The violin may be said to have had three ancestors. The rebec probably emerged in the 13th century. It had a pear-shaped body, three strings and was placed on the chest. There was a bow, but no sound-post linking the front to the back. Like the violin, there were no frets on the fingerboard. The Renaissance fiddle appeared at around 1500, and had an oval-shaped body. Like the violin it possessed a sound post but, like the guitar, it usually had frets on the fingerboard. The third forebear was the lira da braccio whose outline was much more that of the violin but in size was closer to the viola. This large instrument had five playing strings and two further “drone” strings.
Suddenly in the 1520s a miracle happened in the north-east of Italy, perhaps in Cremona, perhaps in Brescia. Someone created the violin, with its fretless fingerboard, its sound post, its bass bar, and its waist. The waist was particularly important because it allowed the player to play loudly into the strings, without inadvertently striking the body of the violin. On the table of the instrument, f-holes were carved to cause the sound to project easily to the listener. The paintings of the day suggest that the violin was a revolutionary advance, rather than an evolution from the rebec, fiddle and lira da braccio. So who was the miracle maker? We do not know. We know that from Cremona there is a surviving Andrea Amati violin of 1542, and from Brescia a Gasparo da Salo violin of 1562. Did they have a common teacher who is the forgotten hero of this story?
While the next century of violin making may have been dominated by the Amati dynasty, today the two acknowledged masters of violin making were Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu. They both worked in Cremona in the late 17th and early 18th century. Stradivari was the methodical perfectionist, and Guarneri was the wild inspirational violin-maker. Their instruments are widely sought-after today, and are the models for many of the modern luthiers.
One more significant development was to take place 100 years later. During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, violins were used largely as chamber music instruments, or else played in small concert halls. The early nineteenth century was the era of Beethoven and Paganini. Romantic violin concertos and dazzling showpieces emerged. Audiences flocked to larger concert halls to hear Nicolo Paganini, Camillo Sivori and Max Ernst perform the wonder-pieces of the day. More power was need for the violin to soar over the orchestra, and this was achieved by lengthening the violin’s neck, elongating the fingerboard, and increasing the tension of all four strings, so that the pitch of sound became higher by approximately a tone. The concertos of Mendelssohn, Brahms and Tchaikovsky could now fill the great halls of Europe and the United States.
The instrument that violinists play on today appears to have achieved an extraordinary perfection. The table is often of pine or spruce, and the back may be of maple. The whole body must resonate in harmony. The bow causes the strings to vibrate and the bridge (which supports the elevation of the strings) transmits the vibrations to the body. Glued to the underside of the table on the bass side (G string side) there is a wooden bass bar of approximately 10.5 inches which is essential for the enrichment of the sound. Under the opposite side of the bridge (E string side) there is a sound post which is rather like a short thin vertical pencil, wedged between the table and the back of the instrument. This transmits the sound from back to table and allows the sound to emerge from the violin f-holes to the audience. Gasparo da Salo and Andreas Amati knew these things in the early 16th century. Since then the alterations have been minimal.
The violin is one of the most versatile of all musical instruments. Composers from Vivaldi, Bach and Mozart to Stravinsky, Sibelius and Bartok have recognized its extraordinary qualities. We celebrate 500 years since a moment of genius changed the world of classical music.