(Fr. violon; Ger. Violine, Geige; It. violino; Sp. violín)
Soprano member of the family of string instruments that includes the viola and cello (the Double bass is also usually considered to be a member of the violin family though in some of its features – all explicable in terms of the practicalities of playing such a large instrument – the influence of the Viol family is apparent: it is tuned in 4ths rather than 5ths, historically had a variable number of strings and normally has sloping shoulders and a flat back that is ‘broken’ so that the upper section slopes inward towards the neck). In the Hornbostel-Sachs system the violin is classified as a Chordophone: bowed lute (or fiddle).
The violin is one of the most perfect instruments acoustically and has extraordinary musical versatility. In beauty and emotional appeal its tone rivals that of its model, the human voice, but at the same time the violin is capable of particular agility and brilliant figuration, making possible in one instrument the expression of moods and effects that may range, depending on the will and skill of the player, from the lyric and tender to the brilliant and dramatic. Its capacity for sustained tone is remarkable, and scarcely another instrument can produce so many nuances of expression and intensity. The violin can play all the chromatic semitones or even microtones over a four-octave range, and, to a limited extent, the playing of chords is within its powers. In short, the violin represents one of the greatest triumphs of instrument making. From its earliest development in Italy the violin was adopted in all kinds of music and by all strata of society, and has since been disseminated to many cultures across the globe.
Around the world
In Portugal the violin has kept the older name viola; indigenous bowed instruments are distinguished by the name rebecca (from ‘rebec’). The Portuguese played a major role in the dispersal of the violin throughout the world; they took it with them to their trading posts and colonies in the East, e.g. Goa, India and the port of Melaka in Malaysia, as well as along the coast of Angola in Africa.
As the violin displaced indigenous instruments, it became a favoured instrument of gypsy musicians. Two violins, a string bass and a plucked instrument make a typical dance ensemble in central Europe, Romania and the Balkans.
The violin is the most popular folk instrument in Poland. The skrzypce is made by villagers themselves out of a single piece of wood, apart from the soundboard, and has three or four strings. In Slovakia the oktávka (octave-violin) and the shlopcoky (scuttle-shaped violin) are used as well as the standard violin. Instruments are played solo, in combinations such as bagpipe and violin, or in diverse ensembles of bowed string instruments. In Romania the vioară (violin) is known under several different local names. The contră of Transylvania has only three strings (tuned g–d'–a), which are stretched over a notched bridge and bowed simultaneously to obtain chords. The violin in south-west Moldova usually has seven sympathetic strings, probably a relic of the Turkish kemençe, with sympathetic strings. The smuikas of Lithuania is also often made by the musicians themselves and accordingly is found in a great variety of sizes and forms, of varying quality. In North Africa and Turkey it is usually called keman (from the generic term kemençe or kamānche, the latter used for spike fiddles) and is often played in an upright position, resting on the seated player’s thigh. In Iran, the violin is the only Western instrument to be admitted without reservation into traditional music because it is possible to play the whole of the kamānche repertory on it when technique and articulation are suitably adapted. Its great success at the beginning of the 20th century threatened the existence of the kamānche, and it has now quite eclipsed the traditional instrument. In India, where it was introduced in the 17th century, the violin became prominent in the classical music of the South from about 1800 after B. Dīksitar and his pupil Vadivelu adopted it for accompanying vocalists at the court of Travancore. In northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where the classical vocal styles dhrupad and khayāl are more long-breathed and relaxed, the violin is much less common in vocal accompaniment; here it is in competition with the deeper-toned, indigenous sārangī fiddle. The violin was brought to Sri Lanka by Parsi theatrical troupes from Bombay during the 19th century. The ravikiňňa is now used by the Tamils for playing Karnatak music and, less often, for rukada (string-puppet plays).The violin arrived in large numbers in North America during the 17th century, and has flourished ever since as both concert violin and folk fiddle.
Western music and its repertory
Since its origins, the violin has undergone a considerable evolution of detail to meet the changing requirements of successive generations of performers and composers. The first century and a half of the ‘true’ violin culminated in the magnificent ‘classical’ model of Antonio Stradivari shortly after 1700. But this was not the end of the instrument's evolution; in the early years of the 19th century it was altered in a number of respects to attain greater power and a more mellow tonal quality. It was in this era, too, that the Tourte bow gained universal acceptance.
It is not clear when an orchestral violin band was established at the French court, for a number of received ‘facts’ seem to be no more than hearsay. The violin was apparently brought to England by a group of six Jewish string players from Milan, Brescia and Venice that arrived at Henry VIII's court in the spring in 1540. The violin consort at Munich was founded by four members of the ‘Bisutzi’ family in the 1550s, and was enlarged around 1568.
