among the nobles in that time. Andrea was very probably a lute maker that was astonished of the brescian market of violins around 1550-60, and decided in that years to change trade. Adocument of 1636 (a letter to the secretary of Monteverdi) testify that the violin market was dominated by brescian until that time and Cremona was growing because all the brescain masters were killed by the 1630 plague. The violin has four strings usually tuned in fifths to E, A, D and G, from highest to lowest. Andrea Amati decided to use the technique of applying a mould to build the instrument by very precise measurements. In addition to that, he made the instrument body slightly vaulted. The violin immediately became very popular, both among street-musicians and the nobility, which is illustrated by the fact that Charles IX of France commissioned an extensive range of string instruments in the second half of the 16th century.[3]

The oldest confirmed surviving violin, dated inside, is the "Charles IX" by Andrea Amati, made in Cremona in 1564. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an Amati violin that may be even older, possibly dating to 1558 but the date is very doubtful.[4] One of the best violin in the world is the renaissance carved, painted and gilted violin by Gasparo da Salò (1574 c.)owned first by Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria and from 1841 by Ole Bull one of the most outstanding virtuoso of the world, that used it for the astonishing power and beauty of the sound, in hundred of thousands of concert together with a Guarneri del Gesù. Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most pristine is the "Le Messie" (also known as the 'Salabue') made by Antonio Stradivari in 1716, and never used. It is now located in the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford. The most famous violin makers, called luthiers, between the early 16th century and the 18th century included:

An intricately carved 17th century (circa 1660) British Royal Family violin, on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

A couple of minor changes have occurred, including:

  • the fingerboard was made a little longer to be able to play even the highest notes,
  • the fingerboard was tilted a little more, to produce even more volume as larger and larger orchestras became popular.
  • nearly all old instruments were modified, including lengthening of the neck by one centimeter, in response to the raising of pitch that occurred in the 19th century.
  • the bass bar of nearly all old instruments was made heavier to allow a greater string tension.
  • the classical luthiers nailed and glued the instrument necks to the upper block of the body before gluing on the soundboard, while later luthiers mortise the neck to the body after completely assembling the body.

The results of these adjustments are instruments that are significantly different in sound and response from those that left the hands of their makers. Regardless, most violins nowadays are built superficially resembling the old instruments.

Nevertheless, instruments of approximately 300 years of age, especially those made by Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesù, are the most sought after instruments (for both collectors and performers). In addition to the skill and reputation of the maker, an instrument's age can also influence both price and quality.

Recent inventions

More recently, the Stroh violin used mechanical amplification similar to that of an unelectrified gramophone to boost sound volume. Some Stroh violins have a small "monitor" horn pointed at the player's ear, for audibility on a loud stage, where the main horn points at the audience.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries before electronic sound amplification became common, Stroh violins were used particularly in the recording studio. These violins with directional horns better suited the demands of the early recording industry's technology than the traditional violin.

Stroh was not the only person who made instruments of this class. Over twenty different inventions appear in the Patent books up to 1949. Often mistaken for Stroh and interchangeably known as being Stroh-viols, phono-fiddles, horn-violins or trumpet-violins, these other instruments have slipped into virtual obscurity.

The electric violin on the right was built by John Jordan in the early 21st century, and is tuned C G D A E. The history of the electric violin spans the entire 20th century. The success of electrical amplification, recording and playback devices brought about a comparatively swift end to the use of the Stroh violin in broadcast and recording.


  1. ^ Margaret J. Kartomi: On Concepts and Classifications of Musical Instruments. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology, University of Chicago Press, 1990
  2. ^ stringed instrument. (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved March 14, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: (Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009)
  3. ^ Violin - History and Repertory to 1600 - (v) Authenticity and Surviving instruments, Grove Music Online, Accessed 14 November 2006. (subscription required)
  4. ^ "Andrea Amati: Violin (1999.26)". Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 2008-11-17.  

See also



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