The Early History Of The Violin

“We go way back”

Violins are generally believed to have been developed by the nomadic horse tribes of inner Asia and Mongolia. This is particularly interesting to me because it prompted the carving of intricate horse heads where the scroll now sits. Historians believe that these symbols were a representation of the tribe’s dependence on and reverence for the horse.

Most stringed instruments prior to this point were plucked. However, Asian tribes began stringing the violin with horse hair(considering their equestrian lifestyle this is logical, right?) and using horse hair to create what we would call a bow. Hence, the bowed instrument aspect.

There is some consensus that the violin originated from instruments like the Tanbur and the Tanbur extended family of plucked instruments. The Tanbur can be dated back to circa 1500 BC. Yep, you read that right. BC. Folks, music is very old, but very cool with a long and colorful history!

The development of the violin

rabab_tunisienThe violin, and violin family of instruments can trace their lineage back over a millennium. The modern violin is believed to have originated from two instruments: the Byzantine Lira, and the Rabab(which was common in the Islamic empires of the time period). The first citation of the Lira is by the Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih (died in 911 AD) who wrote about bowed instruments during the 800’s AD.

These two instruments began making their way through Eastern and Western Europe and gained popularity, promoting the creation of many string and bowed variations. Eventually, there arose a prevalence of two types of bowed instruments: the lira da braccio and the lira da gamba. Lira da braccio is the viol of the arm and Lira da gamba is the viol of the leg.

Both instruments were very popular during the renaissance period but eventually, the braccio won prominence due to it’s ability to produce more volume. Its important to remember that during this time period, stringed instruments did not have the same construction as modern violins. Many of them had only three strings and there were multiple variations.

The violin family has always had luthiers who made violins with variations, but it was at the latter end of the Renaissance period that we began to see a popular consensus of the instrument’s construction and string count. This would serve to set the foundation for many famous works to be written on the increasingly established and popular instrument called the violin.

Andrea Amati

The earliest evidence we have of a nearly modern violin is in 1530 from a painting by Guadenzio Ferrari. The very first written evidence of the violin is from an order from the Treasury of Savoy that ordered violins and trumpets from Vercelli. Vercelli happens to be the town in which Ferrari created the painting containing the first pictures of violins that we have. The violins in the painting had three strings so they weren’t the modern incarnation we have today.

However, by the time Andrea Amati(1505-1577) began his career as a Luthier, the violin was already a popular musical force to be reckoned with and he had ideas on how he wanted to make improvements. This happened to include adding a fourth string. Therefore, Amati is credited with inventing the modern violin.

Still, his violins did not have all of the modern characteristics of the instruments we have today. These improvements/changes(depending on your opinion) would continue to happen well into the early twentieth century. For example, the violin would eventually become longer, thinner, and the fingerboard would be elongated as well. The bulk of these changes took place during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Stradavari and Guarneri

It would not be right to leave Amati without mentioning Amati’s two most famous students. One can reasonably argue that our modern reverence for the violin can directly be attributed to Amati’s decision to become a luthier, and one of the greatest. Amati was located in Cremona, Italy and his legacy was carried on by a number of prominent luthiers including his two sons who were wonderfully talented in their own right.

The sons of the famous “Godfather of Violins” continued in their father’s footsteps and did so in such a skilled manner that they took on many of their own apprentices and became equally as famous as their father. Amati’s offspring, Antonio and Girolamo, stayed in their father’s profession and grew their families. One of Amati’s grandsons is particularly of note, Niccolo Amati, as he also took on many talented apprentices. But few would become quite as famous as two young disciples who’s names were Andrea Guarneri and Antonio Stradivari.

If you’re interested in a more thorough discussion of Antonio Stradivari and why his violins are so special, check out this article.

Final thoughts

In the hands of Guarneri and Stradivari, the violin became synonymous with perfection. Many people still believe to this day that the designs that these young men created cannot be improved upon. Whatever your beliefs, we can all agree that for music’s sake, the day that Andrea Amati decided to become a violin maker is one of the greatest days in classical music’s history.

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