1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Violin

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VIOLIN, a musical instrument consisting essentially of a resonant box of peculiar form, over which four strings of different thicknesses are stretched across a bridge standing on the box, in such a way that the tension of the strings can be adjusted by means of revolving pegs to which they are severally attached at one end. The strings are tuned, by means of the pegs, in fifths, from the second or A string, which is tuned to a fundamental note of about 435 vibrations per second at the modern normal pitch: thus giving Britannica Violin Open Notes.png as the four open notes. To produce other notes of the scale the length of the strings is varied by stopping them with the fingers on a finger-board, attached to a “neck” at the end of which is the “head” in which the pegs are inserted. The strings are set in vibration by drawing across them a bow strung with horse-hair, which is rosined to increase adhesion.

The characteristic features which, in combination, distinguish the violin (including in that family name its larger brethren the viola and the violoncello) from other stringed instruments are: the restriction of the strings to four, and their tuning in fifths; the peculiar form of the body, or resonating chamber, especially the fully moulded back as well as front, or belly; the shallow sides or “ribs” bent into characteristic curves; the acute angles of the corners where the curves of the ends and middle “bouts” or waist ribs meet; and the position and shape of the sound-holes, cut in the belly. By a gradual process of development in all these particulars the modern violin was evolved from earlier bowed instruments, and attained its highest perfection at the hands of the great Italian makers in the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries, since which time, although many experiments have been made, no material improvement has been effected upon the form and mode of construction then adopted.

The body, or sounding-box, of the violin is built up of two arched plates of thin wood, the belly and the back, united by side pieces or ribs to form a shallow box. The belly is cut from soft elastic wood, pine being universally used for this purpose, while the back is made of a close-grained wood, generally sycamore or maple. Both back and belly are carved to their model from the solid, but for utilitarian reasons are generally, though not always, built up of two longitudinal sections; while the sides or ribs, of very thin sycamore or maple, usually in six sections, are bent on a mould, by the aid of heat, to the required form. Into the corners are glued corner-blocks of soft wood, which help to retain the ribs in their sharply recurved form, and materially strengthen the whole structure. Into the angle of the joints between the sides and the back and belly are glued thin lining strips, bent to the mould, giving a bearing surface for the glued joint along the whole outline of the instrument; while, in addition, end blocks are inserted at the head and bottom of the body, the former to receive the base of the neck, and the latter the “tail pin” to which is attached the tail-piece, carrying the lower (fixed) ends of the strings. The belly is pierced with two sound-holes in the form of Britannica Violin Sound Holes.png near, and approximately parallel to, the “bouts.” The size, shape and position of these holes have an important influence on the character of the tone of the instrument, and present distinctive variations in the instruments of the different great makers.

The neck, made of maple, is glued and now always mortised into the block at the upper end of the body,[1] bearing against a small semicircular projection of the back, and is inclined at such an angle that the finger-board, when glued on to its upper surface, may lie clear of the belly, over which it projects, but in such relation to the height of the bridge as to allow the strings to be stretched nearly parallel to, and at a convenient distance above, its own surface.

The bridge, cut out of maple, in the peculiar form devised by Stradivari in the 17th century, and not since materially departed from, is in the violin about 1¼ in. high by 1¾ in. wide, and tapers in thickness from about ⅛ in. at the base to 1/16 at the crown; but the dimensions of this very important member vary for different instruments according to the arch of the belly, the strength of the wood and other considerations. It is placed on the belly exactly midway between the sound-holes and in such a position as to stand on a transverse line dividing the surface into two approximately equal areas, that is, about 1½ in. below the middle, the lower end of the body being wider than the upper part or shoulders; whereby a greater length is rendered available for the vibrating portion of the strings.

A short distance behind the right foot of the bridge, the sound-post, a rod of soft pine about ¼ in. thick, is fixed inside the body in contact with the belly and the back, and serves directly, not only to sustain the belly against the pressure of the bridge under the tension of the strings, but to convey vibrations to the back. It also exercises a very important influence on the nodal arrangement of these vibrating plates. The pressure of the other foot of the bridge, where the tension of the fourth string is far less than that of the first string, is partly sustained by the bass-bar — a strip of wood tapering from the middle to both ends, which is glued underneath the belly and extends to within rather less than 2 in. of the ends of the instrument. This fitting not only serves to strengthen the belly mechanically, but exerts a profound effect upon the vibrations of that plate.

The fixed structure is completed by the head, which surmounts the neck and consists primarily of a narrow box into the sides of which are inserted the pegs round which the free ends of the strings are wound. The head is finished by an ornamentation which in the hands of the Italian makers followed the traditional pattern of a scroll, or volute, offering the skilled craftsmen infinite scope for boldness and freedom in its execution; but sometimes, especially in the Tirolean instruments, it was carved in the form of an animal's head, usually a lion's.

