From Citizendium
Jump to: navigation, search
This article is a stub and thus not approved.
Main Article
Related Articles  [?]
Bibliography  [?]
External Links  [?]
Citable Version  [?]
This editable Main Article is under development and subject to a disclaimer.
© Image: Greg Peverill-Conti
A Violin.

The violin is a musical instrument, that consists of four strings, a hollow body, an unfretted fingerboard, and is played with a bow. The Violin is a member of the string family of musical instruments, which also includes the viola, cello, and double bass. It has played a central role in the orchestra since the birth of both the string and concert orchestras, and it is also a fundamental component of a string quartet, as well as a member of other instrument ensembles. Much enduring music has been composed for solo violin as well. It has been speculated that no other instrument in the orchestra has had as much distinguished music written for it.[1] From its early days in Italy the violin was exported throughout the world and has played a fundamental role in the musical history of numerous countries, not only in the West but also in such far-flung places as Iran and Japan. “Scarcely another instrument can produce so many nuances of expression and intensity,” writes music scholar David B. Boyden. “The violin represents one of the greatest triumphs of instrument making.”[2]

A violin is also known as a fiddle, particularly in the folk, bluegrass and country music genres.

The Instrument


The violin is a hollow box that is composed of over seventy parts. Its design has remained pretty much the same since its first appearance over four hundred years ago. What follows is a most general description of its structure. The body of a violin is composed of a top plate (the “belly”) joined to a back plate by sides called “ribs”. The top plate and the back plate overhang the ribs slightly, creating an edging called the “purfling”, which helps to prevent damage to the violin. The slender neck of the violin projects outward from the top end of the body. The fingerboard, which is unfretted, runs along the neck towards the bridge, which occupies virtually the central position of the top plate. The violin uses four strings. Anchored to the tailpiece, the strings run over the bridge and up the neck, where the strings are fastened to four pegs in the pegbox. A scroll, purely ornamental, adorns the top end of the pegbox. The chin rest for the performer lies to one side of the tailpiece. The top and back plates are “vaulted” (i.e., slightly curved outward), not only to strengthen the violin but also for acoustical purposes. The C-shaped indentations on the sides of the violin are called the “middle bouts” or “C-bouts” and aid the performer’s ease of playing. The two carved-out sound holes (“f-holes”) flanking the bridge have two primary acoustical functions: (1) they reduce the stiffness of the top plate and (2) act as a Helmholtz resonator (which helps to reinforce the sounds generated by the strings). The inside of a violin contains components as well, including a bass bar and a sound post, both of which help to transmit vibrations.

The top plate and bridge are made of softwood, usually European spruce, while the back plate and ribs, as well as the neck, pegbox, and scroll, are made of hardwood, usually maple. The pegs are typically made of rosewood or boxwood, the fingerboard of ebony or rosewood, the chin rest of ebony. The darker lines especially prominent on the back plate and which run from side to side are called the “curls” (evidence of the rings in a tree trunk), the overall appearance of which is called the “figure”. The figure is to be distinguished from the “grain”, which relates to the fibers of the wood which run from top to bottom and are more prominent in the top layer. Ideally, the various woods have to be dried from anywhere from five to ten years if not longer before being used; the wood has to be completely dried so that the violin loses no weight over its lifetime. Varnish is used to preserve the wood. (A good varnish cannot improve the sound of the violin, but a poor varnish can impair sound quality.) The length of the average body of a violin today is about 14 inches (35.5 cm). A violin weighs about sixteen ounces. With proper care and maintenance a violin can conceivably last forever.


The four strings are tuned to G, D, A, and E (intervals of a fifth). The E string is usually all-steel. The G, D, and A strings are traditionally made of strands of sheep gut wound together with strands of metal: steel, silver, or aluminium. There are also all-metal strings, but these are less commonly used by orchestras or soloists, only by fiddle players and violin students. Strings are often now made of synthetic materials that have the warm tone of gut but with greater resilience.


The violin is played with a bow. The bow is an incurved stick made most commonly of pernambuco wood, not stiff but elastic, strung with about 180 strands of white horsehair. The bow is about 29.5 inches in length (about 73-75 centimeters) and about 60 grams in weight (including horsehair). The bow allows the player to make sounds of different durations and varying intensity.

The horsehair on the bow is rubbed with rosin (made generally of spruce resin, paraffin oil, beeswax, and mineral oils) before the violin is played in order to give the bow a firmer hold on the strings. “Its quality is important,” write one violin scholar, “for the string’s vibration depends on it rather than on the bow hair’s small barbs.”[3]

Sound production

When the bow is drawn (properly, orthogonally) over the strings, a complex physics process occurs: the strings are set in motion (i.e., they vibrate) and sounds are generated by the vibrations which are amplified and transmitted to the outer air by the body of the violin. The entire body of the violin vibrates along with the strings. The soundholes add richness and resonance to the sounds. By pressing down on a string or strings at different points successively with the fingertip(s) of the left hand, different tones are produced. The general movement of the fingers of the left hand is called “fingering” and the pressing down on a string is called “stopping”. “Multiple stops”, such as double stops, triple stops, and quadruple stops, refers to the pressing down on two or more different strings at the same time and drawing the bow across these same strings simultaneously, creating a chord. “Vibrato” is created by rocking the finger stopping the string to make the sound vibrate.

Different types of bowing produce a variety of sound effects; and there are a surprising number of bow strokes. The most common include legato, détaché, martelé, staccato, and tremolo. Using the bow near the bridge generates a louder tone (sul ponticello), while playing farther away, closer to the fingerboard, generates quieter tones (sulla tastiera). The bow can also be bounced on or along the strings, which is called spiccato. Less commonly, the wood part of the bow can be used to knock the strings, which is known as col legno. Sounds can also be generated by plucking the strings with one’s finger(s); this is called pizzicato.

The tone and cantabile (“singing”) qualities of the violin have led musicians and scholars to liken the instrument to the human voice. For example, the 1st position of the D, A, and E strings, a range of just under two octaves, corresponds to the range of the human soprano voice. Played with a strong attack, the violin at its highest registers can approximate a human shriek (e.g., Bernard Herrmann’s film music for the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho).

Playing the violin

The violinist handles the violin by the neck in the left hand and holds the bow in the right hand. The violin rests on the left shoulder, the violinist’s chin rests on the chin rest, and the right elbow is held away from the body. Playing a musical piece on the violin requires moving the left hand up and down the fingerboard. Shifting the wrist up the fingerboard from 1st position to 2nd position and so on allows for the creation of a higher set of tones (and vice versa for lower tones). Moving from position to position is called a “shift”. Generally, the shift is meant to be inaudible. A smooth, rapid, audible shift is called portamento, or glissando.