The link between dance and violin playing dominated the history of the instrument in 17th-century France. French dancing masters, for whom violin playing was essentially an ancillary skill, were in demand all over Europe and in England. The violin family was particularly associated with dance music throughout the 16th century, though it acquired a new role and a new repertory when it began to be used in churches.
Italian virtuosity was exported as violinists and composers for violin moved around Europe. The steady stream of musicians into Italy was another way in which the Italian style was disseminated. Arcangelo Corelli had an extraordinary influence. To him more than to any other composer of the central Baroque period may be attributed the acceptance of certain instrumental genres as deserving of composers' attention: what we now call trio sonatas, continuo sonatas and concerti grossi. He thus had a classicizing role; and this extended beyond the broader structures into musical detail of all kinds. Giuseppe Tartini was a figure of immense importance. In the first half of the 17th century, expert playing of the violin (as distinct from the viol) in England seems largely to have been confined to the court. By the end of the century Italian violin composition had an enormous impact on English taste.
While in the late 17th century and the early 18th French virtuoso violin playing and composition were dependent on Italian teachers and Italian models, by the 1740s an independent French violin school was thoroughly established. In the last 20 years of the 18th century Paris could lay claim to being the violin capital of Europe; the greatest makers worked there and the greatest performers gave concerts there.
The violin concerto developed in three main directions during the 19th century. Spohr, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Bruch, Brahms and Saint-Saëns among others stressed traditional musical values; Paganini, Bériot, Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski and Ernst followed the virtuoso path. Some composers introduced a new type of ‘national’ concerto (Joachim, Konzert in ungarischer Weise; Lalo, Symphonie espagnole and Concerto russe; Bruch, Schottische Fantasie; and works by Dvořák and Tchaikovsky). Paganini, whose playing became known to audiences outside Italy in 1828, was the inspiration for virtuoso concertos by Bériot, Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski, Ernst, Bull and Lipiński.
Much early 20th-century Russian music was broadly national in spirit, but Glazunov's concerto displays his affinity with Western European idioms, and Stravinsky's inspiration for his concerto emanated largely from J.S. Bach. Prokofiev's two violin concertos display various influences, ranging from the impressionistic opening movement of no.1 to the Russian rondo finale of no.2. Kabalevsky's absorption of the Russian popular song tradition is exemplified in the second movement of his concerto, while Khachaturian's concerto features Armenian folk material, and Eshpay's two concertos reflect his interest in Mari folk music. Shostakovich's two concertos represent distinct phases in his development. No.1, completed in 1948 but withheld by the composer until 1955 because the political climate was thought to be unfavourable for a work of such modernity, is a complex four-movement work with a passacaglia (including solo cadenza) as its kernel. No.2 (1967), which was received with considerable approval, is a more intimate, three-movement design with a prominent part for solo horn. Other Russian concertos of note include those of Myaskovsky, Khrennikov, Karayev, Schnittke and Sil'vestrov.
German Romanticism gripped many Hungarian composers, notably Dohnányi, Hubay and Weiner. In France, Milhaud, Martinon, Françaix, Jolivet and Dutilleux (L'arbre des songes, 1979–85) have made significant contributions. Italy is represented chiefly by the neo-classical works of Respighi, Casella, Rieti, Pizzetti and Bucchi; however, composers such as Riccardo Nielsen, Malipiero, Donatoni, Peragallo, Maderna, and Aldo Clementi turned with varying strictness to 12-note technique.
In the USA composers cultivated a range of styles, from Austro-German dodecaphony (Krenek, Ross Lee Finney), Expressionism (Sessions) and neo-classicism (Piston) to neo-romanticism (Barber, Bloch, Korngold, Menotti) and home-cultivated jazz and spirituals (Gruenberg, Harris). Significant works have been written by Ben Weber, William Schuman, Peter Mennin, Benjamin Lees, William Bergsma, George Rochberg and Elliott Carter. More experimental have been Diamond, Lou Harrison (for violin, percussion and orchestra), Kirchner (violin, cello, ten wind instruments and percussion), Wuorinen (amplified violin), Schuller, Glass and John Adams. In Latin America, Allende, Chávez, Mignone and Ginastera represent their respective national styles; the microtonal experiments of Carrillo are also noteworthy.
Other notable contributions to the literature include those of Henk Badings (four concertos; two double concertos for two violins, one double concerto for violin and viola), Arthur Benjamin, Martinů (two concertos; two double concertos), Skalkottas, Saburo Moroi, Rodrigo, Frank Martin, Michio Mamiya (two concertos), Akira Miyoshi, Malcolm Williamson, Don Banks, Toshi Ichiyanagi (Circulation Scenery, 1983), Maki Ishii (three concertos, including Lost Sounds, 1978), Takemitsu (Far Calls, Coming Far!, 1980) and Joji Yuasa.