The strings, fastened at one end to an ebony tail-piece or tongue, which is itself attached by a gut loop to the pin at the base of the instrument, pass over the bridge, along the finger board and over the nut (a dwarf bridge forming the termination of the finger-board) to the pegs. The effective vibrating portion of the strings is accordingly the length between the nut and the bridge, and measures now in an ordinary full-sized violin about 13 in. The portion of the strings to which the bow is applied lies over the space, measuring about 2¼ in., between the bridge and the free end of the finger-board. The strings are manufactured from so-called catgut, made from the intestines of lambs, and range in thickness from the first to the third or D string from .026 to .046 in. more or less. The necessary weight is given to the string of lowest pitch, G, without unduly sacrificing its elasticity, by winding a thin gut string with fine silver wire to about the same thickness as the A string.

An ornamental feature characteristic of nearly all violins is the purfling, a very thin slip of wood with margins of ebony or (rarely) whalebone, inlaid in thin strips close to the edge of both plates, and following the entire outline of the instrument. In some instruments, especially of the Brescian school, a double line of purfling was is inserted.

The total number of pieces of wood of which the violin is composed amounts to about 70, varying, as the plates are made in one piece or built together, and with the number of sections in which the ribs are put together. Of this number 57 pieces are built into the permanent structure, while 13 may be described as fittings. The whole of the permanent structure is cemented together with glue alone, and it is a striking testimony to the mechanical conditions satisfied by the design, that the instrument built of such slender material withstands without deformation the considerable stresses applied to it. It is worthy of remark that after the lapse of so many years, since it attained perfect musical efficiency, no unessential adjunct has entered into the construction of this instrument. No play of fancy has grafted anything beyond quite minor ornamentation on a work of art distinguished by its simplicity of pure outline and proportion.

The following are the exact principal dimensions of a very fine specimen of Stradivari's work, which has been preserved in perfect condition since the latter end of the 17th century: —


Length of body = 14 in. full.
Width across top = 6 11/16 in. bare.
Width across bottom = 8¼ in.
Height of sides (top) = 1 3/16 ”
Height of sides (bottom) = 1 7/32 ”


The back is in one piece, supplemented a little in width at the lower part, after a common practice of the great makers, and is cut from very handsome wood; the ribs are of the same wood, while the belly is formed of two pieces of soft pine of rather fine and beautifully even grain. The sound-holes, cut with perfect precision, exhibit much grace and freedom of design. The scroll, which is very characteristic of the maker's style and beautifully modelled, harmonizes admirably with the general modelling of the instrument. The model is flatter than in violins of the earlier period, and the design bold, while displaying all Stradivari's microscopic perfection of workmanship. The whole is coated with a very fine orange-red-brown varnish, untouched since it left the maker's hand in 1690, and the only respects in which the instrument has been altered since that date are in the fitting of the longer neck and stronger bass-bar necessitated by the increased compass and raised pitch of modern violin music.

The measurements given above are the same as those of a well-known Stradivari of later date (1714).

The acoustics of the violin are extremely complex, and notwithstanding many investigations by men of science, and the Acoustics. enunciation of some plausible hypotheses with regard to details of its operation as a musical instrument, remain as a whole obscure. So far as the elementary principles which govern its action are concerned, the violin follows familiar laws (see Sound). The different notes of the scale are produced by vibrating strings differing in weight and tension, and varying in length under the hand of the player. The vibrations of the strings are conveyed through the bridge to the body of the instrument, which fulfils the common function of a resonator in reinforcing the notes initiated by the strings. So far first principles carry us at once. But when we endeavour to elucidate in detail the causes of the peculiar character of tone of the violin family, the great range and variety in that character obtained in different instruments, the extent to which those qualities can be controlled by the bow of the player, and the mode in which they are influenced by minute variations in almost every component part of the instrument, we find ourselves faced by a series of problems which have so far defied any but very partial solution.

The distinctive quality of the musical tones of the violin is generally admitted to be due largely to its richness in the upper harmonic or partial tones superimposed on the fundamental notes produced by the simple vibrations of the strings.

The characteristic tone and its control by the player are undoubtedly conditioned in the first place by the peculiar path of the vibrating string under the action of the rosined bow. This takes the form not of a symmetrical oscillation but of a succession of alternating bound and free movements, as the string adheres to the bow according to the pressure applied and, releasing itself by its elasticity, rebounds.

The lightness of the material of which the strings are made conduces to the production of very high upper partial tones which give brilliancy of sound, while the low elasticity of the gut causes these high constituents to be quickly damped, thus softening the ultimate quality of the note.

In order that the resonating body of the instrument may fulfil its highest purpose in reinforcing the complex vibrations set up by the strings vibrating in the manner above described, not only as a whole, but in the number of related segments whose oscillations determine the upper partial tones, it is essential that the plates, and consequently the body of air contained between them, should respond sensitively to the selective impulses communicated to them. It is the attainment of this perfect selective responsiveness which marks the construction of the best instruments. Many factors contribute to this result. The thickness of the plates in different parts of their areas, the size and form of the interior of the body, the size and shape of the sound-holes through which the vibrations of the contained air are communicated to the external air, and which also influence the nodal points in the belly, according to the number of fibres of the wood cut across, varying with the angle at which the sound-holes cross the grain of the wood. Their position in this respect also affects the width of the central vibrating portion of the belly under the bridge.

All these important factors are influenced by the quality and elasticity of the wood employed.

