The Evo­lu­tion of The Vi­o­lin - Where The Ori­ent Met the Oc­ci­dent

Distinguished Magazine - - CONTENTS - SURANGAMA GUHA ROY

Re­mem­ber the fas­ci­nat­ing tales of the min­strels and fid­dlers who would roam the Eu­ro­pean coun­try­side and en­ter­tain the royal courts with their po­ems and their songs? Well, it is from these in­stru­ments that the mod­ern-day vi­o­lin is said to have evolved.

Imag­ine the se­duc­tive tones of the vi­o­lin tug­ging at your heart, ric­o­chet­ing off the or­nate walls of a packed mu­sic hall. Do we stop to won­der about the sto­ries that lie be­yond its evo­lu­tion – of one of the most ro­man­tic stringed in­stru­ments of all times?

Re­mem­ber the fas­ci­nat­ing tales of the min­strels and fid­dlers who would roam the Eu­ro­pean coun­try­side and en­ter­tain the royal courts with their po­ems and their songs? Well, it is from these in­stru­ments that the mod­ern-day vi­o­lin is said to have evolved.

The vi­o­lin’s ori­gin lies in a va­ri­ety of stringed in­stru­ments such as the lute, the lira da brac­cio, and the vielle. While most of these were played in me­dieval Europe, a few of them, like the lute is said to have been ini­tially de­rived from an ear­lier ver­sion of the tra­di­tional Ara­bic ‘ud or oud, a pear-shaped stringed in­stru­ment played across coun­tries of the Mid­dle East and North­ern Africa.

An­other pear-shaped bowed stringed in­stru­ment was the lira da brac­cio that was played by Ital­ian court-po­ets of the 15th and 16th cen­turies. The lira da brac­cio is be­lieved to have been de­rived from the Byzan­tine lyra, a pop­u­lar in­stru­ment with three to five strings, rem­i­nis­cent of the harp, played across the Byzan­tine em­pire dur­ing the mid­dle ages. The lyra had most likely seeped into other cul­tures of the world through Byzan­tine trade routes and evolved through the times to give birth to the likes of the lira da brac­cio, and even­tu­ally the vi­o­lin.

But no his­tory in the his­tory of mankind has been with­out in­tri­ca­cies.

Thus, an­other early Re­nais­sance era boat-shaped bowed in­stru­ment called the re­bec, which by the way, is said to have its ori­gins in the Arab rabab, could also have in­spired the tech­niques of play­ing the mod­ern-day vi­o­lin; like the vi­o­lin, the re­bec too had to be played on the arm, and un­der the chin. The vielle was yet an­other later Re­nais­sance in­stru­ment with a longer body that could be seen as a di­rect an­tecedent of the mod­ern-day vi­o­lin. What is cu­ri­ous is that the mod­ern-day vi­o­lin could have been the fu­sion of mu­si­cal tra­di­tions that dif­fused from the ori­ent into the oc­ci­dent, and which, over the cen­turies have evolved into the mu­sic as we know it to­day. Even the Chi­nese fid­dle, the erhu, and the an­cient Ra­vana­hatha played in both In­dia and Sri Lanka, are seen as akin to the con­tem­po­rary Eu­ro­pean vi­o­lin.

The vi­o­lin as we know it, emerged around the 16th cen­tury as part of the viol fam­ily that also in­cludes, the vi­ola, the cello and the dou­ble bass. The first vi­o­lins were pre­sum­ably de­signed by the Amati fam­ily of Cre­mona, in North­ern Italy, with An­drea Amati be­ing fa­mously cred­ited as one of the first mak­ers of the mod­ern vi­o­lin. The cel­e­brated Medici fam­ily of Italy might have or­dered the first ever vi­o­lins from An­drea Amati, whose man­tle was later handed over to his sons An­to­nio and Giro­lamo who worked to­gether as ‘the brothers Amati’. An­other early known luthier (maker of string in­stru­ments) was Gas­paro de Salo, of Bres­cia, Italy, who could claim credit for be­ing the first maker of the con­tem­po­rary form of vi­o­lin

How­ever, it is An­to­nio Stradi­vari who is widely con­sid­ered the fa­ther of the ‘clas­si­cal’ form of the mod­ern-day vi­o­lin. Be­tween 1600 and the early 1700 Stradi­vari per­formed a series of ex­per­i­ments and fi­nally man­aged to per­fect the craft of vi­o­lin-mak­ing, pro­duc­ing larger mod­els than ever be­fore, re­fin­ing the sound, as well as the more minute de­tails of the in­stru­ment. His beau­ti­fully var­nished, acous­ti­cally rich in­stru­ments have since come to be known as the Stradi­var­ius, de­rived from the Latin ori­gins of their cre­ator’s name. To­day, ap­prox­i­mately 600-650 of gen­uine Stradi­var­ius chor­do­phones (string in­stru­ments) are fa­bled to have sur­vived of which sev­eral hun­dred are ru­mored to be vi­o­lins. Not sur­pris­ingly, they bear some stag­ger­ing price tags, be­ing con­sid­ered some of the most valu­able mu­si­cal in­stru­ments of all times!

Stradi­vari’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion cre­ated a stan­dard­ized model for the vi­o­lin and by the 19th Cen­tury the con­tem­po­rary vi­o­lin had come into its own, with Fran­cois Tourte hav­ing in­vented the mod­ern bow, and Louis Sophr hav­ing added the chin rest that makes play­ing the mod­ern vi­o­lin so much more com­fort­able. Over the cen­turies cel­e­brated com­posers rang­ing from clas­si­cal com­posers like Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Han­del, Schu­mann, Schu­bert, Vi­valdi, Verdi, Ravel, to the more con­tem­po­rary ones like Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Stravin­sky, Schoen­berg and Ben­jamin Brit­ten, have com­posed some of the finest mu­sic for the vi­o­lin, mak­ing it one of the most sig­nif­i­cant items within the mod­ern cham­ber or­ches­tra all over the world.

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