The History of the Violin

by William Bartruff, Violin Maker

Foreword

There are stringed instruments from many different cultures and times that each, indirectly or directly, have had a part in the development of the instrument now known as the violin. These instruments, such as the Greek kithara dating from the 7th century BC or the Chinese erhu dating from the middle 8th century AD, while important to the development of stringed instruments and bowed stringed instruments, do not directly relate to the violin. It is my intent in this article to show only the immediate precursors to the violin and give the reader an idea how this instrument form came to exist, then dominate our western music culture.

Origins of the Violin

The Rabab

The origins of the violin are uncertain and open to debate, but it is generally agreed the instrument we know today in western music as the violin had its origin in the Arabic rabab. The rabab had two strings made of silk attached to an endpin and strung to pegs used to tune the strings in fifths. The rabab was fretless with a pear shaped body made of gourd and a long neck. The instrument was held on the lap and played using a bow with resin rubbed on its string. No images or examples exist of this instrument but it is described in documents dating from the late 9th century.

The Rebec

As a result of the European crusades, an instrument called the rebec based on the rabab appears first in Spain during the middle 11th century. The rebec differs from the rabab only slightly: The rebec has three strings instead of two, the body is made of wood rather than gourd, and the instrument is placed at the shoulder to play rather than on the lap.

The Vielle

The vielle appears in 13th century France and differs from the rebec significantly. There are now 5 strings, the body is much larger and closer in shape to the modern violin with ribs to enable greater flexibility when bowed. It is worth noting that the name vielle came later to refer to a different instrument--vielle à rue (vielle à roue)--or as it is more commonly known now--hurdy gurdy.

The Viola di Braccio (Viola da Braccio, Lira di Braccio, Lira da Braccio)

The viola di braccio ("viol of the arm") appears in the 15th century in Italy. It retains the general shape and size of the vielle but reduces the strings from five to three like the rebec. And for the first time, the c holes of the rebec and vielle are replaced with the now familiar f holes used on modern violins.

The Violin

The violin, by all accounts, originates in Northern Italy during the first half of the 16th century. But the "inventor" is unknown and will remain open to discussion. Most scholars credit Andrea Amati of Cremona (c.1511-1577), as the first known violin maker because there exists documentation of two violins he created between 1542 and and 1546. However, these instruments had only three strings, like the rebec. The first four string violin, also by Andrea Amati, was dated 1555. The oldest surviving violin, c.1560, is also by Andrea Amati.

But other scholars dispute Andrea Amati's claim as the first violin maker and instead award this tribute to Gasparo di Bertolotti da Salò (Gasparo da Salo) of Brescia (c.1540-1609). This is because Andrea Amati was trained by lute makers; documents exist describing Amati as a lute maker; and few of Amati's violins survive. However, reason dictates that since the violin was a new instrument form, the term "violin maker" would have been unknown; further, there exist documents describing a sale of 24 violins by Andrea Amati to Charles IX of France in 1560; and it only takes one surviving violin to prove Amati created violins--and there are 14 Amati instruments known to have survived.

Early Violin Makers

Cremona

Andrea Amati (c.1511-1577) who was originally a maker of lutes, viols and rebecs, began the school of violin making in Cremona. He is widely credited with creating the first known violin.

Antonius (Antonio) and Hieronymus (Girolamo) Amati (c.1540-1607), (c.1561-1630) were the sons of Andrea Amati. Also known as "The Brothers Amati" (they were actually half-brothers), they made some instruments together but most were created separately.

Nicolò (Nicolo, Nicola, Nicolaus) Amati (1596-1684) was the son of Hieronymus Amati. His instruments are considered the most exemplary of his family.

Girolamo Amati II (1649-1740) was the son of Nicolò Amati.


Andrea Guarneri (1623-1698) was an apprentice of Nicolò Amati.

Pietro (Peter, Petrus) Giovanni Guarneri (1655-1720) the eldest son of Andrea Guarneri, was born in Cremona but worked in Mantua.

Giuseppe (Joseph) Giovanni Battista Guarneri (1666-c.1739) was the third son of Andrea Guarneri.

Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri (Joseph Guarnarius del Gesu) (1698-1744) was the grandson of Andrea Guarneri, the son of Giuseppe Giovanni Battista Guarneri, and the younger brother of Pietro Guarneri of Venice. Next to Stradivari, Guarneri's works are considered to be the finest in existence. He is know by the name del Gesu because of his addition of the letters IHS to his works beginning around 1730. IHS is a monogram referring to the name of Jesus Christ thus "del Gesu".


Francesco Ruggieri (Rugier, Ruggeri, Ruggerius, et. al.) (c.1630-1698) was probably another of Nicolò Amati's students, though there is some question as to this fact. His greatest contribution was not in violin making per se, but seems to be instead in his development of a smaller version of the cello that is now the standard.

Giovanni Battista Ruggieri (Rugier, Ruggeri, Ruggerius, et. al.) (1653-1711) was the eldest son of Francesco Ruggieri.

Giacinto Ruggieri (Rugier, Ruggeri, Ruggerius, et. al.) (1661-1697) was the second son of Francesco Ruggieri.

Vincenzo Ruggieri (Rugier, Ruggeri, Ruggerius, et. al.) (1663-1719) was the third son of Francesco Ruggieri.