Much has been written and many speculations have been advanced with regard to the superiority in tone of the old Italian instruments over those of modern construction. This superiority has sometimes been disputed, and, judging from the many examples of second-rate instruments which have survived from the 17th and 18th centuries, it is certain that antiquity alone does not confer upon violins the merits which have frequently been claimed for it. When, however, we compare the comparatively few really fine specimens of the Italian school which have survived in good condition, with the best examples of modern construction in which the proportions of the older masterpieces have been faithfully followed, and in which the most careful workmanship of skilled hands has been embodied, it cannot be denied that the former possess a superiority in the quality of their tone which the musical ear immediately recognizes. After taking into account the practical identity in dimensions and construction between the classical and many of the best modern models, the conclusion suggests itself that the difference must be attributed to the nature of the materials used, or to the method of their employment, as influenced by local conditions and practice. The argument, not infrequently advanced, that the great makers of Italy had special local sources of supply, jealously guarded, for wood with exceptional acoustical properties, can hardly be sustained. Undoubtedly they exercised great care in the selection of sound and handsome wood; but there is evidence that some of the finest wood they used was imported from across the Adriatic in the ordinary course of trade; and the matter was for them, in all probability, largely one of expense. There is good reason to suppose that a far larger choice of equally good material is accessible to modern makers.

There remains the varnish with which the completed instrument is coated. This was an item in the manufacture which received most careful attention at the hands of the great makers, and much importance has been attached to the superiority of their varnish over that used in more recent times — so much so that its composition has been attributed to secret processes known only to themselves. The probability is that they were able to exercise more personal selection of the materials used than has been generally practised by makers dependent upon commercial products under modern conditions, and the general result has been analogous to that seen in the pigments employed by modern painters as compared with those made up for themselves by the old masters who could ensure perfect purity in their ingredients. But that the Italian makers individually or collectively attempted, or were able, to preserve as a secret the composition of the varnish they used is unlikely. Instruments exhibiting similar excellence in this respect were too widespread in their range, both of period and locality, to justify the assumption that the general composition of the finest varnish of the early makers was not a matter of common knowledge in an industry so flourishing as that of violin-making in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The excellence of an instrument in respect of its varnish depended on the quality of the constituent materials, on the proportions in which they were combined, and, perhaps mainly, on the method of its application. The most enduring and perfect varnish used for violins is an oil varnish, and the best results therewith can only be obtained under the most advantageous conditions for the drying process. In this respect there can be no doubt that the southern climate placed the makers whose work lies in higher latitudes at a disadvantage. In a letter to Galileo in 1638 concerning a violin he had ordered from Cremona, the writer states that “it cannot be brought to perfection without the strong heat of the sun”; and all recorded experience indicates the great importance of slow drying of the varnish under suitable conditions. Stradivari himself wrote to account for delay in the delivery of an instrument because of the time required for the drying of the varnish.

That a perfect varnish conduces to the preservation of a fine tone in the instrument is generally admitted; and its operation in this respect is due, not merely to the external protection of the wood from deterioration, but especially to its action, when supplied under favourable conditions to wood at a ripe stage of seasoning (when that process has proceeded far enough, but not so far as to allow the fibres to become brittle), in soaking into the pores of the wood and preserving its elasticity. This being so, successful varnishing will be seen to be an operation of great delicacy, and one in which the old masters found full scope for their skill and large experience. The effects, upon the vibrational qualities of the wood, of thickness of coat, texture and gradual absorption into the pores of the wood under favourable conditions of drying, are great and far-reaching, as is proved in the survival through two centuries of the great qualities of the specimens most fittingly treated in this respect.

After the early part of the 18th century the use of the fine oil varnish employed by the great makers was gradually abandoned, concurrently with the decline of the instrument maker's art in Italy. Except in the hands of the fast-diminishing band of craftsmen trained in the old traditions, its place was taken by the newer spirit varnishes which, with their quick-drying qualities and ease of application, satisfied the requirements of the more cheaply manufactured instruments of the period following the death of Stradivari; and before the end of the century these inferior varnishes had quite supplanted the old recipes.

Having regard to all these considerations it is not unreasonable to conclude that the varnish of the old instruments contributed probably the most important single element of thair superiority in tone to their more modern copies. It must, however, be borne in mind that the instrument makers of the 16th and 17th centuries carried on a great and flourishing and a highly developed craft; and that their best creations owe their distinction largely to causes similar to those which produced the great art works of the same period. The violin makers had a lifelong training in their craft. The productions of the famous among them were eagerly sought after. Throughout western Europe the highest in the land were true amateurs of music, and vied with one another to secure the masterpieces of Brescia and Cremona. In such circumstances the trained judgment and wide experience of the craftsman were naturally concentrated upon securing the preliminary conditions of high excellence in his work: the choice of sound and handsome wood; perfection of design and workmanship; the composition of his varnish, and the utmost care and skill in applying it under the best conditions; and, not least important, time for deliberate and thoughtful production. The masterpieces of that period were not constructed upon any exact or scientific system, but were the products of development of a traditional craft working on empirical lines. Such theories of their construction as have been propounded are based on analysis of an already perfected organism; and careful historical research has revealed no record or trace of laws or rules by which the great makers worked.

