It's time to dive deep into the history of the violin. It's a truly historical instrument which takes inspiration from all over the world. Add to that a long lineage of legendary craftsman, and you've got yourself a fascinating story. Here we go!
So, when we say history, we mean it! We’re going way back to centuries ago when the violin was first incarnated. In fact, we’re going back further to the instruments that are thought to have inspired the violin – the grandparents of the violin, if you will.
And this inspiration came from all over the world. From the Chinese erhu and morin khur, to the 9th century lira, to the Welsh crwths, the Indian ravanastron and omerti, and the Arabian rabab and rebec. All of these were stringed instruments from different corners of the globe. The rabab and rebec actually found their way to 15th century Spain and France where they were used frequently!
Believe it or not, despite all of its musical ancestors, the violin sort of appeared, as if by magic, at some time around 1550. It’s true! There’s a chance it could have been invented a little earlier than that, as a painting by Gaudenzio Ferrari called “Madonna of the Orange Trees” from 1530 portrays a little cherub holding a suspiciously violin-like instrument, though it did only have 3 strings!
None of the original violins are thought to exist anymore. The oldest one that we know of dates back to 1565, and was built by who can only be described as violin-making royalty, Andrea Amati. Speaking of which, let’s learn a little bit more about the people who crafted these instruments, shall we?
The Amati family were among the first in Europe to really craft the type of violin that we know and love today. In fact, this family are really thought to have standardized the basic form, shape, size, materials used and how the violin should be constructed. Essentially, they laid down the violin rule book! The family are thought to have lived in Cremona, Italy, from around 1538 until 1740, and these days, their violins are valued at around $600,000! That being said, they’re so old that most of them are kept in museums and are sadly never played in public.
Next up in the violin family tree is Jacob Stainer. This Austrian and German stringed instrument maker created some of the best violins around. Even the likes of Bach and Mozart were desperate to get their hands on one! Their popularity was huge, that is, until the sound of classical music began to change. Queue: Stradavari.
That’s right, we’ve all heard of the classical music heavyweight that is the Stradivarius violin - famous for being the most expensive and highly sought-after instruments in the world. Antonio Stadavari was the Italian craftsman of these instruments, and it is estimated that he made around 1,116 instruments in his lifetime (with the help of a few colleagues, of course!). Only around 650 of these instruments have survived into the 21st century, but these instruments are highly prized possessions.
It’s hard to believe how rare and special these violins are, but their price certainly reflects this. Each violin has its own name, which truly makes it a one of a kind piece (that’s great marketing, Mr Stradavari!). London sales for The Mendelssohn went for £902,000 in 1990 and The Kreutzer for £947,000 in 1998. The Molitor was sold for 3.6 million dollars in 2010, and then just when you thought it couldn’t get any crazier, The Lady Blunt went for almost 10 million, all proceeds of which were donated to charity.
As the years went by, a few changes were made to the violin, including the fingerboard being made a little longer to reach even higher notes! At this point, almost all of the older instruments had to be changed to accommodate for these extra notes that were gained. The chin rest wasn’t brought in until the early 19th century too.
Though the violin has remained largely unchanged since its conception, more recent years have seen violin makers using amplifiers and taking the instrument electronic. Acoustic-electric violins are able to be used with or without amplification as long as they are hollow, whereas solid-body electric violins won’t be much use without an amplifier! This development is allowing the violin to broaden its horizons into new genres and new worlds, and certainly keeping up with the 21st century trends. It’s really exciting to see what will happen to this instrument in the coming years. One thing is for sure, that it will never lose its grandiose status as one of the most historically important instruments ever designed.
At RSL, we can't wait to be part of the future of violin playing. Check out the RSL Classical Violin syllabus, coming soon!