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instrument: Violin

The violin is the soprano member of the orchestral bowed string family, and surely one of the most essential and beloved within the history of classical music – since its appearance in the early 16th century. Like its musical relatives the viola, cello, and double bass, the violin has roots in the Medieval viol and rebec, or fiddle. These latter instruments were primarily used for drone or chordal accompaniment of vocal music, particularly since the absence of an arched bridge meant that bowing individual strings was impossible – a situation that began to change only in the late -15th century. The construction of viols and fiddles of varying sizes and registers likewise arose around the same time (notably at the court of Isabella d’Este), where they generally formed into consorts or small ensembles – and were given generic size designations such as “violino”, “viola”, and “violono”, along with performance terms “da gamba” (at the legs) and “da braccio” (with the arms), etc. The “violin” family grew more directly from the fiddle, and like the viol, gained in courtly prestige through its association with humanist ideals such as nobility and virtue. In the early 16th century, a stylistic distinction arose between the violin and viol families – with the softer viol considered ideal for intricate contrapuntal music (such as vocal transcriptions) and the brighter violin deemed best for dance music – where it first appears in print in the 1530s. As the Renaissance progressed, however, the violin family expanded its appearance to some church music, as well as other, more serious forms of secular music, such as canzonas and sinfonias – by composers such as Giovanni Gabrielli and Thomas Morley, among others.

By the early Baroque era, the violin (in the modern sense) was gaining standing as an expressive and virtuosic solo instrument, aided by a highly-skilled new breed of instrument makers – particularly in Northern Italy, where the illustrious names of Stradivari and Guarneri were forging a quality of craftsmanship that remains unrivaled to this day. It is thus not surprising that the most significant new repertoire for the violin came initially from Italian composers, such as Claudio Monteverdi and Salamone Rossi, from whence its influence spread beyond the Alps – via composers such as Heinrich Schütz and Johann Walther, both of whom studied in Italy. In France, the violin was intimately associated with dance, for which an ensemble of string players was deemed most suitable – culminating in the mid-17th century with the famed “24 Violons du Roi” and the “La Petite Bande” utilized by composers such as Jean-Baptiste Lully. Indeed, by this time, string ensembles had become standard across Europe, a product of the euphonious sound they produce in consort. Perhaps the most influential violin composer of the mid-Baroque, however, was the Italian Arcangelo Corelli, whose concerti grossi, violin sonatas, and trio sonatas were paramount to expanding the expressive and technical potential of the violin – as indeed of instrumental music in general. Later composers built and expanded upon Corelli’s new “classical templates” – such as Antonio Vivaldi (who perfected the solo violin concerto), Giuseppe Torelli, Francesco Geminiani, Giuseppe Tartini, as well as George Frideric Handel and J.S. Bach (whose unaccompanied violin sonatas and partitas, BWV1001-1006, are among the monuments of the late-Baroque) – and lifted the violin to a status unequaled among instruments.

The preeminence of the violin continued into the Classical period – though gradually rivaled by the piano – and indeed, all four masters of the late 18th-, early 19th-centuries, Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert, studied and played the violin. Their symphonies, violin concertos, string quartets, violin sonatas, and similar chamber works attest to the inspiration afforded by the violin – as well as its fellow strings. The Romantic era penchant for virtuosity and intense expression was well-suited to the violin, as witnessed in the great repertoire of violin concertos that arose through the 19th century, by composers such as Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Niccolò Paganini, Johannes Brahms, Camille Saint-Saëns, Max Bruch, Antonín Dvořák, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Jean Sibelius, and many others – aided by a roster of virtuosos, such as Joseph Joachim, for whom many masterpieces were written. The violin as a solo and chamber instrument – as well as a staple of the orchestra – has continued unabated through the Modern and Contemporary periods, with notable concertos and featured works by Alban Berg, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Béla Bartók, Darius Milhaud, Samuel Barber, Witold Lutoslawski, György Ligeti, Elliott Carter, John Adams, Philip Glass, and too many others to name – again, aided by a huge roster of virtuosos, many of whom are featured here at the Classical Archives.

Nolan Gasser, PhD
Artistic Director
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