Elaborate attempts have been made, notably by Savart early in the 19th century, to educe from experiments on the elasticities and vibration periods of various specimens of wood used in some of the older instrument's an exact system for the adjustment of these factors to the production of the best results; but data obtained by experiments with test specimens of regular shape do not carry us very far when applied to so complex and irregular a structure as the violin. The vibrating plates of the violin are neither symmetrical nor uniform in dimensions. They are not free plates, but are fixed round the whole edge of a very irregular outline; and these conditions, taken together with their unsymmetrically arched form, held under pressure by the tension of the strings, establish a state of complex stresses under vibration which have so far escaped analysis. Their vibratory movements are moreover influenced by so many accessory features of the instrument, such as the bass-bar, already described, the reaction of the sound-post, and the different pressures by the two feet of the bridge, that it is impossible to figure closely the vibrations of any given area of the instrument. It is certainly very remarkable that so precise a pattern of irregular form should nave been arrived at empirically, and should have survived as the standard, apparently for all time. Not only is the arch of the plates unsymmetrical in its longitudinal section, but, as is less commonly noticed, the upper bouts, especially in violins of the Cremona school, are slightly shallower than the lower; so that the edges of the belly are not strictly parallel to those of the back, but the two plates converge in the direction of the head. Probably the most successful attempts at analysing the vibrations of the violin have been those made by Sir William Huggins, by means of direct tactile observation with the finger holding a small rod of soft wood upon various spots on the surface of the vibrating plates. By this method he made a number of observations partially confirming, and in part correcting the determinations of previous investigators. He found that the position of maximum vibration of the belly is close to the foot of the bridge, under the fourth string, while that of least vibration is exactly over the top of the sound-post. The back, which is strongly agitated, also has its point of least vibration where the sound-post rests upon it. With the sound-post removed the belly vibrated almost equally on both sides of its area, while the vibration of the back was very feeble, and the tone became very poor; supporting the view that in the complete instrument the vibrations of the back are derived from the belly mainly through the sound-post. Pressure on that point in the belly normally in contact with the top of the sound-pest partially restored the proper character though not the power of the tone; indicating the important function of the sound-post in establishing a nodal point which largely determines the normal vibration of the belly. Modifications of the material of which the sound-post was made produced a profound effect upon the quality, but comparatively small effect upon the power of the tone. Of the part played by the sides in transmitting vibrations from belly to back, the most important share is borne by the middle bouts, or incurved sides at the waist of the instrument.

Experiments made lately afford some interesting evidence as to the nature of the vibrations set up in a sounding-box in response to those of a string at various pitches and under various conditions of bowing. These observations were made on a monochord and restricted to one portion of a sounding-board of regular shape. Experiments on similar lines made with an actual violin body might throw further light upon the behaviour of that instrument as a resonator; but such researches entail prolonged investigation.

Two phenomena, familiar to violin players, are suggestive of further lines of research that may help to elucidate the problems of the localization of the principal responses in the body of the violin, and of the action of the wood under vibration. Many violins, especially old and inferior ones, fail to resonate clearly and fully to particular notes, the sounds produced being commonly known as “Wolf” notes; and these notes are, certainly sometimes and possibly always, associated with particular spots in the body of the instrument; for, if pressure be applied at these spots, the resonance of the respective “Wolf” notes is improved. This observation suggests that the region concerned has been cut, or has become disproportionately thin in relation to the normal thickness of the plate; and, when stimulated by the appropriate note, sets up a local system of vibrations, which interfere with, instead of sharing, the proper vibrations of the plate as a whole; this interfering vibration being damped by local pressure. These defects are said to develop with age and constant use, and to be minimized by the use of thin strings but aggravated by thick ones; a circumstance which tends to support the hypothesis of thin regions in the plate, which might be expected to respond more truly to the vibrations of lighter, than to those of heavier strings. Detailed investigation of these phenomena on the lines of the experiments already referred to may have valuable results. Another well-known characteristic of the violin is that a new instrument, or one that has been long in disuse, is found to be “sleepy,” that is, it fails to speak readily in response to the bow, a defect which gradually disappears with use. Experiments made to test the effect of prolonged transverse vibrations upon strips of suitable wood have shown that such treatment increases the flexibility of the wood, which returns to its normal degree of rigidity after a period of rest. No conclusive interpretation of these experiments has yet been offered; but they indicate the probability of modifications of the internal viscosity of the wood, by molecular changes under the influence of continued vibratory movement.

The function of the bridge, as above mentioned, is to communicate the vibrations of the strings to the resonating body of the violin. This communication is made mainly, though not entirely, through the left foot of the bridge, which under the comparatively low tension of the G string rests with light pressure upon the belly, which at that point has accordingly greater freedom of movement than under the other foot, in proximity to which the sound-post, extending from back to belly, maintains that region of the plates in a state of relative rigidity, under the high tension of the E string. The view, however, maintained by some writers that the right foot of the bridge communicates no vibrations directly to the belly is inaccurate. The main object of placing the sound-post some distance behind, instead of immediately under, the bridge foot is to allow the belly under that foot to vibrate with some freedom. This has been proved by the destructive effect produced upon the tone by fixing the sound-post immediately under the foot of the bridge.

