The violin and its history
What makes a good violin
For sweetness and richness of tone, the violin has no rival among musical instruments. In the hands of a master, the violin sings as does nothing elese but the human voice. The violin is almost human too in the precision and delicacy of its structure and in the fact that age and use are needed to mellow it and bring it to perfection. Artists agree that no new violin, even the most perfectly made, will produce as rich and full a tone as one that has been used for many years. That is why old instruments made by masters are worth much money.
The violin is a shell of wood with four strings stretched across a bridge on its upper side. The strings are tuned to the scale tones E, A, D, and G. Usually, the E string is made of steel and the others have a core of nylon, plastic, fine steel wire, or catgut wound with silver, aluminum, or stainless steel. Sound holes on each side of the strings permit the air in the sound box to vibrate when the strings are moved by the bow's friction. These vibrations produce the tone. Tonal beauty comes from both the strings and from the delicate shell. The air vibrates against the shell after the strings have set it in motion.
About 70 picese of wood go into a violin. The wood is carefully chosen, seasoned, and shaped to prevent warping. It is held together only by glue. For the top of the sounding box, or belly, pine and silver fir are used. These woods are very elastic. Maple is generally used for the back, sides, bridge, and neck. Richness of tone depends upon the way in which the woods are used. It also depends upon the size and position of the curiosity shaped sound holes.
Horsehair is used for the bow because each hair has many tiny bristles pointing away for the hair root. These bristles give the bow its "bite" and set the violing strings in vibration. From 175 to 250 bristles are set side by side, half pointing in one direction and half in the other.
History of the Violin
The forerunner of the violin came from the Far East. According to tradition, the first stringed instrument played with a bow was invented by a king of Ceylon centuries ago. Today minstrels in India play a two-stringed fiddle said to be nearly the same instrument. The Arabs had a one-stringed fiddle, called a rebec. It was introduced into Europe sometime before the 900's. Drawing and sculptures of the Middle Ages show similar instruments with bodies of various shapes and with two, three, or more strings.
From this crude instrument developed the violin and its larger cousins. As its Italian name indicates, the violin was perfected in Italy. It took its present form in the 1550's.
Its chief home was Cremona, a little town near Venice. Andrea Amati, the master violinmaker, lived and worked here. Amati knew that fineness of tone depended upon fineness of body. So he experimented with woods from all over Italy. he and his co-workers found the best woods and worked out excellent ways of treating and finishing them. Violins made by Amati from 1554 to 1580, and later by his grandson and pupil Nico Amati, are almost priceless treasures.
The greatest Cremona master was Antonio Stradivari. His special contribution was to make all the violin curves and arches delicate, yet strong and resonant. he chose a fine pipe, then experimented with oils and finishes until he created a varnish that gave the body a rich amber color. But the secret of the varish has been lost. Since Stradivari's time, no violins similar to his have ever been made.
In Stradivari's later years, he would not sign the instruments he made. He feared that his failing sight permitted slight flaws to pass unnoticed. More than 1,000 violins, violas, and cellos that he did not sign still exist. Most were made between 1690 to 1730. Hundreds of fake Stradivariuses have been made since, imitating even the label.