Regarding the origins of the violin, the authorities seem to concur on one point: that the matter is and probably always will be open to question. Boyden points to "numerous mysteries and obscurities,"1 while van der Straeten warns his readers against "myths, fables and conjectures which have no solid foundation, . . ."2

The earliest bowed instruments include, roughly in chronological order, the ravanastron, a long-necked Indian instrument; the kemangeh and rebab, which came to Europe from the Middle East; and the rebec and gigue, which developed into the straight-sided pochette.3

There is considerable disagreement concerning the violin's more immediate predecessors. Doring believes that the viol developed into the violin:

Flat-backed, with high ribs bent to various forms and finished flush with the back and top, and without corner blocks, their outline soon assumed a narrow waist in order to facilitate the use of the bow. Finally, with centre bouts of oval form, they were not unlike the outline of the instrument destined to assume the place of leadership . . . . The viols long vied with their successors in popularity . . . .4
Hayes disagrees:
Since the independent pioneer work of Arnold Dolmetsch7 (c. 1890) and of Alexander Hajdecki8 (1892) in demonstrating that the violin and viol families were not only distinct but radically opposed, the popular fallacy that the viol was the ancestor of the violin has been silenced.
     7Dolmetsch, A., 'Interpretation of the Music of 17th and 18th Centuries' (London, 1915).
     8Hajdecki, A., 'Die italienische Lira da Braccio' (Mostar, 1892).5
The controversy does not end there. Hayes, having dispensed with the viol "fallacy," states:
An instrument unmistakably a violin is first described in 1528 by Agricola,1 who calls it a Polish Geige in his revised edition of 1545; . . . .
     1Agricola, M., 'Musica instrumentalis deudsch' (Wittenberg, 1528; also 1545).6
Yet van der Straeten points out that " . . . 'Polnische Geiglein' . . . were . . . of the Gigue family, and, as such, . . . could have no part in the evolution of the violin."7

Other instruments extant in the sixteenth century that may have contributed to the genesis of the violin include the violetta da braccio, mentioned by both Lanfranco and Ganassi in contemporary works,8 the lira da braccio, and the Renaissance fiddle.9

Doring characterizes the "violin type" as having " . . . long smooth [(unfretted)] fingerboard . . ., with the neck set at an abrupt angle into the body." He admits that the name of the first person to make a violin will never be known, but he conjectures Gasparo (Bertolotti) da Salo (b. 1540), who worked in Brescia, Italy.10 Boyden states, " . . . by 1550 the violin had attracted first-rate craftsmen in Italy, . . . ."11 While Gasparo da Salo passed on his craft to Paolo Maggini (1580's–1632) in Brescia, Andrea Amati began work in the nearby town of Cremona. With Andrea Amati came the establishment of the Cremonese school, which would eventually produce the greatest makers of all time.12

The violin was first used almost exclusively for the popular music of the time. Boyden states that " . . . the idiomatic potential of the violin was relatively little exploited, . . .";13 Hayes adds that violins were primarily " . . . used for dances, weddings and mummeries. "14 Late in the century, tablatures were devised for violin music.15 A collection of concertos by Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, dated 1587, calls for a violin to be used as part of an antiphonal choir, and is thus the first known work to specify the violin in its instrumentation.16 The first violin whose name is recorded was Jacomelli, known as "Giovan Battista del Violino."17

Violin technique was far from universally standardized during the sixteenth century. Ganassi's treatise, Regola Rubertina, from 1542–43, dealt with string playing in detail and is the only known work of its kind from that century. In it he advocated "notions of fingering, position playing, and string colour" that were remarkably advanced.18 Yet, even late in the century, "the diversity of instruments . . . is reflected in holding the violin variously at the breast, shoulder, or neck, . . ."19

As the violin adopted its modern form in the sixteenth century, its companion, the bow, was showing some signs of standardization as well. Having originated in its most primitive form in sixth-century India, the bow developed by virtue of such modifications as a handle or knob at the held end (twelfth century), the crémaillère, a notched device allowing control over the tension of the hair (fifteenth century), and the screw (1536). Yet by 1600, the bow had still not assumed its modern shape, and would not until the late eighteenth century.20