History of the violin: manufacture

Music scholars are in agreement that the violin developed fundamentally in Italy. However, the inventor of the violin remains a mystery. The violin brought together elements of existing instruments including the rebec, the Renaissance fiddle, and the lira da braccio (another type of fiddle).[4] A three stringed violin appeared in paintings in Ferrara around 1508. One of the earliest illustrations of a four string violin is featured in a fresco (1535) by Gaudenzio Ferrari in Saronno Cathedral, 22 km north of Milan. The four string violin was a popular instrument in Europe by 1550. The origin of the name “violin” is lost to time, but the Italian “violino” and the English “violin” were in use by 1550.

“Luthier” is the general term for a maker of string instruments, including violins. There were many makers of violins throughout Italy in the early days of the instrument, but the greatest achievements in violin making were centered in the province of Lombardy, and particularly in the city of Cremona. The great early violin makers, who usually worked on commission, left a label or brand on their instruments, most often on the inside, which allows for the identification of the maker. Making an unvarnished violin requires at the very least 150-180 hours of work.

Numerous minute variables in the disposition of various pieces of the violin contribute to the overall timbre of the instrument. The most minuscule changes in the thickness of the bridge and the top and bottom plates, for example, will alter the sound considerably. Precise measurements, to the millimeter, are required for numerous parts. But the creation of a high quality violin is not a standardized process. In any one violin, parts may need to have their measurements slightly altered in order to integrate best with one another. A high quality violin has its own individually specific internal measurements. The physics of the instrument is surprisingly complex, so that, even today, although the violin has undergone relentless countless scientific evaluations, the precise nature of how the violin generates sound is still not completely fathomed – which makes all the more remarkable the achievements of the early violin makers, who worked without specialized tools such as micrometers.

The first renowned maker of violins was Andrea Amati (c.1505-c.1611), the founder of the eponymous school of violin makers in Cremona.[5] Amati pioneered the approach of using the most exacting standards and finest materials for the creation of his instruments. He took meticulous care in the preparing and handling of the various woods. His first known violin was made in 1542. The Amati family produced high quality violins, known as “grand pattern” Amatis, for around 200 years. His most esteemed descendant was his grandson Nicolò Amati (1596-1684). Amati violins are distinguished by their golden-brown varnish. The earliest known violin in existence today is one by Andrea Amati, made in 1564 as part of a set of string instruments for Charles IX of France. (It is now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.)

The second most significant violin maker was Gasparo da Salò (c.1540-1609), who worked in Brescia, 31 miles from Cremona. He and Andrea Amati are considered the first generation of major violin makers. He cared more about sound quality than visual aesthetics, so that his violins often lack body symmetry and refinement. Many da Salò violins have either an amber-colored or dark brown varnish. G. P. Maggini (c.1581-1632), a pupil of da Salò, was another leading maker of violins in the early days.

In the second half of the sixteenth century there were two types of violins, one slightly longer and one slightly shorter than today’s violin. By about 1600 the violin size reached what it is today. Still, some details were slightly different from today’s violin, such as a shorter, thicker neck, shorter fingerboard by at least two inches (allowing for less tones), and a lower bridge. The measurements of a violin varied slightly between violins made by one maker and also between violins made by different makers. Not all violin makers used the highest quality wood, as evidenced by this instruction manual: L’impiego di legni tratti dalle demolizioni di vecchi edifici nella costruzione dei violini (Use of wood salvaged from razed old buildings in the construction of violins).

Cremona in the seventeenth century boasted of no less than twenty-four master violin makers, as well as at least thirty-five more lesser builders. During this century, although Italy had a good trade in exporting violins throughout Europe, quality violins were made throughout Europe as well. Jacob Stainer (c.1617-1683) is considered the most significant German violin maker of his time, and owners of his instruments included J. S. Bach, who owned six of them, and Leopold Mozart. Stainer’s violins, of which he could produce about 22 a year, used an amber-colored varnish. Unlike the Cremonese masters who led tranquil lives for the most part, Stainer’s life was marked by much hardship and a tragic end (he went mad). Stainer violins influenced early English violin makers such as Christopher Wise (d. c.1680) and Thomas Urquhart (d.1680). Stainer violins have a darker sound than Amatis and Stradivaris. In Europe in the early 1700s, Stainer violins were held in the highest esteem and sold for higher prices than both Amati and Stradivari violins.

The Guarneri family of Cremona produced some of the most highly prized violins of all time. Andrea Guarneri (c.1626-1698), apprentice to Nicolò Amati, pioneered the family trade, and was followed by two of his sons and two grandsons. Andrea probably produced no more than 250 violins in his lifetime. His instruments are distinguished by their yellow amber varnish. One of his grandsons was Joseph Guarnerius del Gesù (1698-1744), now celebrated as one of the greatest violin makers. It is said that Joseph del Gesù cut his f-holes freehand, entirely by eye. While not famous in their lifetime like Antonio Stradivari, the Guarneri family produced violins that are valued very highly today and are considered second in craftsmanship only to the work of Stradivari. Some of the most significant violins made in the early days of the violin have been given names. Some of del Gesù’s, for example, include the “Kreisler” (1733), the “Devil” (1734), the “King” (1735), the “David” (1742), the “Cannon” (1742), named for its loud sound by Nicolò Paganini who owned it, and the “Leduc” (1743). Joseph del Gesù made perhaps around 200 violins in all.

The modern shape of the violin was arrived at around 1700-1710, as exemplified by the work of Antonio Stradivari (c. 1644-1737), originally an apprentice to Nicolò Amati and another resident of Cremona. Stradivari has become the most celebrated violin maker of all time. Like Amati before him, Stradivari was dedicated to using the finest materials available. His enhancements included the refinement of the outline of the instrument, the reduction of the overall swell of the top plate, a modification of the shape of the f-holes, and the creation of the modern shape of the bridge. The varnish of his violins has a characteristic reddish tinge. He made instruments destined for King James II of England; Cardinal Vincent Orsini, later Pope Benedict XIII; King Amadeus II of Sardinia; among others. Stradivari was a rich man by his sixties, and famous around the world. “The sound [of a Stradivari] has its own beauty, woodiness, brilliance, depth, power, and magic, and always the player’s timbre, charm, and personality as well,” notes Joseph Wechsberg in The Violin. “If there were such a thing as “ideal” violin sound, this is it.”[6] Stradivari’s “Betts” violin (1704) is considered a landmark, the pinnacle of craftsmanship (and is now at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.). His “Messiah” (1716) is just as celebrated (and now at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford). His other violins include the “Hellier” (1679), the “Bossier” (1713); the “Dolphin” (1714); the “Nightingale” (1717); the “Prince Khevenhüller” (1733); the “Lord Amherst” (1734); and the “Lamoureux” (1735). No one knows exactly how many violins Stradivarius made, nor how many exist today. At least 540 exist today, and he perhaps made around 1,000-1,200 string instruments in all.