The works of lasting significance from the 19th-century French and Belgian schools emanated from Berlioz (Rêverie et caprice), Saint-Saëns (Introduction et rondo capriccioso op.28; Havanaise op.83), Bériot (Scène de ballet op.100), Vieuxtemps (Fantasia appassionata and Ballade et polonaise) and Chausson (Poème op.25). The air varié was a popular vehicle for virtuoso display in the 19th century. The composition of a large number of short genre pieces (with orchestra or piano) widened the repertory during the 19th century. In the 20th century the virtuoso concert rhapsodies by Ravel (Tzigane) and Bartók were particularly significant.
Violin in Jazz and Blues
The earliest use of the violin in a jazz-related context was as a solo instrument in the ragtime orchestras of the early 20th century. Most orchestral arrangements of ragtime included parts for one or two violins, which were of equal melodic and structural importance to that of the clarinet or trumpet, but gradually the violin became subservient to the brass and woodwind instruments in the ensemble.
Some big bands of the mid-1920s incorporated violin sections, the principal example being that of Paul Whiteman, where the section was led by Matty Malneck. Gradually the violin reasserted its position as a solo instrument, particularly owing to the work of four musicians – Joe Venuti, Eddie South, Stephane Grappelli and Stuff Smith. Other significant violinists of the swing era were Svend Asmussen, Ray Perry and the rhapsodic Ray Nance. The classically trained Hungarian, Elek Bacsik, recorded virtuoso bop improvisations in the USA in the 1970s. In the 1980s Max Roach developed convincing bop arrangements for strings in his double quartet.
Different approaches to violin technique have led to a wide range of styles among jazz players: some have drawn on the techniques of classical and traditional music players, while others have invented original methods. Smith revolutionized the vocabulary of jazz violinists with his wild, biting attack, wide vibrato, unorthodox fingerings and expressive intonation. Venuti devised a novel bowing technique that involved wrapping the bow hair around all four strings, and holding the stick of the bow beneath the body of the violin. Perry introduced the idea of singing in unison with the violin, a device quickly taken up by several double bass players and by Asmussen.
Since the 1980s the majority of jazz violinists have relied on amplification, making use of a microphone, a transducer or a purpose-built instrument with integral transducer. Electronic enhancement devices are also common.
A resurgence of interest in the improvisational possibilities of the violin has spawned a number of exceptionally gifted violinists who have successfully combined free playing and organized structures in individualistic ways during the 1990s. India Cooke displays lyrical sensitivity and imaginative strength, free from cliché. Mat Maneri’s enquiring work is by turns pointillistic and arching, on a variety of acoustic and electric instruments. Jim Nolet displays wonderfully controlled dynamics and stylistic shifts. Examples of more conventional approaches to improvisation are heard in the playing of Mark Feldman and Regina Carter. Feldman epitomizes what might be termed a flash-classical approach. Malcolm Goldstein is an example of a radical improvising violinist who has recorded works by such composers as Ornette Coleman and John Cage. During the 1920s and 30s many African-American violinists, either self-taught or legitimately trained, played obbligatos on Chicago and New York recordings by blues and vaudeville vocalists and, to a lesser extent on intrumentals. These included Leon Abbey, Clarence Black, Leroy Parker with Mamie Smith, Leroy Pickett, Robert Robbins with Bessie Smith, and Cordy Williams.
The remarkable classically trained Angelina Rivera was the first black woman to record in the genre, with Josephine Baker in Paris in 1926. This tradition differed somewhat from the raw blues of string band fiddlers such as Eddie Anthony or Will Batts. Nevertheless, urban as well as country styles may trace their origins to 19th-century plantation fiddling, often on home-made instruments. Several guitarists, most notably Lonnie Johnson, doubled on violin, as did the electric blues guitarist Clarence Gatemouth Brown from the 1940s. Later electric blues violinists included Papa John Creach and Don Sugarcane Harris, both of whom enjoyed second careers in rock bands. Remo [Ray] Biondi, who doubled on swing guitar and violin, is a rare example of a white American violinist who recorded raw, authentic blues with black Americans, such as Roosevelt Sykes and Jimmy Reed, in the 1950s. Like many jazz musicians, the urbane Eddie South recorded a number of blues instrumentals, while Stuff Smith frequently turned his attention to the form to incisive effect. From the 1970s, Leroy Jenkins, in particular, has used the structure and emotion of the blues in several of his improvisations and compositions.
Reference (with liberty): New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, (editors), 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
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