To modern music fans, the violin feels almost permanent. Just holding a violin in your hand gives you a feeling of connection with history, imagining the classical musicians who performed across the great concert halls of Europe hundreds of years ago. It might be difficult to imagine a world without the violin, but that world did exist just a few hundred years in the past.
Whether you’re a violinist or a fan of music, it’s worth looking at how the violin we know and love came to exist. Every instrument carries with it a unique history, and by learning about this history, we can gain a greater appreciation of it. So, let’s look at the history of the violin, from its original inspirations to its modern state.
It can be said that musical instruments are a bit like animals in that they evolve and belong to a larger family. You wouldn’t be here without the ancestors who came before you, and the violin would have been invented if it wasn’t for the instruments that inspired it.
The violin’s roots can be seen most clearly in the early bowed instruments like the Byzantine lira and the rabab. The design spread eastward, spreading through every culture center of the continent. The Europeans would modify the basic design into two main branching designs, the lira da braccio and the lira da gamba. Most people who aren’t used to seeing or playing the violin will identify these instruments as violins. They might look similar at first glance, but they actually produce very different sounds. Still, they all belong to the Viol family, which groups together stringed and fretted instruments that are played with bows.
THE VIOLIN’S ARRIVAL
The earliest example of the violin that exists today isn’t actually the instrument itself; it’s a depiction of the instrument in a painting. Around 1530 an Italian Renaissance painter by the name of Gaudenzio Ferrari created a painting named “Madonna of the Orange Trees.” At the bottom of the painting is a cherub with a violin in his hands.
The first evidence of the word violin comes from just a few years later. Historians looking through the treasury papers of the Savoy region, in modern-day France, found that the government paid for “vyollons” in 1538. The spelling might be different, but it’s easy to understand what they were talking about.
Putting the pieces together we can determine that the violin arose in the heart of Renaissance Europe around the year 1520. The Savoy records state that it was purchased from the city of Vercelli, the same region where Ferrari created “Madonna of the Orange Trees.” As if that wasn’t enough, the oldest surviving violin comes from the city of Cremona, a city less than 100 miles from Vercelli. The creativity of Renaissance Italy gave birth to the Violin, and since then every country it has reached has added to its history and design.
Today we think of the violin as a very “classy” instrument, associating it with classical music and other high-brow forms of entertainment. In reality, the violin took off because it appealed to people at every level of society. Consider the fiddle, which is just another name for the violin. Imagine that; people think this one instrument is actually two different instruments simply because the type of music associated with the fiddle is so different from the music typically associated with the violin! So while our earliest evidence of the violin comes from aristocratic sources it’s important to remember that the violin wasn’t just used in the halls of castles and courts, it was also used to play drinking songs at pubs across Europe.
THE INSTRUMENT’S EVOLUTION
It’s easy to look at even the earliest existing violins and recognize them for what they are. Still, if a modern violinist were to pick up one of their instrument’s earliest prototypes, they would notice some big differences. After all, the instrument’s evolution didn’t stop once it was named the violin.
While many people have contributed to the modern look and feel of the violin music historians, usually claim that the modern violin was established in the 19th century. The luthier, or stringed instrument maker, Francois Tourte established the now standard weight, length, and proportions that are used almost universally to this day.
The second major change of the 19th century came from conductor, composer, and inventor Louis Spohr. This German spent most his life creating music, but today he is most well-known for his invention of the chinrest. This invention might seem like a simple matter of comfort to the outsider, but it actually allowed violinists to unlock previously impossible performance techniques.
In the 1930s electrical versions of popular instruments began to appear, and the violin was no exception. Electric violins might not have taken off like electric guitars, but to this day there are musicians dedicated to using them.
AN UNWRITTEN FUTURE
So, there you have it, the basic outline of the violin’s history. Remember, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Entire books could be written about how the modern violin rose from the original string instruments.
After looking at the violin’s past one question comes to mind, what does the future hold for the violin? No one can say for sure, but we can say a few things with confidence. To begin with, the violin will continue to change. People might not be as quick to modify the violin design as they were in the past but if you look around carefully, you will find inventive luthier’s who continue to try new things with the instrument. One of the most interesting areas of exportation is digital control, inventors are still looking for new ways to use the violin to make digital music.
In terms of the music, people are making with violins, it’s true that the instrument is most commonly associated with classical music. The common perception of violinists is still one of a stuffy suit, playing in a symphony orchestra. But that isn’t the case, rockers, folk artists, and even hip hop producers are using violins to make every sort of music imaginable. You can bet that in the future the violin will be used to produce new and inventive sounds.
In the end, the future of the violin is in the hands of two groups, the musicians, and the music lovers. As long as there are talented musicians with a passion for the violin, there will be great songs performed with the instrument. If you have a violin, you can be part of this history, a story that spans from the invention of music into the future.