The form into which the bridge is fretted after the pattern devised by Stradivari has given rise to some speculation; but the justification of this form is probably to be found in the explanation propounded by Sir William Huggins, namely, that the strings, when agitated by the bow, vibrate in a plane oblique to the vertical axis of the bridge; the vibrations may be accordingly resolved into two components, one horizontal along the length of the bridge, the other vertical — that is, in a direction favourable for setting the belly into vibration across its lines of support.

It is advantageous to maintain simplicity in direction of the vibrations communicated to the body, and therefore to eliminate the transverse vibrations before they reach the belly. This is accomplished by a certain lateral elasticity of the bridge itself, attained by under-cutting the sides so as to allow the upper half of the bridge to oscillate or rock from side to side upon its central trunk; the work done in setting up this oscillation absorbing the transverse vibrations above mentioned.

The function of the sound-post is on the one hand mechanical, and on the other acoustical. It serves the purpose of sustaining the greater share of the pressure of the strings, not so much to save the belly from yielding under that pressure, as to enable it to vibrate more freely in its several parts than it could do, if unsupported, under the stresses which would be set up in its substance by that pressure. The chosen position of the post, allowing some freedom of vibration under the bridge, ensures the belly's proper vibrations being directly set up before the impulses are transmitted to the back through the sound-post: this transmission being, as already shown, its principal function. The post also by its contact with both vibrating plates is, as already shown, a governing factor in determining the nodal division of their surfaces, and its position therefore influences fundamentally the related states of vibration of the two plates of the instrument, and the compound oscillations set up in the contained body of air. This is an important element in determining the tone character of the instrument.

The immediate ancestors of the violins were the viols, which were the principal bowed instruments in use from the end of the History. 15th to the end of the 17th century, during the latter part of which period they were gradually supplanted by the violins; but the bass viol did not go out of use finally until towards the later part of the 18th century, when the general adoption of the larger pattern of violoncello drove the viol from the field it had occupied so long. The sole survivor of the viol type of instrument, although not itself an original member of the family, is the double bass of the modern orchestra, which retains many of the characteristic features of the viol, notably the flat back, with an oblique slope at the shoulders, the high bridge and deep ribs. Excepting the marine trumpet or bowed monochord, we find in Europe no trace of any large bowed instruments before the appearance of the viols; the bowed instruments of the middle ages being all small enough to be rested on or against the shoulder during performance. The viols probably owe their origin directly to the minnesinger fiddles, which possessed several of the typical features of the violin, as distinct from the guitar family, and were sounded by a bow. These in their turn may be traced to the “guitar fiddle” (q.v.), a bowed instrument of the 13th century, with five strings, the lowest of which was longer than the rest, and was attached to a peg outside the head so as to clear the nut and finger-board, thus providing a fixed bass, or bourdon. This instrument had incurved sides, forming a waist to facilitate the use of the bow, and was larger than its descendants the fiddles and violins. None of these earlier instruments can have had a deeper compass than a boy's voice. The use of the fidel in the hands of the troubadours, to accompany the adult male voice, may explain the attempts which we trace in the 13th century to lengthen the oval form of the instrument. The parentage of the fiddle family may safely be ascribed to the rebec, a bowed instrument of the early middle ages, with two or three strings stretched over a low bridge, and a pear-shaped body pierced with sound-holes, having no separate neck, but narrowed at the upper end to provide a finger-board, and (judging by pictorial representations, for no actual example is known) surmounted by a carved head holding the pegs, in a manner similar to that of the violin. The bow, which was short and clumsy, had a considerable curvature. So far it is justifiable to trace back the descent of the violin in a direct line; but the earlier ancestry of this family is largely a matter of speculation. The best authorities are agreed that stringed instruments in general are mainly of Asiatic origin, and there is evidence of the mention of bowed instruments in Sanskrit documents of great antiquity. Too much genealogical importance has been attached by some writers to similarities in form and construction between the bowed and plucked instruments of ancient times. They probably developed to a great extent independently; and the bow is of too great and undoubted antiquity to be regarded as a development of the plectrum or other devices for agitating the plucked string. The two classes of instrument no doubt were under mutual obligations from time to time in their development. Thus the stringing of the viols was partly adapted from that of the lute; and the form of the modern Spanish guitar was probably derived from that of the fidel.

The Italian and Spanish forms (ribeba, rabe) of the French name rebec suggest etymologically a relationship, which seems to find confirmation in the striking similarity of general appearance between that instrument and the Persian rebab, mentioned in the 12th century, and used by the Arabs in a primitive form to this day. The British crwth, which has been claimed by some writers as a progenitor of the violin, was primarily a plucked instrument, and cannot be accepted as in the direct line of ancestry of the viols.

