The violin: when it was invented, who made them and how it has changed throughout history
Its appearance and sound is oh-so familiar, but what’s the story behind the violin? Here’s some background to this most sweet and noble of musical instruments.
When was the violin invented, and who invented it?
Well, it’s not exactly known who first decided the violin was a good idea or really when. However, it’s widely believed to have made an appearance in the early(ish) 16th century.
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Why was the violin needed?
The violin was essentially the result of amalgamating instruments like the fiddle and the rebec. Both were early bowed string instruments that were less finessed and a little more difficult to handle; neither made as sweet a sound as is possible with the violin. The violin’s design makes it a far more agile, versatile instrument, capable of imitating the emotional resonance of the human voice. It even has body parts like a human – a neck, ribs and back.
Who made the earliest violins?
The most famous of the early violin makers was Andrea Amati and his descendents continued to make them well into the 17th century. Actually, his grandson Nicola Amati passed everything he was taught on to a young artisan named Antonio Stradiveri – of ‘Stradivarius’ fame. Aside from the Amatis and Stradiveri, other big Italian luthiers (ie a stringed-instrument maker) included the Guarneri family and Francesco Ruggieri.
Where were violins first made?
The Amati family were based in Cremona, Italy, and the country became the centre of the world in terms of violin-making. There were other hotspots there, including Bresca and Venice. But it’s Cremona that is considered the birthplace. Italy remained the violin capital until the late 18th century, when France took over.
Has the violin changed over the years?
Yes, a little. The earliest examples had just three strings – a fourth string was added in the mid-16th century. All the strings were made from gut (usually sheep intestine, yes… eew) until about 1700, when one (the G String) had silver wire added to change the sound. Today all the strings are a mixture of nylon and metal. The E string is usually made of steel. In the 18th century, the instrument underwent its most major physical evolution. Changing the height of the bridge and lengthening the neck and fingerboard increased the brilliance and volume of the sound, which was much needed for concert hall performance.
What about the way the violin is played, has that changed?
Though the instrument itself has remained largely the same for a few centuries now, techniques for getting the best out of it have evolved greatly. Such developments in performing and handling mean a much richer variety of music is written for the instrument today than would have been the case back in the 1700s, for example.
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What about violin music, what was the first piece to be written?
It actually took a little while for the violin to be taken seriously as a musical instrument in its own right. Early on it was employed merely as an accompaniment to singers; as such players would simply play (and mirror) whatever was written for the voice. But its popularity and esteem increased, and by the late 16th century some tunes were being written for it. We can probably thank the French court in many respects, as some of the earliest original music for the violin was written for its court musicians and ensembles.
Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.