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Introduction into Classical Violin

Dmitry Badiarov (violinist, "Mito dell'arco" member)

(Three positions)

Violin is one of the most important instruments in the European musical culture with about 500 years of history. Paradoxically it is an instrument with a most obscure past and its early history remains a notoriously difficult subject. There is no agreement between scholars on the matters of origin or etymology of the violin. While a majority of scholars advocate Northern Italy as homeland of violin, there are others who provide a bulk of evidence on the Polish origins. Traditionally, research into the early history of violin was based on the surviving instruments. This approach has fed many misconceptions because old instruments preserved in the museums have undergone numerous transformations. At the same time, research has often been conducted by dealers, who have had little knowledge or interest in sources of documentary evidence, and have "rather vested interest in reaching a particular conclusion" (Holman).

The earliest history

Unlike the modern ideal of total standardization, which also affected the violin, the early violins were not standardized. Their usage differed from place to place and consequently various set-ups were current. We can learn about early violins from old paintings, printed music, and writings. The earliest painting known today (Garofalo, ca. 1508 - 1510) representing a violin is found in Ferrara in the Palazzo di Lodovico il Moro. That is about the time when the violin has appeared in its classical shape. Yet, the spread of violin playing in Europe dates back to the end of the 15th century, and is probably connected with the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. They found their home in the South of France and Northern Italy, and presumably sallied forth to Poland and Southwest Russia (at present Ukraine). Significantly the Jews bear the oldest tradition of playing instruments such as violin in Europe. Shapes and construction of their instruments as it is seen from the iconography and written sources varied considerably and often have been totally different from what we know today. However, they were mostly professional musicians and the violin was exclusively a professional instrument. Philibert Jambe de Fer, author of the earliest detailed description of the instrument, wrote, in his Epithome Musical (1556), that violins were 'commonly used for dance music', and that 'few persons are found who make use of it other than those who, by their labour on it, make their living'.

Evolution of the violin

Evolution has started from the moment that the violin appeared and its early stage presents a real quagmire to the modern musicians. Continuous evolution of performance practice determined the way that the instruments were adapted to the musical demands. The latter varied. Consequently there were distinguished differences between the types of violins. Their construction largely depended on individual preferences of violinists and local circumstances. It is extremely difficult to give any hard-and-fast rules on what kind of instrument suits best a certain period or a certain composer, because violin development was an interlaced process.

Modern violin

It seems the easiest to start with that type, since it is the best known. A modern violin, i.e. that of the 20th century, has the following features: more or less standardized dimensions of the parts such as the neck, fingerboard, bridge, tailpiece, and that of the inside parts such as bass bar, the blocks, linings, etc. The neck is always mortised into the body with inclination backward and is straight. It has the maximum space between the hill and the button for the ease of reaching the high positions. A fingerboard is always of ebony, and it has always the same arching of the cross section. The lower strings may be of wound steel, perlon, nylon, or pure gut, whereas the steel e became common only around the first and the Second World War. The bridge is invariably placed between the f-hole notches. Response is equal on every string.
Baroque violin

Baroque violin between 16th and 18th centuries did not have any standardized dimensions of any part. The lengths of fingerboards, designs and placement of the bridges depended on local pitch standards, skills of the players' etc. Neither it ever had a fingerboard of solid ebony. Many of the baroque violins had neither any blocks nor linings inside. Even such an important part as the bass bar was often not in the 16th and 17th century's violins. Hypothetically it was introduced at the turn of the centuries but it is hard to say exactly either where or by whom. The necks could be either thinner or thicker, usually at a straight line with the body, nailed to the block if there was any, either simply glued to between the table and the back. The bridge could have all possible to imagine designs and would be pretty flat, just as the fingerboard. The strings on the violin were all guts before ca.1750, a wound lower string on a bass or cello was introduced in the end of the 17th century. Response of such strings was not equal. The top strings are the easiest to play. That is why the most of the music in 17th century is written for the top strings. If a composer wrote for lower strings, a very particular sound effect was meant: a sound, which seems to be much lower than it actually is. An unforgettable, indeed, effect! Extension of violin technique in the early baroque period determined holding the instrument on the shoulder rather than on the breast because this posture gives maximum freedom to the left hand. As a result it has influenced design of the neck and placement of the bridge: an instrument supported on the shoulder is more manageable with the thinner necks and higher placed bridges, i.e. with bridges in its modern position. However, research encounters both types of postures in the baroque period and the relevant set-ups of the instruments.


A classical violin naturally emerges from its baroque predecessor. By the end of the 18th century violins usually had linings and blocks, their ribs were not mortised into the backs and they had bass bars. Aesthetical demands of the music in a decadence of the Baroque and early Classical period assured holding the violin on the shoulder, though a few of village violinists might still have played violins on the breast. Generally, the necks of the classical instruments are thinner than baroque ones, and their heels are smaller. Such necks allowed more freedom to the left hand. It differs from the robust, shorter-inner-curve baroque prototype as much as it does from the modern one: classical neck is more robust than the modern neck. This allows using old left-hand technique, more suitable for the style, than the modern one.

Originally the neck of the violin was not inclined backward as it is nowadays. The practice of neck inclination was introduced in the countries of the Northern Europe, France and Germany in the end of the 18th century. Although as late as 1772, A. Bagatella, in the earliest known treatise about violin making, wrote, that the neck should be set straight. One of the commonly held opinions concerning the reasons for neck inclination lies in the belief that it was done for the sake of higher tension of the strings. However, research in the history of strings suggests that the inclination was introduced for the sake of thinner root of the neck.


Strings apparently make the most influence on the character of the sound. The latest investigation in the field suggests that the strings - all pure gut - were generally much thicker than the ones used today. Although wound C-string for the cello was introduced in the end of the 17th century, it was not before the middle of the 18th century that the wound G was introduced for the violin. Strings for classical violin are all high-twist guts with the wound G. Apart from that, the strings should be all at equal tension as it is prescribed by Leopold Mozart. This implies high pressure on the instrument, which is considerably higher than that of the modern violin, a fact contrary to the modern view. By the end of the 18th century strings were, generally, thinner than in the 16th, 17th and beginning of the 18th century. This allowed more response and brilliance on the bottom strings, though made the timbre more uniform upon all strings.

About many features which cannot be described in a program Apart from the above described differences, there were various types of bass bars, different distribution of thicknesses in the plates, and introduction of mortised neck in the end of the 18th and position of the bridge. It is extremely difficult to study such subject as a bass bar for the lack of evidence. It is commonly believed that baroque bass bars were thinner and shorter comparing to the modern ones, whereas the classical bass bars resemble the modern ones. This is an imaginable situation, although it is more likely that there were different bars in existence. Classical and romantic sources on violin making, such as Bagatella and Otto, provide rather precise information on the bass bars, and prove that these might have been very thin and short even in the 19th century. One of the most important historical evidence about transformation of violin is found in the memoirs of Count Cosimo di Salabue.

Choice of instruments

Every type of violin whether renaissance, baroque or classical, has its distinguished qualities. They all differ from each other in aesthetics of the sound, playing techniques and gamuts of expressive means. Performing music with stylistically more suitable instruments gives a joy of illusory submergence into a reach world of thoughts and feelings of a human society of the past, by a mystery, wonderfully consonant with our own experience. It will have been Mito dell'arco's delight if our audience found something unfamiliar, though intimate, in familiar pieces such as Haydn's and Mozart's quartets.

(Illustrations: Dmitry Badiarov)

Baroque Violin and Viola da braccio research & reconstruction site by Dmitry Badiarov

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