The viol was made in three main kinds — discant, tenor and bass — answering to the cantus, medius and bassus of vocal music. Each of these three kinds admitted of some variation in dimensions, especially the bass, of which three distinct sizes ultimately came to be made — (1) the largest, called the concert bass viol; (2) the division or solo bass viol, usually known by its Italian name of viola da gamba; and (3) the lyra or tablature bass viol. The normal tuning of the viols, as laid down in the earliest books, was adapted from the lute to the bass viol, and repeated in higher intervals in the rest. The fundamental idea, as in the lute, was that the outermost strings should be two octaves apart — hence the intervals of fourths with a third in the middle. The highest, or discant viol, is not a treble but an alto Discant viol. instrument, the three viols answering to the three male voices. As a treble instrument, not only for street and dance music, but in orchestras, the rebec or geige did duty until the invention of the violin, and long afterwards. The discant viol first became a real treble instrument in the hands of the French makers, who converted it into the quinton.


Discant Viol. Tenor Viol. Viol da Gamba.
(Bass Viol.)
Britannica Violin Discant Viol Tuning.png Britannica Violin Tenor Viol Tuning.png Britannica Violin Bass Viol Tuning.png


The earliest use of the viols was to double the parts of vocal concerted music; they were next employed in special compositions Development of the viols. for the viol trio written in the same compass. Many such works in the form of “fantasies” or “fancies,” and preludes with suites in dance form, by the masters of the end of the 16th and 17th centuries, exist in manuscript; a set by Orlando Gibbons, which are good specimens, has been published by the English Musical Antiquarian Society. Later, the viols, especially the bass, were employed as solo instruments, the methods of composition and execution being based on those of the lute. Most lute music is in fact equally adapted for the bass viol, and vice versa. In the 17th century, when the violin was coming into general use, constructive innovations began which resulted in the abandonment of the trio of pure six-stringed viols. Instruments which show these innovations are the quinton and the viola d'amore. The first-mentioned is of a type intermediate between the viol and the violin. In the case of the discant and tenor viol the lowest string, which was probably found to be of little use, was abandoned, and the pressure on the bass side of the belly thus considerably lightened. The five strings were then spread out, as it were, to the compass of the six, so as to retain the fundamental principle of the outer strings being two octaves apart. This was effected by tuning the lower half of the instrument in fifths, as in the violin, and the upper half in fourths. This innovation altered the tuning of the treble and tenor viols, thus — One half of the instrument was therefore tuned like a viol, the other half as in a violin, the middle string forming the division. The tenor viol thus improved was called in France the quinte, and the treble corresponding to it the quinton. From the numerous specimens which survive it must have been a popular instrument, as it is undoubtedly a substantially excellent one. The relief in the bass, and the additional pressure caused by the higher tuning in the treble, gave it greater brilliancy, without destroying the pure, ready and sympathetic tone which characterizes the viol. While the tendency in the case of the discant and tenor was to lighten and brighten them, the reverse process took place in that of the bass. The richer and more sonorous tones of the viola da gamba were extended downwards by the addition of a string tuned to double bass A. Marais, a French virtuoso, is usually credited with this improvement; and this extended compass is recognized in the classical viola da gamba writings of Sebastian Bach and De Caix d'Hervelois. The result, however, was not universally satisfactory, for Abel used the six-stringed instrument; and the seven strings never came into general use in England, where the viola da gamba was more generally employed and survived longer than elsewhere.


Treble Quinton. Quinte or Tenor Quinton.
Britannica Violin Treble Quinton Tuning.png Britannica Violin Tenor Quinton Tuning.png


The chief defect of the viols was their weakness of tone; this the makers thought to remedy in two ways: first by additional strings in unisons, fifths and octaves; and secondly by sympathetic strings of fine steel wire, laid under the finger-board as close as possible to the belly, and sounding in sympathy with the notes produced on the bowed strings. The sympathetic strings were attached to ivory pegs driven into the bottom block, and, passing through the lower part of the bridge, or over a very low bridge of their own, were stretched to pitch either by means of additional pegs or by wrest pins driven into the sides of the head, and tuned with a key. Originally six, seven or eight wire strings were used, tuned to the diatonic scale of the piece to be performed. Later on a chromatic set of twelve was employed, and occasionally viols were made with twenty-four wire strings, two for each semitone in the scale. This system of reinforcement was applied to all the various sizes of viols in use during that period.

The improvements which resulted in the production of the violin proceeded on different lines. They consisted in increasing the resonance of the body of the instrument, by making it lighter and more symmetrical, and by stringing it more lightly. These changes transformed the body of the viol into that of the violin, and the transformation was completed by rejecting the lute tuning with its many strings, and tuning the instrument by fifths, as the fiddle had been tuned. The tenor viol appears to have been the first instrument in which the change was made, and thus the viola or tenor may probably be claimed as the father of the modern violin family. Violas were used in church music before the modern violin period, and violins as we know them were at first called “Piccoli Violini” to distinguish them from the earlier and larger instruments. A tenor viol of date 1500 is still extant, bearing in general outline the typical features of the violin, as distinct from the viol family. This instrument was exhibited in 1872 in the Loan Exhibition of Musical Instruments at South Kensington with the label “Pietro Zanure, Brescia, 1509.” From existing specimens we know that a bass violin, precursor of the violoncello, with a tuning an octave below the tenor, appeared shortly after that instrument. A double bass violin, tuned a fourth below the violoncello and usually known as the “basso da camera,” completed the set of instruments in violin shape; but from the difficulty attending its manipulation it never came into general use. The celebrated double bass player, Dragonetti, occasionally used the basso da camera, and an English player named Hancock, who dispensed with the highest or E string, is still remembered for his performances on this unusual instrument.


