Despite you know more or less about violin, it has an important role in the world of music since found at the beginning of the 16th century.
Those with some knowledge of ancient instruments might remember the medieval stringed instrument, the rebec, and the Renaissance fiddle – otherwise known as the viola da braccio. These, along with the lira da braccio, were the likely inspirations for the very first violins.
Although the first actual description of a violin dates from France in 1556, there are some paintings from earlier in the century depicting what was often a three-stringed violin. At that time, the violin neck was slightly shorter and thicker and had rather less of an angle. The fingerboard itself was shorter as well.
It was the famous lute-maker Andrea Amati, employed by the Medici family in Tuscany, who really began to develop the instrument into the violin we recognize today. It is because of Amati’s origins working with lutes that violin craftsmen today are still referred to as luthiers. Amati, who became a master instrument maker in 1525, was commissioned by the Medicis to provide an instrument that would be suitable for street musicians and yet still have a lute-like quality of sound. His design, incorporating four strings and a slightly vaulted body, became immediately popular. Because of its versatility with street musicians, it quickly became of interest to members of the nobility, especially Charles IX of France, who became a great patron.
Amati himself founded a dynasty of luthiers and there are still fourteen of his own violins known to be in existence today. The Rawlins Gallery in the National Music Museum in the University of South Dakota has two violins – one made in Cremona in 1560 and the other in 1574. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York possesses an Amati that is dated at around 1558.
Probably the most famous of the violin makers in Italy, again based in Cremona, was Antonio Stradivari, who was originally apprenticed to Amati’s grandson, Nicolo. Perhaps Stradivari’s most famous instrument, which reputedly has never been used, is known as either ‘Le Messie’ or ‘The Messiah’ and can be seen in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
The status of the violin as a musical instrument began to develop during the 1800s when Monteverdi, amongst others, began to include the instrument in his operas. During the Baroque era, Vivaldi, Bach and other celebrated composers ensured that the violin’s place in the orchestra was secured, along with its inclusion in smaller instrumental ensembles.
In 1899, the German Johannes Stroh introduced his own version of the violin, incorporating a metal horn, which became quite popular in the very early days of phonograph recording. The classical violin sound was not served very well by the ‘new’ recording techniques and the Stroh violin, although having a harsher, grating sound quality, produced significantly more volume and became very common. Thankfully, during the 1920s, electric microphone technology was developed that made the Stroh violin more or less redundant.
Perhaps surprisingly, electrically amplified violins were first used in the 1920s, with Fender producing electric violins during the 1950s. So-called electric violins are now quite commonplace in the modern music scene – even amongst some classical musicians.