Introduction to European Violin Making written by Igor Jeremijenko
Violin making most likely began in Italy with Gasparo da Salò (1542-1609) in about 1560. All his authentic were made from wood chosen for tone rather than beauty and are known for their powerful tone and quick response. Then the Amati family were also amongst the first violin makers with Lorenzo de' Medici ordering a violin from luthier Andrea Amati (1505-1578) in 1555. They were followed by Antonio Stradavari (1542-1609) and his contemporary Bartolomeo Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri, del Gesù. These luthiers are those best known for creating and then having the greatest impact on the modern violin.
Violin makers are called luthiers as the evolution of the craft was in the hands of lute makers. Most luthiers historically were are poor as church mice. They often depended on the inheritance of a wife or on mentors to pay them enough to allow them and their families to survive while they toiled at their trade. Very few mentors honoured their obligation for various reasons. There are romantic stories of Guarneri finding himself in debtors prison where he then depended on the jailor's daughter to supply the wood to him in jail so he could work himself out of prison. Recent research indicates that in later life he had to put violin making to one side and worked as an innkeeper for financial reasons.
It can take up to 500 hours to make a good violin painstakingly by hand and then varnish it to protect it from the weather and preserve the wood. Some authentic violins of Stradivarius are 350 years old and still play beautifully. But there is more, the timber Italians used grew in the southern part of the forests of the Carpathian Mountains. This region is extremely cold, and very cold winters produce very dense timber. This is traditionally cured in what is known as "pigs"- blocks of timbers, turned every week a quarter turn to dry it out evenly with the process taking anything up to 50 years and from this the violin takes birth. To begin with each tree may be ancient, they grow very slowly in that climate and that density creates a glorious sound. Automation which began in the 1930s has reduced that quality of this process. It has made many move violins available albeit of poorer quality, but provided access to the instrument to everyone who wished to learn how to play it.
History records that Florence was the place where the European culture re-emerged after the dark ages, so it was Italy that led the field in our modern progress. European culture flourished from its source in Florence. A big part of the Renaissance was the world of art in which the violin is a very integral discovery and began to develop around that time. It seems quite natural that the violin world grew from this very source that is in Italy. What made the instrument acceptable to the Italian culture were the soirees of nobility who were entertained by this new instrument. But it took Paganini to expose, popularise and display the instrument with performances of his theatrical technical pyrotechnics in concert halls allowing the general public to experience its beautiful tone. From this experiment, the fiddle took to the village green and became a tool of entertainment to all not just the nobility and from here the violin spread all over Europe.
One must consider acoustics, the science of sound, and the sense of hearing which this intricate musical instrument is all about. There are many parts to the complete violin and they must be compatible to produce the best possible music. By trial and error, we discovered the exact dimensions for a violin box that make use of natural physical properties to produce the best sound. The bass bar was invented and placed to the left side of the sound board (AKA top plate) then perfected. The sound post was placed on the right side just lateral to the right foot of the bridge. Once the violin is strung up there are 40 pounds per square inch of pressure under the bridge. This is why the support of the bass bar and the sound post are so essential. Adding to this are the pressure of the bowing plus some of the weight of the performers arm as it directs the bow. The weight is also resolved by the arching of the instrument according to engineering principles.
One has to match the densities of the sound post and the bridge which supports the strings. As a rule of thumb, a good match is a hard sound post and a soft bridge or vice versa, but one has to experiment with this to be quite certain. We don't know exactly when this was discovered in antiquity. Scientists attempted to verify these dimensions, but no other parameters can match the beautiful sound given by the established measurements. No other substance but wood can give such a sound. How we derived these facts remains a total mystery. The world owes a huge gratitude to the persistence and dedication of the individuals who solved this problem for music today sounds like it was never heard before on this planet.
Improvements were added by standardizing pitch in 1939, improving the modern bow and strings, becoming healthier and fitter in performing and devising better techniques of playing. To put it bluntly, humanity improved its anatomy with better nutrition and better medical care, which in turn improved out music making.
All humanity is blessed by all this wonderful input and expertise, it is a great boost to the artistic culture of music making and the general development of human progress and culture. Once the violin was used in orchestras, it affected the techniques of singers to produce the bel canto singing, which in turn lead to the production of operas. As I said to my grandson who is struggling with the techniques of intonation and learning how to play this instrument- even if you don't do much with it in your life, the discipline of learning is a good character building exercise; it teaches self reliance and it can fill the empty hours of your life with composure and pleasure! You become introduced to the world of "fiddlers" who are a wonder bunch of people to make your life much more bearable.
Learning to play the violin is exciting, inspirational, methodical and delightful once you learn how to conquer the difficulties both physical and emotional, it becomes a skill, another feather in your cap of life. Personally, I found that achievement and aspect thrilling. What I am saying is that the violin is not just a dead object-it teaches you how to perfect sound, produce pleasant noises invariably and how to express the nuances of music in a most pleasing manner. A very good violin with an excellent bow makes the performer to impress the audience. The bow and the instrument are like a marriage, same sex or otherwise it does not matter,you can't have one without the other, they are different trades.
Violins often carry some typical elements of their particular makers. However, most violins are based on the models of the Italian masters Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu and Nicolo Amati (1596-1684). All three masters lived and worked in Cremona.
It may be interesting to note that Nicolo Amati was the grandson of Andrea Amati who is said to to be the the inventor of the 'modern' violin. Others say - for example Jean Babtiste Vuillaume - that Gasparo Duiffopruggar, originally known as Kaspar Tieffenbrucker (1514-1570) was the first violinmaker. The head of Gasparo Duiffopruggar replaces the conventional scroll that you see on the Derazey violin.
The violins above are current or past examples of instruments from Animato Strings. Clicking on any of the images will take you to a more dretailed description of the instruments.