Violins came into prominence in the 16th and 17th centuries. But a 14th-century fresco featuring a vielle. It was one of the string instruments like lira, rabab, rebec, and fiddle before violins became popular. The history of the violin unfolds a melodious trajectory of growth and journey of enrichment for the entire music fraternity.
Knowing the history of any musical instrument helps to develop a strong bond with it. Learning about the evolution of violin will boost the motivation level and also serve as a violin beginners guide for new learners.
A Word or Two about String Instruments
String instruments varied in shape – from simple circular to pear-shaped to the elegant shape of the violin; and also in the number of strings that ranged from one to four. These instruments have always been a perfect accompaniment for folk singers from all across the world. Some of these instruments were small and handy, so the singers used to walk around playing and singing along. While other more elaborate variants needed a more stable standing or sitting posture.
The music and pitch of each string instrument would vary concerning the shape, size, and number of strings. While most of these string instruments are still a part of the folk song fraternity, the evolution of violin led it to be a part of classical music by the 16th and 17th centuries. The same instrument when used for folk songs, is called a fiddle.
The Early Days of Violin Making
Violin, as we know it today, is believed to have surfaced at the beginning of the 16th century in Italy. Crafted out of maple and spruce wood, the violin started its initial journey in the city of Brescia, to be taken up by the luthiers of Cremona.
Going forward, the Amati family would put Cremona on the world map as the center for violin making in the whole of the 16th century.
A significant chapter in the history of the violin started when in the later half of the 17th century, Antonio Stradivari would emerge as the supreme luthier who introduced acoustic violins. His craft and precision are revered even today.
Violin – Initiation to Classical Music
A set of violins crafted by Amati made their debut in French Royal Ensemble in the 1560s upon being commissioned by the French queen regent for some string instruments. And thus violin upgraded to the ‘classe ambitieuse’ leaving behind its other stringed counterparts that still served folk music.
The melodies of the violin spread far and wide from the French Royal court. Esteemed virtuosos and music composers such as Claudio Monteverdi, Antonio Vivaldi, Nicolo Paganini, and Franz Joseph Hadyn used violin extensively in their orchestra all through the 17th century till the middle of the 19th century.
Significant Innovation and Refinement
Further evolution of violin took place at the end of the 18th century in 1786, when with the significant contribution of French bow maker François Tourte, the length and weight of the bow got standardized.
The chin rest was introduced in the early 19th century making it easier to hold for the violin player. As the violinists became more comfortable with the instrument, the range of music also expanded. Further, elongating and tilting the neck and the fingerboard and increasing the weight of the bass bar helped to attain both pitch and depth of the sound of the violin.
By the end of the 19th century, the violin had evolved to be a refined string instrument that could touch every human mood and emotion. Deservingly, the title of concertmaster of the orchestra has been conferred to the first chair of a violinist who comes right after the conductor in the hierarchy.
Also around the same time or by the beginning of the 20th century, an amplifier like that of the gramophones was used to enhance the volume. The violins with trumpet-like bells were used in recording studios.
The advent of the Electronic Violin
A notable episode in Violin history marks the advent of the electric violin. The year 1920 saw several jazz players like Stuff Smith popularising electrically amplified violins. Gradually, the traction towards electronic violins became increasingly prominent in 1930-’40.
The first electronic violin came into being in 1938. It had a hollow body with an outline resembling the acoustic frame of the violin. It became an overnight hit with rock, jazz, and fusion performers. Later several violins were introduced with varied shapes that complemented the look, feel, and requirements of contemporary musicians and violinists.
The latest innovation is the electro-acoustic violin that features seven strings. It complies with modern sound technologies that include equalizers and sound effects pedals. Magnetic and electrodynamic pickups and electric amplifiers were added to match the tempo of contemporary music. The objective was to make the instrument suitable for live performance as well as recording studios.
The electric violin category found its sweet spot among the new age musicians as genres like Metal, Country Music, Jazz, Blues, Classic Pops, Experimental music, Fusion, and Rock n Roll took the centre stage. This led to a steady rise in the production of electric violins by the end of the 20th century.
Folk metal band Korpiklaani, and other popular musical bands such as Pop Punk, Yellowcard, Zox, and Doctor of Madness used electric violins extensively in their music.
Gradually, electric violins started getting picked up by classical violinists as well. The name Emily Autumn is one of the popular violinists who used the electric variants in her concerts.
A journey that started during the Renaissance continues to appease musicians, performers, and music lovers even today. Much thought, effort, motivation, and hard work of people for almost a century and a half has gone into making the sound of the violin express every human emotion so well.
Now, electric violins are picked for classical and contemporary music with equal fervor. They are also recommended for online violin lessons, while traditional wooden violins find a place in the connoisseur’s collectibles. And the melodies… they do what they do best – fill the air with pure ecstasy.