The violins of 300 years ago are unlike those that are made today. The construction and sound may vary, but so too did the compositions and concert venues.
Art evolves, and yet some say it is eternal.
These two things are not incompatible. Human expression, be it in sculpture or painting or music or performance, is what endures even if the modes, materials, and methods change. The finest Stradivarius violin is quite unlike the first vines stretched across the hard shell of a gourd or turtle shell, but both allowed the person holding them to create sounds that delight, haunt, and stir the soul.
From this we can understand that violins have not always been the instruments they are today. After the first instruments thought to be violins were made in the early 16th century by the first makers of fine violins, then the time we call the Baroque period (1600-1750), the construction of the instrument found its way into the royal courts and the small venues of the wealthy mercantilists. By the 20th century, the Modern Era, the instrument changed to be played in larger venues and to provide players an ability to handle ever more complex and challenging compositions. These are the fine violins for sale in the local violin shop or being created by the modern violin maker.
Music changed, therefore demands on the violin did as well
The demands of music compositions and the larger concert halls required violins that were more nimble and provided a fuller, richer, and resonant sound, able to project farther than the rarified courts of the aristocracy.
First, Baroque era music introduced ornamentation and intricacy in melodies. Violins were the solo instruments in the works of Vivaldi and Bach, both composers of that time. Strings paired with harpsichords played for smaller audiences. Moving to the Classical era (1750 to 1820), compositions were more structured and balanced as composers Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven devised the sonata-allegro form. This is when (larger) symphonies came to the fore.
The Classical era music required more precision and clarity. This drove bowing techniques to become more standardized to satisfy the scores’ dynamics, articulations, and phrasings. Later in the Romantic era of the 19th century, emotional expression asked the violinists and their violins to do more with technique and intensity. Later still, entering the 20thcentury, composers such as Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Debussy, and Ravel further demanded techniques, new harmonics, and color in how the instrument was played. As composers adapted to modern audiences in modern concert halls, string music was further marked with experimentation and expression.
Violin structures changed with the times
The violin evolved quite a bit over these eras. Fingerboards were extended to enable the instrument to hit higher notes. It was tilted as well, allowing the violin to produce more sound within larger orchestras. The neck of the violin grew by a centimeter – an improvisation that caused luthiers to alter existing older instruments; the neck is also angled back from the modern violin body, creating greater string tension. Bass bars were made heavier to handle greater string tension. Chinrests, first devised in the early 19th century, became far more common 100 years later.
Baroque violins had the original gut strings (yes, the material was from the stomach intestines of sheep), while modern violin strings are made of steel or nylon. The difference is steel and nylon produce a brighter and louder sound than the more demur, softer sound of gut strings. Bows were different in the Baroque era, in a convex shape (the wood curved out and up, away from the hair) as compared to the concave shape of modern versions.
And yet to the casual observer, the violins of 300 years ago might look much like those of today. The differences are subtle, as is the shift in musical styles. But important to note, each era has its devotees and each is loved. Because art in all forms endures.
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