A violin’s unique and subtle physical characteristics determine its overall character of sound. An Amati is said to be “silvery” and “flute-like”, while a Stradivarius is said to be “mellow” and “rich” and “sweet” and “oboe-like”, while a del Gesù is said to be “dark” and “sonorous” and “horn-like”. Violinists and scholars agree that a “breaking-in” period is required for a new violin before its fullest tones can be brought out; virtuoso Louis Spohr remarked on a set of four Stradivaris: “they must be played for ten years before they reach perfection.”[7] The breaking-in period is determined by the specific violin. Neither violinists nor scholars have ever reached any sort of consensus on the time frame of breaking-in periods. Some well-crafted violins can take up to fifty years and more to reach their fullest sound potential, as the wood has to ripen and mature.

Perhaps up to 20,000 violins, perhaps many more, were produced in Cremona in 150 years, from Andrea Amati to Antonio Stradivari, the “golden age” of violin making. [8] There were many more distinguished makers of violins up to this time than are mentioned here. Why the art of violin making reached its peak so early, and for the most part in the city of Cremona, remains a mystery. The last of the major Cremonese violin makers was Carlo Bergonzi (1683-1747). The secret of the beautiful varnishes that distinguish the violins of the Cremonese masters vanished along with them. Why other violin makers in Italy and elsewhere down through the years were unable to properly reproduce the Cremonese recipes remains another mystery. The quality varnishes required the proper mix of ingredients, but also necessitated a specific method of drying, as well as the application of a specific number of coats; and sometimes a mixture of different varnishes were used on a single instrument. “Men have walked on the moon, but are still unable exactly to reproduce the varnish of the great Cremonese makers, though its composition is no secret (as is so often believed),” Wechsberg notes.[9]

Interestingly, the early master violin makers created their instruments in a time when convention frowned upon the violinist playing extremely high notes (created by using the end of the fingerboard closest to the bridge). In fact, the fingerboards were shorter than they are today, so the high notes played today weren’t even a possibility then. Hence it may be surprising that the instruments in later years were revealed to be consummate facilitators of lovely toned high notes generated by virtuosos in performance.

By 1800, French makers of violins, all located in Paris, were now in the ascendant. Nicolas Lupot (1758-1824) made beautiful violins inspired by Stradivari and was indeed called “the French Stradivari”. (Nowadays, with Stradivaris becoming increasingly rare, collectors are more and more turning to Lupot.) A notable contemporary was François Pique (1758-1822). But the most famous French maker was Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume (1798-1875), who emulated the styles of both Stradivari and Guarneri, and made over 3,000 instruments in his lifetime. Vuillaume had fun producing forgeries of Stradivaris that fooled the experts of his day.

Concurrent with the manufacture of the violin were the refinements in both the violin bow and the violin strings. Violin strings were all made of twisted sheep gut until around 1700, when the G string was wound with silver or copper wire (called “overspun” or “wound” strings) to make the string thinner and more flexible. Until then, the G string was neglected by players and composers, as it was thick and not particularly expressive. Violin compositions in the seventeenth century seldom included notes for the G string. During the 1700s an overspun string replaced the D string as well. One of the most prominent string makers was Giorgio Pirazzi, who emigrated from Rome to Germany in the 1790s and founded a firm still in operation today (“Wondertone”). The thin gut E string was notoriously unreliable and often snapped during recitals; it wasn’t until the advent of all-steel E strings in the late nineteenth century that this problem was solved once and for all.

For the first two centuries of violin playing there were also different types of bows in use. There was no standardization; for example, the Italian bow was longer than the French bow. (The great Cremonese violin makers also made bows but none, or virtually none, survive.) Early bows were an outwardly curved stick. During the seventeenth century, bows had become straight. After at least a hundred years of experimentation by a variety of bow makers in different countries, it was Francois Tourte (1747-1835), a Frenchman who was originally a watchmaker, who arrived at the standard, “modern” concave bow, around 1786.

During the 1700s and into the 1800s, which saw the rise of the public concert orchestra, finer details of the violin were perfected, such as the length of the fingerboard (lengthened to allow for higher notes) and the height of the bridge. Stronger overspun strings were used. Innovations resulted from the requirement for a stronger sound from the violin for concert hall performances. While Stainers and Amatis were more suitable for chamber music in small halls, Stradivaris and Guarneris were more suitable for large halls with symphony orchestras, and by 1800 these latter violins were the most popular in Europe. It is no coincidence that the rise in popularity of the Stradivaris and Guarneris coincided with the rise of large scale orchestral works, exemplified by Mozart’s last symphonies, but especially by Beethoven’s Eroica symphony (1805) and his Violin Concerto (1806).

The style of violin playing kept evolving as well, which is an extensive subject of its own. Only one aspect will be addressed here. Prior to 1750, three ways to hold a violin persisted: at the breast, at the shoulder, or at the neck. By the end of the eighteenth century, the violin was primarily held under the chin. The chin rest was added, perhaps by the German composer/violinist Louis Spohr (1784-1859), around 1820. “As violin technique more and more involved playing in the high positions it became imperative to hold the instrument securely under the chin,” writes violin scholar Walter Kolneder. “Playing in the higher positions, and especially the need to shift [back] down, caused violinists to hold the instrument firmly under the chin . . . so that the left hand no longer had to hold the violin.”[10]

By around 1700, dozens of works including parts for violins, such as concerto grossi and trio sonatas, as exemplified by works by Corelli and Vivaldi, were published by music firms across Europe. The sheet music contributed to the rise of the violin not only in palaces and churches, but among the homes of middle class citizens, who played instruments as a pastime. The demand for violins rose accordingly. During the 1700s Germany and France pioneered the mass production of lower quality violins, which are humorously referred to as “factory fiddles”. By 1850, all of the parts of a violin could be made entirely by machine.

From the eighteenth century up to the present day, notable violin makers have been located in such places as Italy, France, England, America, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Scandinavia, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Russian, the Balkans, Turkey, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. From that time up to the present, violin makers have generally followed the pattern of the Stradivari and Guarneri violins. Although violins are still being made today, most great violin virtuosos of the present day play Stradivaris and Guarneris, and use a Tourte bow.

History of the violin: composition and performance

Sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

During the early days of the violin (1550s-early 1600s), violins were considered a low-brow instrument and were played, from memory, (1) as an accompaniment to vocal music (doubling the vocal melody); (2) for dancing; and (3) for dinner music. A telling distinction was made by Philibert Jambe de Fer in his Epitôme musical (France, 1556): whereas viols were played by “gens du vertù” (people of taste and distinction), violins were played “for dances and weddings.”[11] Pre-1600s, violins were typically part of three-, four-, or five-part ensembles, which also included the keyboard (usually a harpsichord). Violinists also played informally at inns and taverns. These early roles for the violin were generally the same for Italy, France, Germany, and England.