Tenor Violin. Violoncello. Basso da Camera.
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The tenor and violoncello are made on the same general model and principles as the violin, but with modifications. Tenor violin and violoncello. Both are, relatively to their pitch, made in smaller proportions than the violin, because, if they were constructed to dimensions having the same relation to pitch and tension of strings as the violin, they would not only have an overpowering tone but would be unmanageable from their size. These relatively diminished dimensions, both in the size of the instrument and in the thickness of the wood and strings, give to the tenor and violoncello a graver and more sympathetic tone. To some extent the reduced size is compensated by giving them a greater proportional height in the ribs and bridge; an increase hardly perceptible in the tenor, but very noticeable in the violoncello. To lighten the tension and thus allow greater freedom of vibration to the belly on the bass side, as with the lowest string of the violin, the two lowest of the tenor and violoncello are made of thin gut, covered with fine metal wire; thus providing the necessary weight without inconvenient thickness. If the tension of the lowest Scordatura. string, or the two lowest strings, be increased, not only will they be elevated in pitch, but the violin will produce a more powerful tone; if the bass string be lowered, the contrary will take place. By adapting the music to this altered tuning (scordatura) some novel effects are produced. The following are the principal scordature which have been occasionally employed by various players: —

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Tartini,
Castrucci,
(Scotch Reels.)
Biber. Biber. Nardini. Barbella,
Campagnoli.
Britannica Violin Scordatura Lolli.png Britannica Violin Scordatura Prume.png Britannica Violin Scordatura De Bériot.png Britannica Violin Scordatura Paganini.png Britannica Violin Scordatura Baillot.png
Lolli. De Bériot,
Prume,
Mazas, &c.
De Bériot. Paganini. Baillot.


The violoncello is less amenable to the scordatura than the violin; the only classical instance is the tuning employed by Bach in his fifth sonata, which consists in lowering the first string by a tone.


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Bach.


The early Italian school is chiefly represented by the Brescian makers, Caspar da Salò, Giovanni Paolo Maggini, Giovita Early Italian makers. Rodiani and Zanetto Peregrino. It is, however, somewhat misleading to denominate it the Brescian school, for its characteristics are shared by the earliest makers of Cremona and Venice. To eyes familiar with the geometrical curves of the later Cremona school, most of the violins of these makers have a rude and uncouth appearance. The height of the model varies; the pattern is attenuated; the f-holes share the general rudeness of design, and are set high in the pattern. Andreas Amati of Cremona, the eldest maker of that name, effected some improvements on this primitive model; but the violin owes most to his sons, Antonio and Geronimo, who were partners. They introduced the substantial improvements which developed the Brescian violin into the modern instrument. These improvements were in their inception probably of an artistic rather than a scientific nature. Painting and inlaying had long been employed in the decoration of stringed instruments; but the brothers Amati were the first who applied to the violin the fundamental law of decorative art, that the decorative and constructive elements should be blended in their conception: in other words, the construction should be itself decorative and the decoration itself constructive. Nicholas Amati (1596-1684), son of Geronimo, made some slight improvements in the model, and his pupil Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) finally settled the typical Cremona pattern, which has been generally followed; for the majority of violins since made, whether by good or bad makers, are copies of Stradivari. Besides the last-named, the following makers worked generally on the Amati model — Cappa, Gobetti, the Grancino family, Andreas Guarnieri and his son Giuseppe, the Ruggieri family and Serafin of Venice. The Bergonzi family, Alessandro Gagliano, the earlier members of the Guadagnini family, and Panormo were either pupils or followers of Stradivari. But excepting Carlo Bergonzi and Stradivari's two sons, Omobono and Francesco, there is no evidence of any having actually worked with or for him. Landolfi, Storioni, and Carlo Giuseppe Testore, a pupil of Giovanni Grancino, leaned to the model of Giuseppe Guarnieri del Gesii. Some resemblances, especially in the matter of the varnish, are traceable between the works of makers who lived contemporaneously in the same town, e.g. in Naples, Milan and Venice.

A high model was adopted by Jacob Stainer of Absam, near Hall in Tirol, whose well-known pattern was chiefly followed by German, English and French makers. the makers of England, Tirol and Germany, down to the middle of the 18th century. It thenceforward fell into disuse, owing to the superior musical qualities of the Cremona violin. The school of Stainer is represented by Albani, Hornsteiner, the Klotz family (who made large numbers of instruments excellent in their kind), Schorn of Salzburg and Withalm of Nuremberg, and others. The English makers may be divided into three successive groups: (1) an antique English school, having a character of its own (Rayman, Urquhart, Pamphilon, Barak Norman, Duke, of Oxford, &c.); (2) imitators of Stainer, at the head of whom stands Peter Wamsley (Smith, Barrett, Cross, Hill, Aireton, Norris, &c.); (3) a later school who leaned to the Cremona model (Banks, Duke, of Holborn, Belts, the Forsters, Gilkes, Carter, Fendt, Parker, Harris, Matthew Hardie of Edinburgh, &c.). The early French makers have little merit or interest (Bocquay, Gavinies, Pierray, Guersan, &c.), but the later copyists of the Cremona models (Lupot, Aldric, Chanot the elder, Nicholas, Pique, Silvestre, Vuillaume, &c.) produced admirable instruments, some of which rank next in merit to the first-rate makers of Cremona.