Antonio Stradivari (c.1644-1737) was, without question, the most famous apprentice of Nicolò Amati. In addition to violins, Stradivari is known to have made over 1000 instruments (of which roughly two-thirds survive) including violas, cellos, mandolins, guitars and harps. Because of his notoriety, Stradivari remains one of the most often imitated violin makers with hundreds of thousands if not millions of copies produced. Stradivari's original works are divided into three periods: the early period in which he was influenced by his teacher, Nicolò Amati; the middle period in which he experimented with his violin designs; and the late period in which he perfected the form of violin still in use today.

Francesco Stradivari (1671-1743) was the eldest son of Antonio Stradivari. Francesco worked with his father throughout his life but is considered to be mainly an assistant. Indeed, only a few known copies of his violins exist bearing his label.

Omobono Stradivari (1679-1742) was the second son of Antonio Stradivari. Although Omobono did create a few violins, he mainly sought a life outside violin making. His works are considered to be less sophisticated than those of his older brother and father.

Brescia

Gasparo di Bertolotti da Salò (Gasparo da Salo) (c.1540-1609) founded the school of violin making in Brescia. Originally credited during the 19th century with being the first known violin maker, this attribute has been removed. In addition to violins, da Salò also produced viols, citterns, cellos and double basses.


Giovanni Paolo Maggini (c.1580-c.1631) was trained by Gasparo di Bertolotti da Salò and assumed da Salò's position as master violin maker in Brescia upon da Salò's death.


G.B. (GB, Giovanni Battista, Gianbattista) Rogeri (c.1670-c.1705) trained in Cremona under Nicolò Amati, but worked in Brescia.

Milan

Giovanni Grancino (1637-1709) was the son Andrea Grancino, who may also have been a violin maker, and may have worked with a brother, Francesco.

Paolo Grancino (1655-1692) was thought to have trained under Nicolò Amati in Cremona, later moved to Milan to work, and launched the violin making school of Milan. However, recent evidence fails to find any satisfactory references to his work or life.


Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711-1786) was born and worked in Piacenza but created his greatest instruments in Milan. Guadagnini also worked in Cremona, Parma and Turin.


Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi (c.1710-1784) may have been a pupil of Giovanni Battista Guadagnini.


Carlo Giuseppe Testore (c.1665-1716) was a student of Giovanni Grancino. His works are considered to be rough in design yet of superior tonal quality.

Carlo Antonio Testore (1693-c.1765) was the son of Carlo Giuseppe Testore.

Venice

Matteo Gofriller (Goffriller) (1659-1742) was the first important Venetian violin maker.


Pietro (Peter) Guarneri (1695-1762) was the son of Giuseppe Giovanni Battista Guarneri of Cremona, the older brother of Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri of Cremona. He worked with his uncle, Pietro Guarneri, in Mantua then later moved to Venice. His instruments are considered to be inferior to his uncle's.


Santo (Sanctus) Seraphin (Serafin, Serafino) (1699-c.1758) was one of the most finanacially successful violin makers working in Venice at the time. His instruments are finely crafted and tonally excellent.


Carlo Annibale Tononi (1675-1730) worked in Bologna until the death of his father, Giovanni, then moved to Venice.

Absam

Jacob (Jakob) Stainer (c.1621-1683) was the first great violin maker outside Italy. He was appointed to a position at the court of Archduke Ferdinand Charles in Innsbruck, Austria in 1658 but was later accused of heresy by the Catholic Church for posessing Lutheran writings. He died a madman in poverty.

Mittenwald

Matthias (Mattias, Mathias) Klotz (Kloz) (1653-1743) was a German violin maker. He studied with both Nicolò Amati and Jacob Stainer.

Key Events in the History of the Violin

The Violin in Orchestra

Originally an instrument of the lower classes and unorganized musical events, the violin became integral to the orchestra during the 17th century. Composers such as Monteverdi began using violins as key instruments in their compositions.

The Tourte Bow

Around the year 1786, Françoise Xavier Tourte (1747-1835) created the modern version of the bow used to play violins. Tourte change the bend of the bow to arch backwards (convex). He also standardized the length, weight and balance of the bows. And Tourte introduced the use of Pernambuco (Pau-Brazil) wood as the material for bow making.

Most Expensive Violin on Record

In May of 2006, a violin made by Antonio Stradivari, known as "The Hammer", was sold by Christie's auction house for the record sum of $3,544,000. Based on the current exchange rate (0.692501), that's €2,454,223!

Greatest Violinist

Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) was a violinist, conductor and child prodigy. Only seven years of age, Menuhin performed at Carnegie Hall in New York. Although open to debate, Yehudi Menuhin is today considered to be the greatest violinist of all time.

Mass Production of Violins

By the middle of the 19th century, violins were in such great demand that they began to be mass produced. Hundreds of thousands of violins bearing labels of the famous Italian makers Amati, Stradivari, Guarneri and others were created in France, Germany and throughout Europe. These instruments were not intended to be forgeries, they were merely satisfying the demand for these classic violin makers' works. However, today these mass produced copies appear in attics throughout the world and briefly excite their owners with dreams of riches. While it is not impossible to find a heretofore undiscovered Stradivari, it is highly unlikely, and most of the value of these "discoveries" will prove to be strictly sentimental to the owner. But, a word of caution is needed. Since it would be a great tragedy and the ultimate irony to actually find a Stradivari and discount it as a copy, you should always consult with a local violin appraiser to satisfy yourself of your violin's provenance.