The earliest piece of written music devoted to the violin was printed for an entertainment called the Balet comique de la Royne for a French Royal wedding in 1581. A sinfonia by Luca Marenzio in 1591 featured a significant part for the violin. Another early work with a violin part was Sonata pian e forte (1597) by Giovanni Gabreli. The first printed sonata for violin and accompanying instrument was composed by G. P. Cima in 1610. Early notable compositions with parts for violin were written by noted violinists Biagio Marini (1597-1665) (sonatas) and Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) (operas). (Perhaps it is no accident that Marini was born in Brescia and Monteverdi in Cremona.) Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607), for example, features a celebrated violin duet. While the earliest violin music by Monteverdi and others was simple and kept to first position, and primarily to the D, A, and E strings (including L’Orfeo), Monteverdi’s later scores were the first to take wide advantage of the technical possibilities of the instrument, including indications for tremolos and pizzicatos, and (though not often) writing parts for the fifth position.

Once written music for the violin appeared, the genres of violin music were established early: (1) various types of sonata; (2) the violin concerto; (3) short pieces with keyboard or orchestral accompaniment; and then a little later, (4) works for unaccompanied violin. David D. Boyden noted, particularly referring to the years 1650-1700, “Violin music . . . was one of the chief agents in advancing the cause of instrumental music as a whole.”[12]

The art of playing the violin began in Italy, which saw the rise of numerous famed violinists who played in cathedrals and at royal courts, and then at public opera houses (the first opened in Venice in 1637). These early Italian violinists spread throughout Europe and influenced musicians and composers of other countries. For example, Giovanni Battista Buonamente (d. 1642) went to Vienna; and Carlo Farina (c.1600-c.1640) went to Dresden. Virtuosos began appearing throughout Europe, particularly in the German-speaking countries. However, a “virtuoso” in the early days was different from the virtuoso of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “Early violinists played easily and naturally,” explains Wechsberg, crystallizing thousands of scholarly studies on the subject. “They didn’t ‘dig in’, and it was considered bad taste to create robust sound. . . Clarity, purity, and transparency were more important than strength and passion.”[13] Improvisation, however, was customary. Violinists often embellished a written score with improvised ornamentation between written notes. This led some early composers for the violin to mark some of their passages come sta (play as written). Paolo Quagliati, for example, in his Sfera Armoniosa (1623), demanded: “the [violin] player . . . may use trills for ornamentation, but must not add passage work.”[14] As early as the 1500s vibrato was used, but sparingly, not continuously as in the modern style, but only as an occasional ornament.

All of the most notable violinists of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries composed music with parts for their instrument. Various composer-violinists in seventeenth century Italy included Carlo Farina, Giovanni Legrenzi (1626-1690), and Giovanni Battista Vitali (1646-1692), all of whom composed trio sonatas, among other works. Farina’s composition Capriccio Stravagante (1627) inaugurated the genre of the violin virtuoso showpiece, and his works included effects such as sul ponticello and col legno. As the art of playing the violin became more refined, compositions for violin became increasingly more demanding on the player. Heinrich von Biber’s fifteen sonatas for the violin (Germany, 1674) include passages for the seventh position.

The 1600s saw the birth of the string orchestra and of orchestras in general, which used violins as a fundamental component: for example, the Vingt-quatre Violins du Roi, the string orchestra (which included six violins) for the royal court of Louis XIII of France. Violins played a significant role in the royal masques in England, such as for Ben Johnson’s Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue (1618). Violinists found work as part of orchestras in royal palaces, churches, opera houses, and various private music societies. The violin had become a significant instrument that was here to stay. The first treatises focusing on the technical aspects of playing the violin were published in various languages, such as John Playford’s A Briefe Introduction to the Skill of Musick (England, 1658); well over twenty-five instructional works appeared throughout Europe in the seventeenth century. This suggests the rising use of violins by amateur players. To some, the violin remained a second class instrument. In 1657, Anthony Wood, history of Oxford University, referred to an attitude by musicians that “a violin [is] an instrument only belonging to a common fiddler.”[15] But the next generation of violinist/composers proved the violin’s worth once and for all.

Archangelo Corelli (1653-1713), born in Fusignano, Italy, has been called the “first genuine violin virtuoso”.[16] He wrote 48 trio sonatas, 12 duo sonatas, and 12 concerto grossi, all requiring violins, and in the process elevated the violin to a prime position in the world of music. When performing as a soloist, he played an Amati. Corelli also established the first significant violin school. At his death, he was buried beside Raphael in the Pantheon in Rome. One of Corelli’s pupils, Pietro Locatelli (c.1693-1764), developed the art of violin playing further, reflected in his composition, Twenty-four Caprices; his difficult pieces were years ahead of their time. (Diderot’s novella Le neveu de Rameau (1762) includes the line, “The first one who played Locatelli was the apostle of the new music.”[17]) Locatelli played a Stainer violin. Other early Italian violinists who composed significant violin music include Francesco Maria Veracini (1690-1768), whose works included 12 violin sonatas and whose colorful life (he survived a shipwreck, for example) ended in extreme poverty; and Antonio Vivaldi (1676-1741), who composed over 220 works for the violin and was venerated in his lifetime. Vivaldi’s D major Concerto (PV 165), performed in 1712, is notable for its cadenza featuring use of the 12th position. His most famous work is his set of four violin concertos referred to as The Four Seasons, op. 8, nos 1–4 (1725).

An early renowned violinist in France was Giovanni Battista Lully (1632-1687), a Florentine who changed his name to Jean Baptiste Lully. He became a member of “The King’s Four-and-Twenty Violins” and was appointed composer of chamber music to Louis XIV, and whose works include concerto grossi. He promoted the most exacting discipline and frowned upon improvisation and ornamentation, which generally reflected the French attitude toward violin playing for the next hundred years.

The compositions written for violins affected the making of violins; for example, the advent of concerto grossi required violins with large tones (e.g., in the spirit of Gasparo de Saló) to compete with the loud sound of the orchestra. Violins meant for dances and for smaller-scale ensembles found a quieter, sweeter-toned violin sufficient (e.g., Amatis).

Eighteenth century

The eighteenth century was a high time for the violin: the age of the Stradivari; the Tourte bow; the works of Haydn, Mozart, and the arrival of Beethoven; the highest quality violin treatises yet; and a new, more dramatic approach to playing the instrument. Until the eighteenth century, performers rarely went beyond the fourth position on the fingerboard. But with the advent of Corelli and the concertos of Locatelli and Vivaldi came the rise of the showy violin virtuoso. The “cadenza”, a space in the score for the violinist to demonstrate skill with an improvised solo passage, appeared around 1700 (in works by Vivaldi, for example). During the eighteenth century, violinists discovered and demonstrated the versatility of the instrument: its tender and solemn side, exemplified by Pietro Nardini (1722-1793), as well as the instrument’s spirited and forceful side, exemplified by such masters of complicated showmanship as F. M. Veracini (1690-1768), Pietro Locatelli, and Antonio Lolli (c.1725-1802), who was celebrated in his day as having “ten fingers on his left hand”.[18] Maddalena Sirmen, the first famous European woman violinist, appeared in the mid-1700s. Virtuosos explored the sonic potential of the violin, its deep sonority and its highest reaches; experimented with fingering and bow technique; and discovered and perfected nuances and ornamentation and graces and shadings. Throughout the eighteenth century, violinists, most of them Italian, went on concert tours throughout Europe. Many violinists found work in England, prompting English biographer Roger North to remark near the end of the 1700s that England had “dispeopled Italy of viollins [sic]”[19]

The most celebrated violinist of all after Corelli was Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770), who was also known as the best swordsman in Padua. In his life time he was hailed as Italy’s greatest violinist. As a teacher he was referred to as the “Master of the Nations” because students from all over came to take instruction. Tartini wrote hundreds of works for violin, including 175 violin sonatas, 150 violin concertos, and 40 trio sonatas. His most famous work is The Devil’s Trill sonata (ca. 1730), a technically difficult piece which is still often played and recorded today (and was one of Brahms’s favorite works). He discovered so-called “Tartini tones”, a type of harmonics known as resultant tones: when two tones are played loudly together, two faint tones are also heard.