The general form of the violin, as finally developed under the hands of the leading makers, resolved itself into two main types, the high and the flat models, of which the latter, on the lines ultimately adopted by Stradivari, has survived as the most efficient pattern for all modern instruments. The distinction is one of degree only, the maximum difference of actual measurement in extreme cases amounting to little more than a quarter of an inch in the convexity of the belly above the top line of the ribs; but the difference in character of tone of the two types is, in the main, well marked. Speaking generally, the tone of the high-built instrument is less powerful and sweeter, and it speaks more readily, but responds less completely to gradations of tone under the action of the bow than the flatter type, which yields a tone of greater carrying power and flexibility, susceptible to more subtle variation by the player, and with a peculiar penetrating quality lacking in the highly arched model. These differences in tone probably depend less upon any direct effect of variations in depth of the sounding-box than on the incidental effects of cutting the wood to the higher or lower arch; for it would seem that the best results in tone have been attained in instruments with a fairly constant volume of contained air, the depth of the sides being roughly in inverse proportion to the height of arch in the best examples of the different models. In the high-cut arch the fibres of the wood on the upper surface are necessarily cut shorter, with the result that the plate as a whole does not vibrate so perfectly as in the flatter model, and this has a weakening effect on the tone. Again, the higher arch, with steeper curves towards the sides, necessitates the inclination of the sound-holes at a considerable angle to the main horizontal plane of the instrument; and it is conceivable that, under such conditions, the vibrations of the upper layer of air within the body are dissipated too readily, before the composite vibrations of the whole mass of air inside the instrument have attained their full harmonic value. Apart from these acoustical considerations, the question is probably one of material, the flatter construction demanding the use of a very strong and elastic wood in relation to the most suitable thickness, in order to withstand the pressure of the bridge, a resistance which the higher arch renders possible with a stiffer and more brittle material; and the effect of these qualities upon tone must be taken into account in estimating the tone characters of the two types of instrument.

Broadly speaking, the higher-arched type found favour with the earlier makers up to the end of the Amati period. Stainer in Tirol inclined particularly in the direction of this model, which he appears to have developed on independent lines, the tradition that he learnt his craft from the Amati being no longer tenable. The flatter model was gradually evolved by Stradivari as he outgrew the immediate influence of the Amati and developed on his own incomparable lines a somewhat larger and more powerful instrument, adapted to the requirements of the increasing class of solo players.

The violins as a distinctive family of instruments cannot be fully discussed without reference to the bow (q.v.) as an The bow. essential adjunct, on account of the very important part taken by the bow in determining, as already mentioned, the peculiar form of the vibrations of the string, and in controlling, in the hand of a skilled player, the subtle gradations of tone produced from the instrument. The evolution of the modern bow has taken place almost entirely since the violin attained its final form, and has followed, more completely perhaps than the instrument itself, the development of violin music and the requirements of the player. It reached its highest perfection at the hands of the celebrated François Tourte of Paris, about 1780, whose bows have served as a model for all succeeding makers, even more exclusively than the violins of Stradivari controlled the pattern of later instruments; and at the present time Tourte bows are valued beyond any others.

For more than 250 years the violin and its larger brethren have held the leading position among musical instruments. For them have been written some of the most inspired works of the great musicians. Famous composers, such as Tartini, Corelli, Spohr and Viotti have been great violinists, and by their compositions, as much as by their talents as virtuosi, have largely developed the capacity of the violin as a vehicle of profound musical expression. To the listener the violin speaks with an intensity, a sympathy, and evokes a thrill of the senses such as no other instrument can produce. For the player it seems to respond to every pulse of his emotions.

References. — A. Vidal, La Lutherie el les luthiers (Paris, 1889); G. Hart, The Violin (London, 1875); Hill, Antonio Stradivari (London, 1902); Sir W. Huggins, “On the Function of the Sound-Post, &c., of the Violin,” Proc. Royal Society, vol. xxxv. p. 241; H. Helmholtz, On the Sensations of Tone, &c. (trans. by A. J. Ellis); E. H. Barton and C. A. B. Garrett, “Vibration Curves obtained from a Monochord Sound Box and String,” Philosophical Mag. (July 1905); Carl Engel, Musical Instruments (London, 1875); A. J. Hipkins, Musical Instruments, Historic, Rare and Unique (Edinburgh, 1887). (R. W. F. H.)


  1. Up to about the year 1800 the old Italian makers, including Stradivari (in his earlier instruments), usually strengthened the attachment of the neck by driving nails, frequently three and sometimes four, through the top block into the base of the neck, which was not mortised into the block.