The History of the Violin

Chris Johnson - Violin Maker

The history of bowed string musical instrument in Europe goes back to the 9th century with the lira of the Byzantine Empire, a bowed instrument. The Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih 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. 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. 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. 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.

Amati ViolinBecause documents show that the Brescia school started half a century before Cremona, it is debated whether 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 who was astonished at the Brescian market for violins around 1550-60, and decided in those years to change trade. A document of 1636 testifies that while Brescian makers had dominated the violin market until then, Cremonese makers gained influence following the death of Brescian masters in the 1630 plague. Andrea Amati built instruments using a mould, allowing more precise measurements than previously, and made the instrument's 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.

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. One of the most famous and certainly the most pristine is the Messiah Stradivarius (also known as the 'Salabue') made by Antonio Stradivari in 1716 and very little played, perhaps almost never and in an as new state. It is now located in the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford.

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.

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.

Violin carvingBetween the 16th and 19th centuries, several changes occurred, including:

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.

In the 19th and 20th centuries numerous violins were produced in France, in Saxony and the Mittenwald in what is now Germany, in the Tyrol, now parts of Austria and Italy, and in Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. About seven million violin family instruments and basses, and far more bows, were shipped from Markneukirchen between 1880 and 1914. Many 19th and early 20th century instruments shipped from Saxony were in fact made in Bohemia, where the cost of living was less. While the French workshops in Mirecourt employed hundreds of workers, the Saxon/Bohemian instruments were made by a cottage industry of "mostly anonymous skilled laborers quickly turning out a simple, inexpensive product."

Today this market also sees instruments coming from China, Romania, and Bulgaria.

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.