The seventeenth century saw but a few developments in the structure of the violin itself. However, demands on the instrument did begin to increase. Monteverdi and Marini were among those who wrote serious music for the violin early in the century. Virtuoso technique began to develop--partially because of the development of the sonata, but probably even more because of the advent of those "who extemporized--roughly, the hot-jazz boys of the early seventeenth century."21 A number of great violin makers were active during the seventeenth century. Of particular importance were Stradivari in Italy and Jacob Stainer and his disciples, Alban and the Kloz's, in Germany.22 Ironically, the powerful sound now associated with the violins of these masters was never heard in their time, because the instruments were fitted with bass bars shorter and lighter than those in use now, because gut strings were used, and because the strings were under less tension due to the less abrupt angle of the neck to the body. Other differences between seventeenth-century violins and modern ones are the higher body arching and the short fingerboard; also, many had carved heads rather than scrolls, and many were built on a large pattern.23

Burritt Miller made a thorough study of Stradivari's construction methods. Miller suggests that Stradivari used molds for the basic shapes of his backs and bellies, but they were finished according to drawings he made, of which Miller cites two that have been preserved and are "labelled with exceptional precision, . . . ." Miller disputes the Hills, generally considered the authorities on Stradivari, on this matter (they believed he used the molds even while finishing exteriors) and on another important matter: the thicknesses of Stradivari's backs and bellies. The Hills believed he glued the backs and bellies on to the ribs (sides) before finishing them, but Miller believes a matter they mentioned elsewhere in their book makes this unlikely. The matter is tap-tones: the notes produced by rapping pieces of wood with the knuckles. (Savart, mentioned in the following quotation, was a physicist who took apart Cremonese instruments to study their acoustic properties!)
Savart . . . discovered that the bellies all had tap-tones varying between C#3 and D#3 while the backs were all between D3 and D#3. The difference between the back and belly of a given instrument was invariably a half or a whole tone apart.7
     7Hill, [Antonio Stradivari,] p. 185.6
Miller concludes that Stradivari finished each back and belly, having carefully scraped it to the desired tap-tone, before gluing on to the ribs.24

It was only late in the seventeenth century that playing in the high positions began to be practiced with any regularity. Longer fingerboards and lengthened and repositioned necks eventually accommodated increased technical demands. As Boyden stated, "After 1650 violinists were increasingly interested in volume, sonority, and colour . . . . By 1700 the violin was capable of a vast range of tone and expression."25 One of the greatest violinists of the seventeenth century was Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713) of Italy.26

The history of the violin in the eighteenth century is essentially a history of the remarkable developments in violin playing. Van der Straeten says:
About the middle of the 18th century violin playing began to divide into two divergent directions, one of which continued in the tradition of Corelli and the great masters, and which culminated at the end of the century in Viotti, the father of modern violin playing. The followers of the other direction cultivated the virtuoso element to gain the admiration of the multitude by dazzling them with their fireworks, and pander to sensuous emotionalism.27

Primarily in the interests of practitioners of the former tradition, modifications in the violin to increase its tone continued. The practice of lengthening fingerboards and necks (the latter now angled backwards) became commonplace. Bridges became higher and more curved. A flatter design began to supersede the model having highly arched backs and bellies typified by the violins of Amati and Stainer. A silver-wound G string came into use to allow increased resonance.28

In the eighteenth century, violin making reached its peak. Stradivari, who lived and made violins well into his nineties, was active through much of the first half of the century. The only maker seen today as rivaling him in quality, Joseph Guarneri del Gesù, lived from 1698 to 1744. Other fine Italian makers from the eighteenth century include Bergonzi, Montagnana, Goffriller, Seraphin, the Grancinos, the Testores, Balestrieri, Guadagnini, and Gagliano.29

The bow finally reached its modern form late in the century with the work of François Tourte (1747–1835) of Paris. Van der Straeten, who describes Tourte bows to be of the "highest perfection," cites their "greatest elasticity, . . . perfect balance, appropriate weight, [and] elegance of form." Tourte's innovations included "the addition of slide and ferrule . . . [and] adaptation of Pernambuco- or Brazil-wood."30

Among the leading violinists of the century were the Italians Antonio Vivaldi (1680–1743), Francesco Maria Veracini (1685–1750), Giuseppe Tartini (1692–1770), and Giovanni Battista Viotti (1753–1824).31

Without question, great strides in violin playing and teaching have been made since 1800, but by that time the foundations were securely in place.


