There is little doubt that the violin is one of the best known musical instruments in the world. It is not only a primary instrument in Western classical music, but is heard in all genres of traditional and contemporary music as well. The instrument’s origins, however, are somewhat less certain. While there is no genuine proof as to when it first appeared, or that any one individual “invented” the violin, certain craftsmen were credited with perfecting the design of bowed instruments that were played throughout Renaissance Europe, and it was these instruments that evolved into the modern violin we know today.
Images of bowed string instruments appear in European drawings from as early as 900 AD, but the violin likely developed from Arab and Byzantine instruments that arrived in Europe between the 10th and 12th centuries. One of them, the rebec, was an often-fretted instrument with a pear-shaped body and three to five strings, played while rested on the shoulder or against the chest or armpit. Rebecs were not considered art-music instruments but were commonly used to perform secular instrumental music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
The Italian Tradition
While it is impossible to pinpoint a specific inventor of the violin, scholars agree that Italy was the birthplace of the modern instrument, where its most immediate predecessor, the lira da braccio, first appeared in the 15th century. The oldest surviving violin was made in 1560 by the earliest documented violin maker, Andrea Amati of Cremona, Italy (1505-1577). Amati, considered by many the father of the modern instrument, originated a school of violin making that standardized the instrument’s proportions and developed its soundbox. His sons, and other families engaged in violin making followed his example.
It was the innovation of Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), widely regarded as the greatest violin maker in history, which gave the instrument its voice. Stradivari began his career building on the Amati techniques, ultimately perfecting them. Stradivari not only set new standards with his redesign of the soundbox, but also for the quality of the materials he used, including soundboards of premium maple and an unusual orange-brown varnish that may have contributed to the instruments’ tone. Stradivarius violins are unmatched even today, and neither artisans nor scientists have been able to recreate their unique sound.
19th Century Violins and the Age of the Virtuoso
While the basic form of the violin has remained essentially the same since the 18th century, a few modifications were made in the 19th century to suit the popularity of the instrument and the demands of new music written for it. A heightened bridge and angled neck created greater pressure on the strings, resulting in a more forceful and vivid sound. A lengthened fingerboard gave the instrument a higher range. Finally, Louis Spohr's addition of a chin rest in 1820 enabled players to hold the violin more comfortably, well-suited for the difficult repertoire being written and performed by Spohr, Niccolo Paganini and other virtuoso players who dazzled concertgoers in the 1820s and '30s. This is the instrument which is mass-produced and in use throughout the world today.