The arts of both playing and teaching the violin were perfected during the eighteenth century. J. S. Bach’s three sonatas (BWV1001, 1003, 1005) and three partitas (BMV1002, 1004, 1006) for unaccompanied violin (c.1720) are technically demanding, requiring the highest level of competence. (They have been called “the most ingenious violin music ever written.”[20] “For 250 years it has been every violinist’s endurance test, the ultimate challenge in regard to playing double stops and chords.”[21]) The most notable of the many eighteenth century treatises on the violin were Germaniani’s The Art of Playing on the Violin (1751), representing the Italian school (though printed in England); Leopold Mozart’s Versuch einer gründlicher Violinschule (Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing), the German school; and L’abbe le fils’s Principes du violin (1761), the French school.[22] Meanwhile, Johann Stamitz (1717-1757), a violin player located in Mannheim, and whose style was influenced by Tartini, played a pivotal role in the development of the symphony, a genre which featured a significant role for violins.

In the eighteenth century the violin participated in the rise of the “grand scale” symphony. The symphonies by Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart often rely heavily on strings, particularly the violins. In this same time period the violin also found a new role in a small scale ensemble: Haydn wrote the first string quartet in 1755, his op.1, no. 1, which inaugurated a new genre, an ensemble of two violins, one viola, and one cello. Haydn went on to compose 83 string quartets in his lifetime. Mozart composed twenty-six string quartets. Ludwig van Beethoven composed seventeen. Many lesser composers in the time of Mozart and Beethoven wrote hundreds of string quartets, such as Boccherini (around 90 of them) and Cambini (144). The development of both “grand scale” orchestral music and “small scale” chamber music opened up new, and fundamental, roles for the violin in concert halls.

The art of the violin concerto, an extended work for violin and orchestra, reached new heights with Mozart and Beethoven. Early violin concertos were written by violinists such as Tartini, Locatelli, and G. B. Viotti, among others, and were meant to display virtuosity. Mozart wrote five of them (1775), and Beethoven only one (1807), but, in the words of one music scholar, “they make the vast concerto repertory before Tartini seem antiquated.”[23] Beethoven created a new type of violin concerto in which sheer violin virtuosity is subordinated to a general “symphonic” concept in which violin and orchestra play together to communicate general ideas. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is not a “display piece”. Hence, after Beethoven there were two types of Violin Concerto in the nineteenth century: the “symphonic concerto” (i.e., not a display piece), and the violin concerto meant to display the virtuosity of the violinist.

The last of the great Italian violinists of the early era was Giovanni Battista Viotti (1753-1824), who was celebrated in his lifetime as Europe’s greatest living violinist and has since been called “the father of modern violin playing”. A child prodigy, he was later invited to Russia by Empress Catherine; then Queen Marie Antoinette of France appointed him to a musical post in her court. Viotti composed close to 150 works for the violin such as concertos, sonatas and duets (and most notably his Violin Concerto No. 24 in B minor), which demonstrated his brilliant style (including playing at high positions and a focus on the low G string). His violin concertos influenced the style of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Brahms rated highly Viotti’s Violin Concerto No. 22. Viotti was also a famed teacher of his new, refined techniques. He played a del Gesú, and also a Stradivari, whose violins he helped to popularize throughout Europe after 1775.

By 1800, the French, taking Viotti as the supreme example and guide, had become a pre-eminent center in the art of violin playing, as exemplified in the school of violin playing at the Conservatoire de Musique (est. 1795) in Paris. Early significant French violinists include Jean Marie Leclair (1697-1764), noted for his Tambourin Sonata; Pierre Gaviniés (1726-1800), who became the first professor of the violin at the Paris Conservatory and who wrote the noteworthy exercise compositions Twenty-four Matinées; Pierre Baillot (1771-1842), a child prodigy who became one of the greatest violin teachers in French history and performed the Paris premiere of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in 1828; Pierre Rode (1774-1830), who spent five years in Russia as soloist of Alexander I’s court band, and who is known today for his Twenty-four Caprices; and Rodolph Kreutzer (1766-1821), who preferred playing on a Gasparo de Salò, was celebrated by Napoleon, and to whom Beethoven dedicated his violin sonata, op. 47. Kreutzer is known as the originator of the “etude”, a piece for practicing, and his Forty-two Etudes is his most significant composition. Important French treatises on the violin that appeared in this time period include L’art du violin (1798) by J. B. Cartier (augmented by Baillot in 1834), and Méthode de violin (1803), by Baillot, Rode, and Kreutzer.

Nineteenth century

The nineteenth century saw the continued rise of the touring violin virtuoso. Stronger violin strings, as well as the new type of bow, Tourte’s “modern” bow (ca. 1786), aided virtuosity. (Strings strung tighter and bows tightened to greater tension allow for a larger, stronger sound.) The most celebrated violinist of all time is Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840), who reasserted the artistry of Italian violinists after three decades of French superiority. Paganini pushed the boundaries of the art of playing and had no peer in technical perfection and artistry in his lifetime. By the age of seven, “I was able to play any music at sight,” he later recalled.[24]; he composed his first violin sonata at the age of eight and performed in his first public concert at the age of eleven. After he became famous in his native Italy, his international fame began in 1828. Tall and skeletal-thin, with a long prominent nose, he was eccentric looking and some called him the “magician”. He played with a one-of-a-kind pose: he thrust his left shoulder forward so that his violin rested on his shoulder blade; he didn’t use a chin rest. Paganini used a Guarneri (del Gesù), which is now at the Palazzo Municipale in Genoa; and used Pirazzi strings. Paganini played so rapidly that his accompanying string orchestra couldn’t keep up. It is said that Elisa Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister, as well as many other women, were overcome and fainted during Paganini’s concerts. Among the noteworthy features of his performances were his unorthodox tuning, double-stop harmonics, forceful arpeggios, jumping two octaves on a single string, improvisation, and his always precise intonation. He toured Europe and became a rich man. He became so famous that restaurants in Vienna offered “Paganini steaks” and his picture appeared on everything from neckties to snuff boxes to napkins. Franz Schubert saw Paganini play and fell into a trance.[25] Other composers who remarked on Paganini’s extraordinary talent include Rossini, Berlioz, Chopin, and Liszt. Paganini’s colorful life gave rise to many legends, some perhaps true. He composed about fifty works for the violin, including concertos and his Twenty-four Caprices, which is considered his most important work. His music uses virtually every technical device available to the violinist.

