Who Invented the Violin?
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As both an invention of the 16th century and a musical instrument, the violin is a wonderful object that is full of history.
From Mozart to Vivaldi via Lully, the violin underwent many changes and luthiers such as Stradivarius (one of the most prominent violin makers) helped make the instrument as we know it today.
Predecessors of the Violin
The violin was originally inspired by the Rabab, an Arabic instrument with two strings of silk. The strings were tuned to the fifths using pegs on the side of the body (made of a gourd), and the neck was very long. The musicians used a stringed bow with resin to play it while holding it in the lap.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the middle of the 11th century that the influences of these string instruments made its presence felt in Europe. Around that time, and probably as a result of Crusader influences, an instrument somewhat similar to the Rabab emerged in Spain. It was referred to as the “rebec.”
The primary differences were that, unlike its forerunner, this instrument was made of wood and had three violin strings instead of two. The other great change was that musicians played the instrument by placing it on the shoulder. Alterations persisted, and a new instrument appeared in France, the Vielle, in the 13th century. Its five-string design and shape (more like modern violin family instruments) were created with ribs for increased flexibility. By the 1400s, however, the violin had made its debut.
Invention of the Violin
According to most accounts, the first violin originated in Northern Italy in the early 1500s. The exact inventor is not known, and indeed some scholars are even debating this point, believing that other violins were played by the best violinists in the latter part of the previous century (late 1400’s).
However, the prevailing theory credits Cremona’s Andrea Amati with making the first violin, not least because of the fact that he was the oldest violinist in existence, but also because of the writings that record the sale of 24 violins to Charles IX.
The other claimant to the inventor of the violin is Gasparo di Bertolotti (a.k.a. da Salo). This craftsman lived in Brescia (1540-1609) and also created instruments. Nevertheless, the legacy of Amati is well known in the world of violinists.
Amati (1511-1577) made lutes, viols, and rebecs, and began an actual school in Cremona, dedicated to the craft of violin. Famous violists and luthiers followed his tradition. Some of his best known pupils were his descendants, including Antonius and Hieronymus Amati, who were known as the Amati brothers. His grandson, Nicolo Amati, went on to make some of the most excellent instruments of his family.
Nicolo had an apprentice named Andrea Guarneri (1623-1698), who in turn taught lucrative business to his family. Guarneri’s grandson, Bartolomeo Giuseppe, is generally believed to have produced some of the finest instruments in existence, alongside Antonio Stradivari, who was arguably Nicolo Amati’s most successful apprentice.
The influence of only a few craftsmen has contributed to the creation and production of the violin that has been played for centuries. And, while we might never know who created the very first violins, we have a very good idea of how they developed and the key craftsmen who excelled in making this musical work of art.
The Evolution of the Violin
Most scholars believe that the violin of today originated in northern Italy at the beginning of the 16th century, a region that would retain the tradition of violin making in the coming centuries. Maple and spruce, the two types of wood most preferred by violin makers at that time and since, were readily available in the Lombardy region.
The town of Brescia, situated at the foot of the Alps, was the first to succeed in violin making, but Cremona, home to the world’s most successful luthiers, Giuseppe Guarneri, Antonio Stradivari and the Amati family, became associated with violin making.
In the 19th century, with the rise of large auditoriums and the violin virtuoso, the violin underwent the most recent structural changes. The bridge was raised, the sound post and bass bar were thickened, and the body became flatter. The neck was bent back, adding more weight to the chains on the bridge. The effect was a louder, more dazzling sound than the fragile, intimate sound of the violin of the 18th century.
Thanks to the globalization of classical music, the development of high-quality instruments has provided an additional boost. The norm for violin making schools increased and the knowledge of instruments from the past was shared. Violin making has once again given rise to international interest: tournaments, conferences, colloquiums, exhibits and publications.
Nowadays, a new generation of violin makers is emerging. They are distinguished by a high degree of specialization, a tradition of their own and a standard mark in the manufacture of new instruments. The musicians are moving back to contemporary instrument manufacturers. Alongside historical devices, the modern making has now built a place for itself in the world of music.
More and more violin and bow makers specialize in restoration, authentication or new making. This trend towards specialization has stimulated the production of violin extensively over the last decades, and standards have risen significantly.
Leading soloists no longer hesitate to purchase new instruments. They film them, play them in concerts, and give them a permanent place alongside their older, vintage instruments.
How does a Violin work?
Like its predecessors, but unlike its cousin the viol, the violin has a fretless fingerboard. Its strings are fixed to the tuning pegs and the tailpiece passing over the bridge is kept in place by the weight of the strings.
The bridge transmits the vibrations of the strings to the belly of the violin or the soundboard, which is made of pine that amplifies the sound. The sound post inside the instrument is a thin pine stick made of maple. It is placed under the treble foot of the bridge and wedged between the violin belly and the back. This transmits the vibrations of the string to the back of the instrument, adding to the distinctive violin tone.
5 Interesting Facts about the Violin:
- Over 70 different pieces of wood are put together to form the modern violin.
- The most expensive violin in the world costs $18 million.
- You can burn 170 calories per hour while playing the violin.
- Violin bows consist of up to 200 hairs which could be either nylon or horse hair.
- Violins have been in existence for around 500 years.
The ‘Molitor’ Stradivar: The Most Valuable Violin in the World
Though owned by Napoleon Bonaparte, the ‘Molitor’ passed through the possession, until 1804, when it was taken over by Count Gabriel Jean Joseph Molitor, a general in the army of Napoleon.
It was sold in quick succession by several Parisian firms after World War I and was purchased at a record price of $3.6 million by Tarisio auctions in 2010.
The ‘Molitor’ represents both change and continuity in the work of art of Stradivari. By 1697, it seemed clear that the manufacturer was rethinking the long pattern he had been using since the early 1690s. This form, which yielded so many great instruments with bodies of more than 36 cm, developed from its earlier and smaller designs – to which Stradivari, ever exploring, has now returned.
The ‘Molitor’ was therefore created with a conventional body length of 35.5 cm, while still crafted with refined edges and scroll patterns. It has almost Brescia-like arches spanning an even curve from edge to edge, which stands out in the long-patterned instruments.
For centuries violin historians have argued whether Gasparo da Sa lo or Andrea Amati “invented” the violin. If Andrea Amati was born around 1510 he would be older than da Salo which gives him a higher chance at being the inventor of the violin. The oldest surviving Andrea Amati violin is now in the United States and was probably made in 1566.
Seniority alone won’t establish the position of Andrea Amati in the violin world, but it is said that the Amati family did more than anyone else to establish and develop the art of violin making.