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The History of the Violin

A Little Bit More Than You Probably Wanted to Know, but....


Dates of the First Documented Appearances of the Violin

bulletThe violin, as illustrated above, was not borne of a single parent, but evolved from several instruments, early in the sixteenth century. An instrument embodying the modern traits emerged about 1550, with the earliest type appearing not later than 1530 (it had three strings---g, d', a'---and a smaller body).
bullet1523: Earliest date of a documented reference to the violin. Recorded in Italy in the town of Vercelli. The payment of six scudi for the services of 'trompettes et vyellon.' 17 December.
bullet1529-30: An early rendition of the instrument in artwork; also in Vercelli, Italy, at the Church of St. Christopher: 'La Madonna degli aranci,' by Gaudenzio Ferrari.
bullet1538: An appearance of the term 'violino.' Pope Paul 111(1534-49), wishing to impress Emperor Charles V and Francis I who were attending a peace conference in Nice, brought with him trombonists from Bologna, violinists from Milan (violini Milanesi) and trumpet, drum and bombard players from Genoa. Violin Milanesi refers to Milan and surrounding areas (Bresci, Cremona, Saronno, Vercelli, Turin, with Milan as the cultural center) as producing more than its fair share of violins and violinists.
bullet1556: Epitome Musicale, by Philibert Jambe de Fer, published. Makes a distinction between viols--used by "gens du vertułm," people of taste--and violins--"br dances and weddings."
bullet1581: Earliest extant musical example specifically for the violin. Music for dancing at a Royal wedding in France. Nothing especially idiomatic to the instrument nor technically demanding. The violin is used for dancing music due to its power of rhythmic articulation and penetrating, sprightly tone. Also mainly used to double vocal parts in vocal ensembles.

Instruments Closest to and Contributing to the Modern Violin

(items in bold make up the traits of the modern violin)


bulletDates back to the thirteenth century (Arabian, Oriental)
bulletContains soprano, alto, bass members in family
bulletThree strings, tuned in 5ths
bulletStrings secured and tightened by pegs laterally inserted into peg box
bulletNo frets
bulletBody shaped like half a pear, neck and peg box are integral parts of the body
bulletPlaying position at the breast or neck
bulletBowed, held overhand
bulletNo sound post

Renaissance Fiddle

bulletFive strings, one of which may be a drone
bulletSoprano register
bulletConstructed of a top and back with connecting ribs
bulletSeparate neck, peg box, fingerboard
bulletFront pegs, heart or leaf-shaped peg box
bulletOval or indented shape

Lira da braccio
Species of fiddle in the Fifteenth century

bulletClose body outline, size varying from small to large
bulletArched top and back, overhanging edges, ribs
bulletSound post
bulletSeven strings, two of which were drones and ran off the fingerboard.
bulletOccasionally had frets
bulletTuning pegs set horizontally in heart or leaf shaped peg box
bulletor C-shaped sound holes

The rebec provided for the uniform fifth tuning system which contributed to a more consistent fingering technique, had fewer strings, and had the lateral tuning pegs which are easier to tune.

The Renaissance fiddle provided a greater sonority of sound due to its sound post and flat sound box, had the separate neck and fingerboard, and was a more efficient, easier-playing instrument.

The Lira da braccio had the typical outline, including the upper, lower and middle ("waist") bouts, arched top and back, connecting ribs and overhanging edges. The sound holes, now called f-holes, were indeed f- (or C-) shaped.

The violin emerged as a family: the violin, viola and cello appeared at roughly the same time. Rebecs also came in families of three registers.


bulletThe construction of the violin is dominated by the laws of physics and acoustics. Nothing about it can be changed without seriously disturbing its equilibrium as a work of art.
bulletSpiritually the violin is a creation of the Renaissance; architecturally it is a child of the Baroque. It does not have the clear, serene straight lines of Classicism and Renaissance. Its curves and complexities resemble the shapes of the angels and saints in Baroque sculptures. Baroque art was created by passionate, exultant artists who believed in God and the glory of the church. The violin too was invented by artists who were passionate, exultant and devoted in their beliefs. Princes of the Church as well as worldly rulers were among the patrons of the Amati and Stradivari (masters of violin- making).
bulletThe violin is a marvel of science, of mathematics, physics, chemistry and acoustics; it is also a miracle of passion and the love of music. It is the synthesis of emotion and intellect, passion and science. Passion came first, but it was subdued by adherence to the strict laws of science; otherwise, the violin would have been a failure as a musical instrument.

Bachman, Alberto. An Encyclopedia of the Violin. New York: Da Capo Press, 1966. p.21
Boyden, David. The History of Violin Playing from Its Origins to 1761. London: Oxford University Press, 1965. pp. 3-34.
van der Straten, E. The History of the Violin, Volume I. New York: Da Capo Press, 1968. p.2.
Wechsberg, Joseph. The Glory of the Violin. New York: Viking Press, 1972. pp.13-24.

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