The History of the Violin

Who Made It and Where Did It Come From?

Violins in a row in a shop
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Whether it was inspired by the Byzantine lyra (similar to a lyre), the bowed string instrument the medieval rebec, or the lira de braccio, a bowed string instrument of the Renaissance period, the earliest version of a violin emerged in Italy in the early 1500s. Andrea Amati gets the credit as the first known creator of the violin.

The viol, which came before the violin, is also closely related. It is larger than a violin, and played upright, much like a cello. Other stringed instruments predating the violin include the Arabian rabab, which led to the medieval European rebec.

Violin Makers

Amati lived in Cremona, Italy. He first apprenticed as a lute maker. In 1525, he became a master instrument maker. Amati had been commissioned by the prominent Medici family to make an instrument that was like a lute, but easier to play. He standardized the basic form, shape, size, materials, and method of construction of the violin. His designs gave the modern violin family its look today but had vast differences. The early violins had a shorter, thicker, and less angled neck. The fingerboard was shorter, the bridge was flatter, and the strings were made of gut.

About 14 of the earliest Amati violins commissioned by Catherine de Medici, regent queen of France, are still in existence. Other noted early violin makers are Gasparo da Salò and Giovanni Maggini, both from Brescia, Italy.

During the 17th and early 18th centuries, the art of violin making reaches its peak. The Italians Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri, as well as the Austrian Jacob Stainer, are most noted during this period. Stradivari was an apprentice to Nicolo Amati, Andrea Amati's grandson.

Stradivarius and Guarneri violins are the most valuable violins in existence. A Stradivarius sold at an auction for $15.9 million in 2011 and a Guarneri sold for $16 million in 2012.

Rise in Popularity

At first, the violin was not popular, in fact, it was considered a musical instrument of low status. But by the 1600s, well-known composers like Claudio Monteverdi used the violin in his operas, and the violins' status grew. The violins' prestige continued to rise during the Baroque period once major composers began dedicating time writing for the violin.

By the mid-18th century, the violin enjoyed a vital place in instrumental music ensembles. In the 19th century, the violins' rise to fame continued in the hands of virtuoso violinists such as Nicolo Paganini and Pablo de Sarasate. In the 20th century, the violin reached new heights both in technical and artistic aspects. Isaac Stern, Fritz Kreisler, and Itzhak Perlman are some of the well-known icons.

Well-Known Composers for the Violin

The Baroque and classical period composers who incorporated violins in their music included Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van BeethovenAntonio Vivaldi is best-known for his series of violin concertos known as the "Four Seasons."

The romantic period featured violin sonatas and concertos by Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Brahms' Violin Sonata No. 3 is considered one of the best violin pieces ever created.

The early 20th century featured masterful works composed by Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, Bela Bartok, and Igor Stravinsky for the violin. Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 2 is rich, vibrant, technically mind-warping, and another of the world's best examples of music for the violin. 

Relation of Violin to Fiddle

The violin is sometimes called a fiddle, most used when talking in relation to folk music or American country western music, as an informal nickname for the instrument. The word "fiddle" means a "stringed musical instrument, violin." The word "fiddle" was first used in English in the late 14th century. The English word is believed to have derived from Old High German word fidula, which may be derived from the medieval Latina word vitula. Vitula means "stringed instrument" and is the name of the Roman goddess of the same name personifying victory and joy.