All you wanted to know about the history and background of the violin

woman playing violin

The violin is an instrument that is close to the heart of many music lovers. Perhaps it is because it is so emotive, helping you express just how you feel – sad, nervous, anxious, hopeful, happy, exuberant, you name it and the violin can probably sound it out for you. But, from when has this instrument been so popular? Where did it originate? Let’s find out all about the history of the beloved violin – its origins, nationality (if any), and its journey to India.

The name ‘violin’

Violin originated from the word ‘viola’. The word viola can be split into three parts – ‘V’, whose sound mimics an arrow leaving a stretched string; ‘io’, a prolonged sound in space; and ‘la’, the resolution of the adventure. 

Who were the violin’s oldest ancestors?

The musical bow is amongst the first types of instruments invented by man. Musical bows are thought to be the predecessors of all stringed instruments. This theory supports the notion that predecessors of the violin did not originate from one place in the world, but several. Many places around the world had bowed stringed instruments which could be considered the violin’s ancestors:

  • India had some bowed instruments – ravanastron and the omerti – made of hollowed cylinder of sycamore wood. They were played like the cello is today. These are believed to be as old as 5000 BC; some texts say 3000 BC. 
  • China also had a two-stringed bowed instrument called the erhu, believed to be over 4,000 years old; it also had the morin khur, also believed to be in existence from ancient times.
  • Then, there was the Byzantine pear-shaped lyra with 3-5 strings in the 9th century.
  • The medieval fiddle was developed in the 10th century in Europe.
  • The two-stringed Arabian rabab was introduced to the western world in the 11th century and the three-stringed rebec between the 11th and 13th centuries to Spain. 
  • The violin also has a cousin, the viol; this came in many sizes with 6, 7 or more strings tuned in fourths (the Western violin’s four strings are tuned in fifth). This appeared in the 14th century. It was also played upright like the cello. The Viola da Gamba was the most famous viol.

The origin of the violin itself is traced back to Italian painter, Gaudenzio Ferrari’s paintings, in the early 16th century where its likeness can be seen. The presence of these violin-like instruments all over the world, helped the violin gain acceptance as an instrument without much resistance into different cultures and musical traditions of the world.

Growing popularity of the violin

learning to play the Carnatic violin
learning to play the Carnatic violin

Originally considered an instrument of low status made for the common man, unlike the lute, which was considered an instrument of high status, the violin wasn’t popular. It was only in Italy that the violin was associated with the respectability of the court, theater, and church. 

But by the 1600s, the status of the violin grew, as well-known composers like Claudio Monteverdi began writing violin lines in his operas. The violin gradually gained more and more prominence and stature. 

Antonio Vivaldi changed the course of the violin during the Baroque period (approximately 1600-1750). Being a violinist himself, he was able to compose and perform complicated pieces for the violin, thus expanding the possibilities of the instrument. He was a key figure in popularising the violin. During this period, another master was Johann Sebastian Bach. He used the violin extensively, both as an accompanying instrument and as a solo instrument. He explored the possibilities of the violin in-depth and composed a number of concertos, sonatas, and partitas for the violin.

The violin became an important part of instrumental ensembles by the mid-18th century, 19th century, violinist/composers like Nicolò Paganini and Pablo de Sarasate helped increase their status even further. Their virtuoso compositions are challenging even for the greatest of violinists even today.

As the prestige of the violin grew, the art of violin making also improved. New techniques developed in Bologna in northern Italy. 

Who were the first makers of the violin?

Andre Amati from Cremona in the Lombardy region of northern Italy (which became the center of violin production) and Gasparo di Bertolotti from Salon were prominent manufacturers and made the earliest violins in the mid 16th century. Interestingly, Andrea Amati apprenticed as a lute maker. Early violin-makers were also lute makers, and as a result were, and are still called luthiers. Read more in trivia about the violin.

Many families in Cremona mastered the art of violin making and the USP of these instruments was that each was distinct. Famous among them were violins made by the

  • Amati family
  • Stradivari family
  • Guarneri family, and
  • Carlo Bergonzi 

The early violins (before 1840) had shorter necks and gut strings and a flatter bridge than the modern ones we use today. 

The most sought-after violins

Stradivari, Guarneri, and Amati are perhaps the three most famous violin makers of all time. Even today, top violinists play violins made by these families. 

You might have heard of the Stradivarius violin. These are violins made by Antonio Stradivari; he made about 1,100 violins in his lifetime – of these, only a few hundreds of them are available in the world (650 as per an estimate) making them extremely exclusive. 

Unique feature of Cremonese violins

It has been found that the brilliance of these violins lies in the fact that during the Baroque era (circa 1600-1750) the most ideal violin tone was one that could imitate the most perfect human voice. And the violins of both Amati and Stradivari are found to be able to produce voice-like features according to published research* in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA. 

Violins worth millions of dollars

The Cremonese violins are worth millions of dollars because of the attention to detail that has gone into the making of each violin. From the wood used to the type of varnish to the treatment of fungus growing on the wood even, there has been much thought put into each violin. The sweetness and depth of the sounds produced are unique. They are also believed to produce bigger sounds and better projections (said to be audible for long distances making them ideal for large concert halls) with clearer notes from the lowest to the highest than all the other violins.

 Two of Stradivari’s violins – 1715 Lipinski and the 1716 Messiah are believed to be the most valuable. Some violinists prefer the Guarneri violins for their darker tone. A violin made by Giuseppe Guarneri in 1741 is estimated to be worth US$16 million. 

The violin’s journey to India

stage performance by LS and Ambi
stage performance by LS and Ambi

Around the world, the violin has gained centerstage and solo performances are well-received. Many countries like China, Japan, Korea, Israel, and the USA have adopted the western violin, as it is played, into their own culture. Others have changed the style of violin playing to suit their own tradition of music. Like the American country fiddle, Irish fiddle, and the gypsy fiddle. In countries like India, it has been adapted to suit its own culture – in the Carnatic music tradition. In the 20th century, it was also adapted to the Hindustani tradition and other Indian folk styles. 

Violin in Carnatic concerts

Though the violin seems inseparable from Carnatic music concerts, it was not always part of the ensemble. It is believed that Baluswami Dikshitar, brother of Muthuswami Dikshitar, one of the Trinity of Carnatic Music, introduced the violin to Indian Carnatic music. He learnt Western classical music on the violin and then adapted it to the Indian form of music. Though the violin used is the same for both Carnatic and Western music, the tuning is different. 

In India, while it has been an accompanying instrument in Carnatic music so far, there are many movements towards giving it its pride of place as the foremost star of Carnatic concerts. You can listen to violinist Dr. Ambi Subramaniam, son of the legendary violinist, Dr. L Subramaniam for some soulful violin music. If you would like to play yourself, you are welcome to our Carnatic violin classes/ and Western violin classes.

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