Most European countries contributed significant violinists during the nineteenth century. Louis Spohr (1784-1859) was the most important German virtuoso of his day. He toured Europe, composed numerous works including 15 violin concertos, and as a teacher taught at least 187 pupils and wrote Violin-Schule (1832). One of his pupils was Ferdinand David (1810-1873), also German, who advised Mendelssohn during the composition of the latter’s Violin Concerto and wrote the treatise Hohe Schule des Violinspiel. Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), born in Hungary, was taught by Mendelssohn and David, went on to advise Brahms during the composition of the latter’s Violin Concerto, wrote cadenzas for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, was friends with Schumann, and founded a violin school in Berlin. Henri Wieniawski (1835-1880) was the greatest Polish violinist; he composed works for violin still played today, including his Légende and his Violin Concerto No. 2, and he also wrote highly regarded teaching works such as Études-Caprices. The most famous Spanish violinist of the nineteenth century was Pablo Sarasate (1844-1908), perhaps known to English readers as a favorite musician of Sherlock Holmes (himself a violin player); Sarasate composed works for violin still played and recorded today, such as his Gypsy Airs and Tarantella.

Belgium founded a violin school in the early 1840s. Its most noteworthy professor in the early days was Charles de Bériot (1802-1870), who had made a name for himself as one of Europe’s greatest violinists; he also composed ten violin concertos. His most successful student was Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881), who modeled himself on Paganini, and became one of the most famous violin virtuosos in the world, celebrated from the United States to Russia. Vieuxtemps wrote seven violin concertos, among other highly regarded works. He favored his Guarneri over his Stradivari. The last internationally famous Belgian violinist was Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931), a student of both Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski. César Franck dedicated his Sonata in A major for violin and piano to Ysaÿe.

Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), born in Vienna, has been described as “the last great representative of the Western European school of violin-playing”.[26] He innovated a continuous vibrato which is very hard to emulate. At the turn of the twentieth century he was considered the so-called “king of violinists”.

Twentieth century

In the twentieth century the great touring violinists rivalled in popularity the great touring singers. One of the exemplars of this new trend was Jascha Heifetz (Lithuania, 1901-1987), a child prodigy who made a sensational debut at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1917. The 14-year-old Yehudi Menuhin was the highest-paid concert artist in the world in 1930. In this century the United States became a major center of violin playing. The Julliard School of Music in New York was established in 1905, and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1924. Today, music schools around the world are producing professional violinists by the year. Germany alone has over 1,000 music schools. Renowned teachers of the violin in the twentieth century include: Leopold Auer (Hungary, 1845-1930); Otakar Ševčík (Czechoslovakia, 1852-1934); Carl Flesch (Hungary, 1873-1944); Louis Persinger (USA, 1887-1966) and Ivan Galamian (Persia [USA after 1937], 1903-1981). Violin competitions are held regularly around the world, some named for composers (such as Tchaikovsky), or performers (such as Paganini) or cities (such as Geneva). The development of recording media opened up new avenues of fame and financial remuneration for violin virtuosos.

Twentieth century composers pushed the boundaries of the violin yet further. Bartók introduced new sounds to the violin such as “rebounding pizzicato” (or “snap pizzicato”): snapping the string hard enough so it hits the fingerboard. He also used “pizzicato sul ponticello”: plucking close to the bridge to generate a dry, flat sound; also pizzicato chords (though he was not the only one to use this). Bartók also employed the little-used “pizzicato glissandi” in his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936). Some twentieth century composers have also written into their scores the sound of the violinist rapping his or her palm or knuckles against the violin, such as String Quartet No. 1 (1960) by Penderecki. Col legno, rapping the strings with the wooden part of the bow, made a comeback, as exemplified by Schoenberg’s String Trio (1946), Luigi Nono’s Varianti (1957), and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 (1969).

Back in the seventeenth century, Biagio Marini was one of the first composers to use in his compositions “scordatura” (from It., “to mistune”), which means deliberately tuning a string or strings to other than the usual tuning. Originating in the 1500s, scordatura reached a peak of vogue from 1600s-1750s, then began to fade from fashion, and has been rarely used since. Twentieth century examples include the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 (1901) and the last movement of Bartók’s Contrasts for violin, clarinet and piano (1938).

Twentieth century violin virtuosos include: Joseph Szigeti (Russia, 1872-1973), David Oistrakh (Russia, 1908-1974), Yehudi Menuhin (USA, 1916-1999); Isaac Stern (USA, 1920-2001), Itzhak Perlman (Israel, b. 1945), Gidon Kremer (Russia, b. 1947), Kyung Wha Chung (Korea, b. 1948), Viktoria Mullova (Russia, b. 1959), and Anne-Sophie Mutter (Germany, b. 1963). All of the virtuosos named here play or played (most often) on Stradivaris and/or Guarneris; Kremer also uses an Amati.

High quality violins are made today by a variety of makers around the world, including Carl Becker and Son, Ltd, in America, Rowland H. Ross in England, Francesco Bissolotti in Cremona, Italy, and Joachim Schade in Germany. Lower quality ("student grade") violins are produced en masse on production lines. The British Violin Making Association was established in 1995 to promote the highest standards of craftsmanship. Much experimentation has taken place. Eccentric looking electric violins are made, mostly by companies in the United States and the United Kingdom. Bow makers have experimented with aluminium bows and fiber glass bows. String makers have experimented with all-synthetic strings, such as nylon strings. The story of the violin, its structure, its music, and its performers, continues today.

Violin in orchestral and chamber music

In the orchestra of the eighteenth century, the first violinist was sometimes the leader of the musicians; sometimes it was the keyboard player who led. Both were supplanted by the baton-wielding conductor of the nineteenth century. Today, the first violinist is still considered the “concertmaster” of the orchestra. The modern orchestra typically features 24 violins, divided into 12 first violins and 12 second violins. The violins, along with the violas and cellos, are positioned at the front of the orchestra. Austrian composer Gottfried von Einem (1918-1966) remarked that the violin is the “basic tone color” of the orchestra.[27]

The string quartet has remained a popular genre for the violin since its advent in the days of Joseph Haydn. The most popular string quartets are still those by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Nineteenth century composers who wrote string quartets include Spohr (34 of them), Schubert (15), Schumann (3), Brahms (3), and Dvořák (8 with opus numbers). Twentieth century composers who wrote string quartets include, in alphabetical order, Bartók (6), Britten (4), Debussy (1), Fauré (1), Hindemith (6), Ives (2), Janáček (2), Ligeti (2), Penderecki (2), Ravel (1), Schnittke (4), Schoenberg (5), Sessions (2), Shostakovich (15), and Tippet (4). Other chamber music groupings using violins, such as string trios, piano trios, piano quintets and string quintets, were written by these and many other composers.

