History of The Violin

History of The Violin

History of the violin starts in Italy in the early 1500s. While not much is yet known about the instrument’s prior development, European forebears include the rebec and the Renaissance fiddle, which themselves evolved from instruments found in the ancient Eastern world. The violin brought together in a particularly happy way features seen in a variety of earlier stringed instruments.

Construction of the first violins

Arched plates increased the stiffness-to-mass ratio of the body, creating a more brilliant sound and helping resist long-term deformation. A pronounced waist gave the bow access to the outermost strings, while the precisely calibrated curves of fingerboard and bridge enabled the strings to be played individually as well as in two-, three-, and even four-part chords. In contrast to the viola da gamba and guitar, the violin’s top and back plates overhung the ribs, allowing easy removal for repairs, thus contributing to the instrument’s fabled longevity. A graceful outline, harmonious proportions, and the minimal use of ornamentation together lent the violin a timeless beauty – explaining in part why it has resisted significant stylistic modification to this day.

The evolution of the instrument

Though the evolution of the violin is usually told in heroic terms – its sudden emergence and gradual refinement followed by an ascent to perfection at the hands of Stradivari – our current conception of violin sound is the result of a great deal of subsequent development, much of it fueled by the demands of players and composers. The so-called modern setup was adopted by French makers in the eighteenth century. It included a longer, slimmer neck and fingerboard, a stiffer bassbar, and a modified bridge. These were retrofitted onto Old Italian instruments to increase brilliance and musical range, and to help sustain the larger string tensions that came with longer strings and a rise in pitch of concert A.

The modern bow creation

Important, too, was the creation in the late 1700s of the so-called modern bow. Largely credited to Francois Tourte (who pioneered the hot-bending of bow-sticks), its most significant innovations were the reversed camber, a screw for adjusting hair tension, and the adoption of pernambuco wood as the standard stick material. While the generally longer, heavier modern bow traded some of its Baroque predecessor’s off-the-string agility, it offered the violinist a larger dynamic range together with a more powerful and sustained legato – qualities much exploited by players and composers of the Romantic period.

String technology

Another important line of development was string technology, especially in the second half of the twentieth century, when synthetic core materials (mainly nylon) began replacing gut. This significantly increased stability and playability, while further contributing to power and brilliance. So much has the violin changed over the past few centuries that a violinist equipped with a Baroque bow and an instrument straight from Stradivari’s workbench would find most of the standard violin repertoire unplayable – and in a typical concert setting, scarcely audible. That said, a flourishing interest in historical performance practice has ensured that numerous instruments are now built and/or set up in the Baroque manner. More puzzling is that, despite the enormous increases in the standards of instrument and bow making over the past few decades, old French bows and old Italian violins – repaired, rebuilt, and re-engineered, though they may be – are still the combination of choice for most concert violinists.

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