When you listen to the sound of Mairead Nesbitt’s violin as it gently swells or cries out plaintively, chances are that you also feel something deep within your heart and your brain. The violin, especially when played by a master violinist like Mairead, has a power and presence to touch us in a way that very few instruments have. Today, we’ll be talking a bit about the history of the violin and how it has managed to become such an important part of many different types of music for a very long time. If you want some accompaniment while you read, Hibernia, Mairead Nesbitt’s new album is available on iTunes and Amazon right now. The grand scope and genuine tenderness of Hibernia is a perfect way to experience the full range of the violin.
Origins of the Violin
Like many of the instruments that are still used in orchestras today, the violin is descended from a number of instruments whose origins are a bit foggy. Some have pointed to the instruments that eventually became the Mongolian Morin khuur and the Kobyz from the area that is now Kazakhstan as the starting point for stringed instruments that could be used with a horsehair bow. Over many decades and centuries it is believed that these instruments migrated west into Byzantium along trade routes where they, along with traditional Greek and Roman instruments like the lyre, began to morph into the forms that we are most familiar with.
While these primitive forms of the violin spread across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia over centuries they began to change as they were adopted into new cultures and new styles of folk music. Sizes and shapes, as well as the manner in which they were played, varied wildly depending on who was using them. It wasn’t until the early 1500s in Italy that the first truly modern viol family of instruments (cello, violin, and viola) came into being. While the first modern violins were painted as having only three strings, written accounts suggest that these Northern Italian instruments were in fact almost identical to the later four-stringed versions that were built by the middle of the century.
Almost as soon as the violin was built, it became popular with everyone from the nobility to street performers. The King of France, Charles IX, commissioned a large number of violins (along with many other stringed instruments) built for his court towards the end of the 16th Century. One of the oldest violins that still exists is thought to be among those commissioned by the king. It was built by Andrea Amati sometime around 1566, but it has been almost impossible to confirm if that was the exact year. Called the “Charles IX,” it now resides in the Museo de Violino in Cremona, the city that was home of renowned luthiers like Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri.
As the demand for the instruments grew and the possibilities for the violin flourished, there emerged a deeply dedicated class of craftsmen who dedicated their lives to constructing the best violins. Over the following centuries, master luthiers continued to fine tune the shape, size, and construction of the violin. Their experiments with the form created some truly beautiful results both in terms of form and sound.
In our next entry we will dive further into the history of the violin and trace its move across Europe and into the hands of the Celtic musicians who have left an undeniable stamp on the history of violin music across the world. To hear some amazing Celtic violin music now, purchase Mairead Nesbitt’s new album, Hibernia!