A “string quartet” is also the name of the four musicians who play string quartets. Many hundreds of professional string quartets around the world perform in concerts and record music. The United States alone has over one hundred professional string quartets.

Violin in folk and jazz and rock music

Fiddle” is typically used only to refer to the instrument, and “fiddler” to its player, when playing traditional or folk music, and sometimes jazz, rock, and pop music. The instrument is identical to the violin, although (rarely) it may be configured and decorated slightly differently in the hands of folk musicians. The violin (as played by violinists) is also informally referred to as a “fiddle.” The term, of German origin, was originally used in a derogatory manner to describe low-brow string instruments prior to the development of the violin.

Folk music

Music scholar Peter Cooke noted, “No other musical instrument has until recent years been so widely used among all classes throughout the world as the violin.”[28] By 1700 the violin had already spread throughout most of the countries of Europe and Asia. Sometimes the instrument took the place of earlier indigenous instruments and were used in informal settings such as dances. Some countries, such as Norway, refined the instrument, such as adding extra sympathetic strings (e.g., the Norwegian hardingfele). The violin became the fundamental instrument of gypsy musicians in Europe. Today it is the still the favored folk instrument in Poland, and is played as a folk instrument in Czechoslovakia, Romania, Moldavia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belorussia, and the Ukraine. In Scotland and Ireland it is a principal traditional instrument. In the 1800s the violin was introduced to North Africa, and to India, where the violin accompanies vocal music and is also used as a solo instrument. The violin is played as a traditional instrument in Turkey and Iran and Sri Lanka. The Portuguese brought the violin to southeast Asia as early as the 1600s, where today it remains a part of various ensembles in Sumatra, Java, and the Philippines. Jamaica uses the violin for dance music. North America saw the rise of the violin as a folk instrument in the 1700s; over 1,000 folk tunes were written there for the instrument. The violin was common throughout Mexico by the 1730s, and has become a part of the well-known mariachi ensemble.


The violin has been used in jazz ensembles, one of the most famous being Django Reinhardt on guitar and Stéphane Grappelli on violin.

Rock and pop music

The violin has often appeared in popular rock music. In recent years, a gypsy-flavored violin featured in Jane’s Addiction’s “Of Course” on Ritual de lo Habitual (1990) and on various tracks of Beck’s Sea Change such as “Paper Tiger” (2002).

Violin repertory

Even a general survey of violin music requires an extended amount of space. This is not the place for a history of violin music. What follows is an extremely truncated list. Violins, of course, are a significant component of an orchestra, meaning they are significant parts of symphonies and other orchestral genres. Moreover, violins are a central component of the string quartet. This list, however, refers to music dedicated to the violin specifically, and not to genres which include a violin or violins. (1) The violin sonata. (2) The violin concerto. (3) Short pieces for violin with keyboard or orchestral accompaniment. (4) Works for unaccompanied violin. (5) Duets (particularly, two violins).

Violin sonatas

Significant early trio sonatas, using a violin, keyboard, and a bass part (generally, a cello), were written by, for example, Corelli (twelve sonatas, op. 5, 1700), Tartini (1734), and Nicola Porpora (twelve sonatas, 1754). In England, Henry Purcell wrote a set of 12 trio sonatas (1683) in “just imitation of the most fam’d Italian masters”, as he put it on the score.[29] Examples of the first significant early duo sonata (violin and keyboard) were the Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord (BWV 1014-19) (c1720) by J.S. Bach. The duo sonata genre was later developed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who composed 26 of them. When Mozart began, the convention was that the violin accompanied the keyboard. By the time Mozart had arrived at his later violin sonatas, the keyboard and violin were equal partners, such as in his Sonata in B-flat (K454, 1784), Sonata in E-flat (K481), and Sonata in A (K526). Subsequent sonatas include:

Beethoven: 10 violin sonatas, most notably his Kreutzer Sonata (op. 47, 1802-3) and his last sonata (op. 96, 1812)

Schubert: 3 sonatas in 1816 (D384, D385, D408). Also a Duo sonata (D574), 1817; and Rondo Brilliant (D895), 1826

Mendelssohn: 3 sonatas, including Sonata in F minor, op. 4 (1825)

Schumann: 2 sonatas, op. 105 and op. 121, both 1851

Grieg: 3 sonatas, op. 8 (1865); op. 13 (1867); op. 45 (1886-7)

Fauré: 2 sonatas, Sonata in A major, op. 13 (1875-6); Sonata No. 2 in E minor, op. 108 (1916-17)

Dvořák: Sonata, op. 57 (1880); Sonatina, op. 100 (1893)

Franck: Sonata in A (1886)

Brahms: 3 sonatas; the most popular is his third, Sonata in D minor, op. 108 (1886-8)

Richard Strauss: Sonata in E-flat, op. 18 (1887)

Saint-Saëns: 2 sonatas, op. 75 (1885) and op. 102 (1896)

Enescu: 3 sonatas, 1897; 1899; 1926

Nielsen: 2 sonatas, op. 9, 1895; op. 35, 1912

Ives: 4 sonatas, from 1903-1915

Delius: 3 sonatas, 1905-1915, 1924, 1930

Milhaud: 2 sonatas, 1911; 1917.

Janáček: Sonata in A-flat minor (1914-22)

Debussy: Sonata (1916-17)

Honegger: 2 sonatas, 1916-18; 1919

Hindemith: 4 sonatas, nos. 1 and 2, op. 11, 1918; Sonata in E, 1935; Sonata in C, 1939

Elgar: Sonata in E minor (1918)

Bartók: 2 sonatas, 1921; 1922

Bloch: 2 sonatas, 1920; 1924

Ravel: Sonata for violin and piano (1923)

Antheil: 3 of them, 1923; 1924; 1947-8

Prokofiev: 2 sonatas, 1938-46; 1946

Copland: 1943

Vaughan Williams: Sonata in A Minor (1957)

Schnittke: 2 sonatas, 1963; 1968

Shostakovich: 1968

Violin concertos

Seventeenth and eighteenth centuries


Tartini: 150 violin concertos

Vivaldi: about 220 violin concertos

Nardini’s best known work: Concerto in E minor

Viotti: 29 violin concertos


Bach: 3 Violin Concertos (BWV 1041; BWV 1042; BWV 1043; this last is a double violin concerto)

Haydn: 4 violin concertos (1760s)

Mozart: 5 violin concertos. Nos. 3 in G (K216), 4 in D (K218), and 5 in A (K219) are fundamentals in the concert repertory.

