If it Ain’t Baroque: The Violin Through Time

May 17, 2017

Last week we briefly touched on the long and storied history of one of music’s most iconic instruments: the piano. This week we’re going to be following that same trend, only we’re going to talk about the history of an instrument that has been around for a few hundred years longer than the piano: the violin.

Descended from a long line of stringed instruments, the violin is only one instrument of many in the Viol family that includes instruments that are fretted and or played with a bow. Some of the violin’s earliest predecessors include the medieval fiddle, rebec, and lira da braccio. All very similar instruments, but none quite yet reaching what we know as the violin today.

The First True Violins

In fact, the very first clear indication that we have of the origins of the violin come from a series paintings by Gaudenzio Ferrari. In one of his most famous works, Madonna of the Orange Tree, painted around 1530, there is a cherub, a small, infant-like angel, playing what appears to be a bowed instrument that very clearly resembles a violin. All the hallmarks and characteristics are apparent. A few years later, Ferrari painted a fresco inside the church of Madonna dei Miracoli in Saronno, Italy. In it, he depicts three angels playing three instruments from the violin family: the violin, viola, and cello. The instruments Ferrari painted are instantly recognizable, yet still not quite what we think of as the modern violin. Ferrari’s angels play instruments with bulging front and back plates, a fret-less neck, strings that fed into peg-boxes with side pegs, and even included the important f-holes, where the sound resonates and projects. These are all easily recognizable elements of the modern violin. The only real difference between these instruments of old, and today’s beauties is that Ferrari’s violins have only three strings, rather than the modern four, and they had a more extravagantly curved body shape.

It’s not really known who was the creator or manufacturer of these first violins, but there is a fair amount of historical evidence to suggest they originated from the northern parts of Italy, most likely from the Milan area. Not only were Ferrari’s paintings found in these areas, but the towns there, specifically Brescia and Cremona, were renowned for their stringed instrument craftsmanship.

Other than Ferrari’s paintings, the earliest documented evidence of the violin comes from the records of the treasury of Savoy. There, historians found what amounted to a receipt for “trompettes et vyollilns de Verceil,” which is to say, “trumpets and violins from Vercelli,” the town where Ferrari painted his famous Madonna of the Orange Tree.

It didn’t take long for the violin’s popularity to explode, both among simple street-musicians and the nobility. Even King Charles IX of France commissioned a huge range of stringed instruments over the course of the second half of the 16th century. If fact, one of the oldest violins still surviving to today is thought to be one commissioned by Charles IX, and assembled in 1564.

If It’s Baroque, Fix It

Between the end of the 16th century and the 19th century, the violin went through a number of changes that brought it closer to the modern instrument. Over time many changes came, including:

  • The fingerboard was elongated. This made it easier to play even the highest notes.
  • The fingerboard was also tilted slightly. This helped created more volume as bigger and more impressive orchestras became popular and the violin needed to compete with more sounds.
  • The general pitch of music was raised during the 19th century, leading to nearly all old violins being modified to lengthen the neck by about 1 cm.
  • The bass bar of almost all old violins was also made heavier. That way the strings could be under much greater tension without worrying about damaging the instrument.
  • The method in which the body and neck of the instrument was assembled slowly changed. Classical luthiers would “nail” or glue the instrument’s neck to the upper block of the body before adding the soundboard. Later luthiers, however, would lock the neck to the body using a method called “mortise” only after completely assembling the body.
  • Lastly, the chinrest was invented and introduced by Louis Spohr in the early part of the 19th century.

The result of all these small modifications is an instrument that both sounds and responds differently from those that came before it.

Recent Changes

Since the 19th century, the violin has remained mostly unchanged. There have been, however, a few more modern attempts to modify the instrument. One of the earliest such attempt was with the Stroh violin, which used mechanical amplification to reach higher volumes. Unlike the later electric violin, which would use an electronic amplifier similar to an electric guitar, the Stroh violin used a cone similar to an un-electrified gramophone. The large “horn” was directed towards the audience for better sound projection. During the late 19th and early 20th century, before electronic amplification became common place, Stroh violins were particularly popular for recording studios, as the horn amplification was better suited for the demands of early recording equipment.

The history of the electric violin runs for the entirety of the 20th century. With the mastery and success of electrical amplification techniques, recording, and playback, the Stroh violin was eventually set aside. The most notable difference between a traditional violin and an electric violin is the body. Acoustic violins have a hollow body that allows the instrument to be played with or without any amplification. Electric violins, on the other hand, usually have a solid body, and therefore don’t produce much sound on their own. This means they need electronic amplification, which can often include equalization and sound effects.

At nearly 500 years old, the violin is one of the longest surviving instrument designs, and though modern versions of the instrument haven’t changed all that much, today’s violins just don’t seem to match the tone and quality of their older counterparts. This might be due to the modern materials and varnishes available to luthiers today. Regardless, advancements to other materials, such as the strings and bow, continue to improve upon this iconic and storied instrument. If past is prologue, then the violin is going to be around for a very long time to come.