     1David D. Boyden, The History of Violin Playing from Its Origins to 1761 (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 2.
     2E. van der Straeten, The History of the Violin, Its Ancestors and Collateral Instruments from Earliest Times, 2 vols. (1933; reprint ed., New York: Da Capo Press, 1968) 1:1.
     3E. N. Doring, "Violin," in International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians, 10th ed., ed. Bruce Bohle (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1975) 2:2376.
     4Ibid. Italics mine. In the same encyclopedia, the short article "Viol" (unsigned; 2:2374) defines its subject as a "Family of string instruments . . . which . . . developed into the violin in the Seventeenth [sic] [Century]."
     5Gerald Hayes, "Violin Family," in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed., ed. Eric Blom (London: Macmillan Press, 1954) 8:807.
     6Ibid., p. 806.
     7van der Straeten, History of the Violin 1:174.
     8Hayes, "Violin Family," p. 806.
     9Boyden, Violin Playing, p. 8.
     10Doring, "Violin," p. 2376.
     11Boyden, Violin Playing, p. 48.
     12The Cremonese school followed after Andrea Amati with his sons Antonio and Hieronymus, then with Hieronymus's son Nicola. Pupils of Nicola Amati included his son Hieronymus II, as well as Giovanni Battista Rogeri, Francesco Ruger, Andrea Guarneri, and the great Antonio Stradivari (b. 1644). Rogeri taught his son Pietro Giacomo, while Ruger tutored his own sons Giacinto and Vincenzo. Andrea Guarneri taught his sons Pietro ("Petrus of Mantua") and Giuseppe ("Joseph filius Andrea"); the latter passed on his craft to his sons Pietro ("Petrus of Venice") and finally Giuseppe (the great "Joseph del Gesù"). Stradivari was the teacher of his sons Francesco and Omobono and also of Carlo Bergonzi. Doring, "Violin," p. 2377.
     13Boyden, Violin Playing, p. 63.
     14Hayes, "Violin Family," p. 807.
     15van der Straeten, History of the Violin 1:37.
     16Ibid. 1:47.
     17Ibid. 1:46.
     18Boyden, Violin Playing, pp. 77, 94.
     19Ibid., p. 93.
     20van der Straeten, History of the Violin 1:17, 1920, 22.
     21Boyden, Violin Playing, pp. 18788.
     22Doring, "Violin," p. 2377.
     23Boyden, Violin Playing, pp. 110, 173.
     24Burritt Miller, "The Construction Methods of Antonio Stradivari," The Strad 80 (1969):73, 75, 77, 79.
     25Boyden, Violin Playing, p. 273.
     26van der Straeten, History of the Violin 1:137.
     27Ibid. 1:180.
     28Boyden, Violin Playing, p. 329.
     29Doring, "Violin," p. 2377.
     30van der Straeten, History of the Violin 1:22.
     31Ibid. 1:155, 165; 2:5, 49.


Boyden, David D. The History of Violin Playing from Its Origins to 1761. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.
Doring, E. N. "Violin." In International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians 2:2375–77. 10th ed. Edited by Bruce Bohle. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1975.
Hayes, Gerald. "Violin Family." In Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians 8:806–12. 5th ed. Edited by Eric Blom. London: Macmillan Press, 1954.
Miller, Burritt. "The Construction Methods of Antonio Stradivari." The Strad 80 (1969):73+.
van der Straeten, E. The History of the Violin, Its Ancestors and Collateral Instruments from Earliest Times. 2 vols. 1933; reprint ed., New York: Da Capo Press, 1968.