Nineteenth century

(I) the “symphonic concerto” (i.e., not a display piece): Spohr (18 of them, 1802-1844), Mendelssohn (Concerto in E minor, op. 64, 1844), Schumann (Concerto in D minor, 1853), Bruch (4, most famous is Concerto No. 1 in G minor, 1866), Brahms (op. 77, 1878), Dvořák (Concerto in A minor, 1879); Saint-Saëns (3); Tchaikovsky (Violin Concerto in D, op. 35, 1878); among others. Brahms also wrote a Double Concerto for violin and cello with orchestra (1887).

(II) The violin concerto meant to display virtuosity: principal ones include Paganini (Nos. 1 and 2, 1820s; wrote possibly 6 in all), de Bériot (10, including Concerto No. 2, 1830), Vieuxtemps (7, including 1, 1840; 4, 1850; 5, 1860), Wieniawski (Nos. 1, 1853 and 2, 1862); among others.

Of the above list, the most popular violin concertos in the concert hall today are the Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky.

Composers of violin concertos in the twentieth century include: Sibelius (1903-5), Bartók: (2: 1907-8; 1937-8), Elgar (1910), Nielsen (1911), Delius (1916), Szymanowski: (2, 1917; 1933), Prokofiev: (2, 1923; 1935), Milhaud: (2, 1927; 1946), Stravinsky (1931), Berg (1935), Sessions (1935), Schoenberg (1936), Bax (1937-8), Bloch (1937-8), Hindemith (1939), Britten (1939), Walton (1939), Barber (1939), Khahaturian (1940), Martinů (1943), Harris (1944), Shostakovich: (2, 1948, 1967), Schnittke: (4, 1957-62; 1966; 1978; 1984), Penderecki (1976), Glass (1987), Ligeti (1990-92).

Short pieces for violin

One of earliest short pieces written for the violin was Biagio Marini’s Variations on the Romanesca, op.3 (1620). Another early significant piece was Corelli’s La Follia (1700). During the nineteenth century many different genres of short pieces for the violin developed. The “air” was meant to showcase versatility and showmanship; violinists who composed airs included Rode, Kreutzer, de Bériot, Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski and Paganini. Other genres include the romance, ballade, elegy, legend; also national dances such as the polonaise and mazurka.

Beethoven: Romances No. 1 (op. 40, 1800-02) and No. 2 (op. 50, 1798) for violin and orchestra

Schubert: Fantasy for Violin and Piano in C major (D934) (1827)

Schumann: Fantasy, op. 131 (1853); Märchenbilder (1851)

Vieuxtemps: Fantasia appassionata (1860); Ballade et Polonaise (1860)

Rimsky-Korsakov: Fantasy for violin and orchestra (op. 33)

Wieniawski: mazurkas, polonaises

Tchaikovsky: Sérénade mélancolique (1875)

Sarasate: Zigeunnerweusen (1878)

Dvořák: Romantische Stücke, op. 75 (1887)

Saint-Saëns: Introduction et Rondo capriccioso (1863); Havanaise (1887)

Szymanowski: Notturno e Tarantella (1914); Mythes (1915)

Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending (1921)

Ravel: Tzigane (1924)

Bartók: Rhapsodies for Violin and Orchestra Nos 1 and 2 (1928)

Britten: Reveille (1937)

Schoenberg: Fantasy for violin and piano (1949)

Schnittke: Moz-Art (1976)

Works for unaccompanied violin

One of the earliest, if not the earliest, extended works for solo violin is the Passacaglia by H.I.F. von Biber (c.1675).

J.S. Bach: three sonatas and three partitas (BWV 1001-6) (c.1720)

Handel: Allegro in G Major for violin solo (HHA IV/19) (c.1738)

Telemann: twelve fantasias (1735)

Paganini: Caprices, op. 1 (1820); and others

Vieuxtemps: Etudes de concert, op. 16

Twentieth century works for solo violin:

Hindemith: two sonatas for unaccompanied violin (op. 31, 1924)

Bartók: Sonata for unaccompanied violin (1944)

Prokofiev: Sonata in D, op. 115 (1947)

Sessions: Sonata (1953)

Bloch: two suites for unaccompanied violin (1958)

Xenakis: Mikka (1972); Mikka ‘S’ (1976)

Schnittke: À Paganini (1982)


Numerous pieces for two violins were composed during the eighteenth century. Viotti, for example, composed 51 of them. The genre was so popular that many compositions by the greatest composers, such as Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, were arranged by others for two violins. Twentieth century composers who wrote pieces for two violins, or for violin and either the cello or viola, include:

Kodály: Duo for violin and cello, op. 7 (1914)

Honegger: Sonatina for two violins (1920)

Ravel: Sonata for violin and cello (1922)

Bartók: Forty-four Duos for two violins (1931)

Prokofiev: Sonata for two violins (1932)

Milhaud: Sonata for violin and viola (1941)

Górecki: Sonata for two violins, op. 10 (1957)

Schnittke: Prelude in Memoriam Dmitry Shostakovich, for two violins (1975)

Violin collecting



  1. Boyden, David, "The Violin" in Boyden, et al., The Violin Family (London: Macmillian, 1989), p. 1
  2. Ibid.
  3. Kolneder, Walter, The Amadeus Book of the Violin (Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press), 1998, p. 47.
  4. According to violin scholar David D. Boyden, the instrument named the viol had nothing pertinent to do with the origin or development of the violin. See Boyden, The History of Violin Playing, p. 14.
  5. By “school” is meant a general style, not a teaching institution.
  6. Wechsberg, p. 72.
  7. Kolneder, p. 22.
  8. Kolneder, p. 145, says perhaps 100,000-200,000 string instruments in total may have been made in these years.
  9. Wechsberg, p. 5-6.
  10. Kolneder, p. 21; 44.
  11. Kolneder, p. 81; Wechsberg, p. 14; Boyden, The Violin Family, p. 32.
  12. Boyden, The History of Violin Playing, p. 213.
  13. Wechsberg, p. 40.
  14. Kolneder, p. 251.
  15. Boyden, The Violin Family, p. 109.
  16. Wechsberg, p. 220.
  17. Kolneder, p. 306.
  18. Kolneder, p. 362
  19. Stowell, The Cambridge Companion to the Violin, p. 55.
  20. Farga, Franz. Violins & Violinists (London: Barrie & Rockliff, 1969), p. 137.
  21. Kolneder, p. 309.
  22. For discussion of national styles, see Boyden, The History of Violin Playing, p. 192-306; Milsom, David, Theory and Practice in Late Nineteenth-Century Violin Performance (Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2003), p. 13-28).
  23. Kolneder, p. 330.
  24. Farga, p. 166
  25. Wechsberg, p. 237.
  26. Wechsberg, p. 255.
  27. Wechsberg, p. 32.
  28. Peter Cooke, “The Violin – instrument of four continents”, in Stowell, p. 234.
  29. Boyden, The History of Violin Playing, p. 237.