The Origin of the Violin
String instruments have been built, played and enjoyed in Europe since the Middle Ages. Some, like the violin and cello are played with a bow, while others, like the harp and guitar are plucked or strummed. Still others, keyboard chordophones like the hammered dulcimer and medieval psaltery - ancestors of the clavicord, harpsicord and piano - were struck by a padded hammer. The fiddle, played by medieval minstrals (and markedly different from contemporary violins), developed into the cello and the more familiar violin. The earliest violins appeared in Italy in the early 1500s as a synthesis of the fiddle (viele, fiedel) and rebec (lira da braccio).
The central European Renaissance witnessed a surge in all the arts including music, and Italy served as the home of innovative genius for the evolving string instruments. From the viol and viola da gamba came the violin (small viola) and the cello (large viola). Aside from some minor technical changes and refinements, these instruments remain essentially as they were developed in the 16th Century by the northern Italian masters from Brecia like Gasparo da Salo (1540-1809) and Giovanni Maggini (1579-1630), and those from Cremona like Andrea Amati, Giuseppe Guarneri, and Antonio Stradivari. Additional craftsmen included the Ruggeri and Bergonzi families and others from Milano. Quite expectedly, the crafting of fine violins spread throughout Europe, such as the work of Austrian Jacob Stainer, and many more, but old Italian instruments have steadfastly maintained their preminence among discerning muscians.
From Its 18th Century Apex, a Gradual Decline
The masterworks of the Italian violin makers reigned supreme in their original form throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries. Then in the early 1800s their range was slowly expanded to satisfy the needs of larger concert halls and the demands of romantic composers. The instuments became more robust and brillant of tone. By the second half of the 18th Century, new influences resulted in a steady reduction in outstanding violins. A growing demand for these instruments outstripped the pace at which they could be made using the time and care needed to produce a masterpiece. The predictable result was violins of inferior craftsmanship and materials. Faster drying varnishes were used which significantly diminished the violins' musical qualities. Encroaching environmental pollutants, since the start of the Industrial Age two centuries ago, have waged war on the character and quality of the crucial spruce and maple trees needed for the fronts, backs and sides of the finest violins. The synthetic products from the petrochemical industry used by modern violin makers lack the rich contribution, for example, of the bee product propolus formerly used to fill cracks and chips (which is also a natural antibiotic), or the slower drying varnishes suspended in a vehicle of etheric oils that carry the protective agents well into the wood for centuries. Those classic varnishes contributed highly to the overall calibre of the violins' sound. Selecting the right materials, investing the mature skills that developed over time, and improving with age like a fine wine (even as long as up to 200 years), are the hallmarks of older, exceptional violins.
Efforts to preserve the masters' traditions
Despite the changing nature of the violin, its output, its production and materials, some new craftsmen strive to recapture the skills and effects of the early masters, using time-honored materials, tools and proceedures, to produce and repair violins. Older violins especially are subject to the injuries of modern indoor heating and air-conditioning which tend to dry and crack the woods, and to loosening, denting, and cracking from rough use and age. But the restoring and repairing skills of traditional craftmanship ensure that some old instruments may be heard as if they were new.
In workshops nearly identical to those of the Renaissance masters, today's master craftsmen shun mass production techniques and use essentially the same benches, saws, planes and knives used 250 years ago. Expertly selected spruce wood for the top, maple for the back, sides and scroll, and ebony for the tuning pegs and tailpiece, are precisely cut, fitted and glued, then sanded and varnished according to old school methods. Tops and bottoms are carefully planned to within 2.5 to 4.5 mm for optimum sound quality. All work is performed by skilled hands only. When construction is completed, each instrument must be properly varnished as a protection against dirt and water, to highlight the inherent beauty and richness of its wood and to improve the quality of its sound. A soft varnish will dampen sound and a hard varnish makes the sound shrill and penetrating. Each step in the growth of a violin is as important as the one before it, right to the final, unifying varnish. A poorly made instrument will never become a master violin with a good varnish, but a good instrument can be ruined by the wrong varnish.
Tranlations: John Otranto-Semmler