The violin is an important instrument in innumerable musical genres and traditions. It has origins dating back over 1,000 years and, for the most part, has existed in its current form for nearly 500 years.
The exact origins of bowed string instruments are unclear. There is evidence of bowed string instruments dating back to the ninth and tenth centuries, and scholars still debate whether the bow was introduced by Europe or the Middle East. The earliest records of violins appear in the early to mid-sixteenth century. The 1530 painting by Gaudenzio Ferrari, Madonna of the Orange Tree, shows a cherub playing a bowed instrument with the features of a violin. The earliest written records of violins come from France and Italy, dating to the mid to late 1530s.
The Modern Violin
Italian luthier Andrea Amati is credited with creating the “Modern Violin” in the mid-1500s. While other nearby violin makers were also experimenting with violin construction, Amati introduced the distinctive profile we associate with violins today. Andrea Amati is also credited with creating the first cellos and violas. Amati’s family continued to produce stringed instruments for generations. Niccolo Amati, Andrea’s grandson, not only improved upon his family’s designs but also taught two of the most well-known violin makers: Antonio Stradivari and Andrea Guarneri.
The Golden Age
Some of the most prized violins in existence today were crafted by Stradivari and Guarneri between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Stradivari produced many instruments for wealthy patrons and is known for his beautiful and meticulous craftsmanship. Guarani was not widely recognized during his lifetime but was later made famous by violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini. Because these instruments were all crafted by hand, meaning far fewer instruments were constructed during that time than are today. There are fewer than 600 Stradivari instruments and fewer than 100 Guarneri instruments that survive today. Nevertheless, the patterns for the Stradivarius and Guarneri violins persist as the two most popular produced today.
Pre-World War II
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the German city of Markneukirchen rose to prominence as a hub of high-quality violin manufacturing. Thanks to the German guild system, violin makers in Markneukirchen began constructing violins to strict high-quality standards and perfected the highly efficient “workshop” method. Workers became specialists in hand-crafting specific parts of the instrument and selling them to makers. The workshop method allowed instruments to be made more quickly and affordably while creating a high-quality instrument. The availability of affordable instruments helped fuel the growing interest in string instruments continuing the demand for more instruments. The advent of World War I started a downturn in violin production, and World War II ended the businesses of many violin makers.
Post-War Violin Resurgence
After World War II, the demand for violins returned. With advancements in automated construction, some violin makers moved to machine manufacturing. These instruments are durable, quick to produce, and cheap to make, but they sacrifice construction and sound quality. Other manufacturers returned to the workshop method to produce higher-quality instruments.
The Violin Today
Today, the violin is used in practically every genre of music, from traditional styles such as classical, cinematic, and folk music to jazz and popular music. At Music & Arts, the violin is one of the most popular instruments with customers. Violin is our most popular rental instrument, with nearly 53,000 violins currently on rent. Violin is also our third most popular lessons instrument after guitar and piano, with over 3,000 students taking violin lessons with us at the time of this article.
Thank you to Eastman Strings for providing much of the information used to write this article!