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Stringed instruments in the Middle Ages

The playing of stringed instruments (on which the strings are vibrated by a bow) probably originated in Central Asia in the 9th century AD, although it may well have developed independently on several continents. What is certain is that the plucking of strings is the older technique. In Europe the first bowed stringed instruments took two forms, reliable evidence for which exists from the 10th century.

One of these early instruments, the rebec (rubebe, lira, gigue), originated in Spain and was descended from the Arabian rabab. It was a pear-shaped instrument with one, two or three strings. Its body and neck were carved from a single piece of wood and it had neither ribs nor frets. The neck was on a level with the body and had side pegs. A flat table was glued to the upper side and above this was the fingerboard. Instruments with three strings were tuned to fifths (G3, D4, A4). The rebec was related to the lyre, a popular instrument that originated in Byzantium. Both instruments are basically of the same type and were played in the standing position, supported either by the chest or the shoulder.

The second early form of stringed instrument is the fiddle (Latin fidicula, French vielle), which was popular throughout Europe and existed in a wide variety of forms and types. The fiddle had between one and six strings, a flat, oval soundbox which was made of several pieces of wood joined by interlocking, i.e. with ribs, small concavities in the sides and a raised neck. The table was slightly vaulted, frets were rare. A characteristic of the fiddle was the round hole in the middle which later evolved into two crescent-shaped slits. Its great popularity in the Middle Ages was due chiefly to its wide range and agility. The instrument was usually supported on the left shoulder and played in accompaniment to the musician’s singing. Drone strings were fairly common. Mirroring certain aspects of the violin’s development, which began later, the fiddle retained its popularity until the 16th century, and indeed is still found in various forms in popular cultures today.

Renaissance instrument families

Before the end of the 15th century the combining of the characteristics of medieval stringed instruments led to the emergence of two distinct instrument families, which exhibited markedly differing construction, playing technique, function and sound: the viola da gamba (Ital. gamba = foot), which was held between the knees, and the viola da braccio (Ital. braccio = arm), which was held at shoulder height by the left arm.

The viola da gamba or viol featured unusually high ribs, a vaulted table, a flat back and C- or f-shaped sound holes. The neck extended out of the body, the fingerboard had seven frets and the five to seven strings lay across a rather flat bridge which meant that the bow could play more than two adjacent strings at once. The instrument’s dark and mellow timbre made it ideal for chordal playing.

The body of the viola da braccio, on the other hand, had lower ribs, a rounded back, f-holes, a fretless fingerboard, a neck raised from the body with a scroll and four strings across a curved bridge, which meant that they could be bowed individually. A deep indentation in the middle of the body made bowing of the outer strings easier. The timbre of viola da braccio instruments was brighter and more powerful and was especially suited to the carrying of melody lines.

The seven-stringed lira da braccio was used to accompany vocal performances in the 16th century. It had a flat body and a flat bridge.

The emergence of the violin in Upper Italy

The violin evolved from the viola da braccio family between 1520–1550, the Upper Italian towns of Milan, Brescia, Cremona and Venice being the most important centers. The term “violin” (from the Italian word violino) is derived from the word viola and had the general meaning “small stringed instrument” rather than “small viola”. The earliest surviving violins are those made by the Cremonese violin maker Andrea Amati (1500–1576) in the year 1542. They still have only three strings: G3, D4 and A4. It was probably not until after 1550 that Amati made the first violins with four strings. Andrea Amati was therefore in all likelihood the first instrument maker to produce instruments with those characteristics that justified the appellation “violin”.

The violin proved an enormous success in Italy, very quickly supplanting all the other “small stringed instruments” in the soprano register which were played in the da braccio position (arm position). No other instrument which had undergone the major part of its development before 1650 was accepted so readily as an essential part of musical practice; this was due to the limitless range of means of expression that it offered. The subsequent development of Western music history is linked closely to the further development of the violin’s playing techniques and possibilities for expression. Whereas violins – and later, other members of the violin family – have always been played exclusively by professional musicians, the viol remained an instrument also adopted by educated lay musicians such as noblemen and merchants and as such was endowed with a certain social standing. Italian players introduced the new instrument to a wider audience at European courts.

The golden age: 1600–1750

The violin’s popularity led to the emergence of the most famous schools of violin-making: The Cremonese School was led by Amati’s sons until Nicola Amati (1596–1684). The Brescian School produced master craftsmen such as Gasparo da Salò (1540–1609) and his pupil Giovanni Paolo Maggini (1580–1632). The Cremonese School continued with Nicola Amati’s pupil Andrea Guarnieri (1626–1698) and later Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737), who was presumably a pupil of Guarnieri’s. Antonio Stradivari, who made around one thousand instruments during his career of which 600 are said to be still in existence, is still regarded as the apogee of the art of violin-making. Despite repeated attempts, which continue today and make use of the most modern technology, it has proved impossible to reproduce the sheer brilliance of timbre of a Stradivarius. The dimensions of Stradivari’s model were accepted as definitive by later generations.

Giuseppe Guarnieri, known as “del Gesù” (1698–1744), made instruments that were appreciated chiefly on account of their sustaining tone. Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840), the greatest violin virtuoso of all time, played a Guarnieri.

North of the Alps the violin-making school led by Jacob Stainer (1621–1683) in Absam in the Tyrol gained great renown; Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), for instance, played a Stainer violin. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played an instrument made by Ägidius Klotz, a violin maker from Mittenwald.

France’s premier violin maker was Nicholas Médart (1628–1672), in England it was Barak Norman (1678–1740). In Vienna, Daniel and Joseph Stadlmann (1720–1781) were the most important.

Toward the end of the 18th century the art of violin-making disappeared in Italy when production was changed to a “production line” with a more specialized division of labor. New materials, such as varnish that dried faster, favored the new way of working and violin factories emerged. The leading violin makers of the following era were to be found in France, for example Nicolas Lupot (1758–1824).

Modernization around 1800

The upheavals that followed the French Revolution also had far-reaching repercussions in the world of music. The responsibility for organizing and financing musical events shifted from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie and concerts became a regular feature of society life. Since these were held in ever larger halls, louder instruments with thicker bows were required. Violin makers were therefore forced to make those alterations to the instrument which resulted in the development of the modern violin at the turn of the 19th century; old instruments were “modernized” to meet the new requirements: the bridge was raised to increase string tension and thereby the volume. This also altered the angle of the strings to the fingerboard, so that the musician would have had to apply more pressure to play the high notes. This difficulty was counteracted by placing the neck at a backward angle, thus maintaining equal distance between strings and fingerboard along its length. At the same time both the neck and the fingerboard were lengthened. To cope with the increased pressure of the strings on the table the bass bar and sound post were also reinforced.

The strings were made stronger too, so that they could withstand the increased tension. It had long been customary to cover the G strings, which had a gut core, with metal. Nowadays the G string is often silver-wound. It is not completely clear whether the D and A strings were also covered in the 19th century; today aluminum-wound gut strings are generally used. The E string was also made of gut in the 19th century and was not replaced by a steel one until the 20th century. Nylon and steel strings are currently in use.

The modern bow was developed within the space of a few decades, the French bow maker François Tourte (1747–1835) playing a leading role: the bow became longer and stronger; its weight was changed, the center of gravity moved and the tension increased, which made more powerful strokes possible, such as martelé (hammered, short powerful strokes).

In around 1820 the German composer and violin virtuoso Louis Spohr (1784–1859) invented the chin-rest, which facilitated the sliding movement of the left hand.