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The Violin – A Potted History

The violin is not by any means the first stringed instrument to be played with a bow. Its predecessors go back many hundreds of years, even to the ancient Egyptians who, it seems, may have had a stringed instrument of sorts which was stroked with a reed to generate sound.

The violin’s immediate ancestor was a family of instruments known as viols. These bear more than a passing resemblance to the violin family and they, in their turn, had been in use for some years before the violin was developed. It used to be thought that viols predated the violin by a considerable time, but now it’s thought that this may have been by as little as twenty years. Music, then being played to very small audiences in fashionable parlour rooms, was now being sought by larger audiences in larger venues and the viol simply could not produce enough sound to fill these larger halls and so, perhaps from necessity, the violin was born.

The oldest existing violin dates back to around 1550. By 1650 the violin with its increased power was dominant in Italy and the most famous violin maker of all time had just recently been born. Antonio Stradivari studied in the workshop of Nicolo Amati, third generation son of a family of violin makers in Cremona, Italy. Stradivari, through a life long study of the instrument and constant experimentation, developed the lower arched, wider bodied violin that we are familiar with today. Coupled to his genius for development was a highly refined sense of style and woodworking skills so advanced that we are still held spellbound by his masterpieces.

Guiseppe Guarneri, known as “del Gesù”, was born in Cremona in 1698 and he learned his trade not only through his own illustrious violin making family but also in the shadow of the great Stradivari. It seems natural that del Gesù must have seen the work of the elder violin maker who lived just around the corner and been inspired by the increased power of sound created by these instruments and he went on to develop an even lower flatter arched violin.

These violins made by Antonio Stradivari and Guiseppe Guarneri del Gesù are now the most sought after in the world.

Soon to come was the Industrial Revolution and the old, slower methods of work coupled with slow drying varnishes had no place in this new world. By the mid to late 1700’s there were no violin makers of note left in Cremona, an era had ended and their methods of design and construction were lost.

The demand for still more volume to fill yet larger halls necessitated the steady increase in concert pitch to A 440 Hz and with that came the need to redevelop the violin to cope with the increased pressures of higher tension strings. The bass bar, a structural member inside the violin body, was lengthened and doubled in height, the thin sound post of the old fashioned baroque violin was replaced with one of larger diameter and the neck was both lengthened and set into the body at a steeper angle to facilitate the increased downward pressure on the bridge necessary to produce the increased volume.

Since this development, around the late 1700s to early 1800s, little has changed and the violin remains pretty much as Stradivari left it. Violin makers of today accept that violin making reached its zenith in the early to mid 1700s and in order to perfect their craft they work not only forwards into the 21st century, but bit by bit slowly backwards, in the hope of uncovering all the lost working methods of the 18th century.