The Violin And Its Makers

—The reader who has studied the principles of construction and playing of the old string instruments, as explained in Lesson XV, or examined them in museums, will not have failed to note that they were complicated and limited in technic. The members of this family were large and cumbersome, troublesome to handle and not particularly graceful or pleasing to the eye; the position in which the player was forced to hold them was difficult to maintain and not conducive to a rapid, facile technic. Now, the direction of a perfected art is al-ways toward simplicity ; the various members of the viol family were to yield place to a new instrument, a modification of the original type, and one that possessed some striking and valuable advantages over the viol. Another element that aided in the change from the viol was the efforts of composers to produce a distinctive instrumental music, a style which demanded an instrument with a higher range than the viols, corresponding to the highest female voice. Still another element to be considered was the stir in intellectual, social, political and commercial life which was evident everywhere, the product of the Renaissance. Music was influenced by this spirit; composers were seeking new forms in which to express their thoughts and were calling for new and better media for presenting them to others. As composers gained in breadth and power of conception, instruments were improved even beyond their demands; the increase in resources stimulated, in turn, the composers. At this period music was on the threshold of a splendid activity in instrumental lines, the reign of the old choral music and the contrapuntal composer was being challenged, and the way prepared for Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Beginning of the Violin

With regard to the violin, as in other beginnings, there is disagreement; the strongest claims are set forth for France and Italy, with German historians by no means lax in attributing the first instruments to one of their own countrymen. We give the following facts which seem to divide the honors: In the scores of Italian works of the 16th century, a part may be found for what is called the piccolo violino alla francese (little French viol), a fact which would argue that an instrument of this kind, perhaps most commonly used in France, had been known for some time. The oldest known instrument of the violin type is one which bears the date 1449, and is signed Jean Kerlin, a Breton luthier (lute maker, a term applied also to violin makers), whose name is also given as Kerlino, living in Brescia, Italy, in the middle of the 15th century. About the same time there lived in Bologna, Padua and Venice, members of a celebrated lute-making family, named Duiffoprugcar, Italian equivalent for the German name, Tieffenbrucker, for the family came from the Italian Tyrol. The most celebrated member of this family was Gasparo Duiffoprugcar (Casper Tieffenbrucker); who was born about 1469, lived in Bologna until 1515, when he went to Paris. Later he removed to Lyons, where he spent the rest of his life. Six instruments having violin characteristics (high, not sloping shoulders, deeper curves in the waist and better-defined f holes) are attributed to him, bearing dates of 1510, 1511, 1515 and 1517.

Early Italian Makers.—The next name is that of Gasparo di Salo, founder of the Brescian school of violin-making, who was born at a little village called Salo, on Lake Garda; hence his name. His model varied, sometimes it was high, at other times flat; as his instruments produced a full, sonorous tone, the model was revived in later years by Joseph Guarnerius. His tenors and double-basses are considered his finest work, his violins being a trifle small. The favorite double bass of Dragonetti, the famous contrabassist, was by di Salo; Ole Bull frequently played on a di Salo violin in his concerts. The greatest successor of di Salo was his pupil, Giovanni Paolo Maggini (1590-1640), whose violins are highly prized. They are characterized by a brown varnish and a double purfling.

The Cremona School.

—With the public the name Cremona is indissolubly connected with violin-making. In the 16th century this city was a famous art centre, rivaling Bologna in music and painting. The first great maker and founder of the Cremona school was Andrea (Andrew) Amati, born about 1520 and died 1577 or 1580.1 He used mostly a small pattern, top and back high, the varnish amber in color. A number of his instruments furnished for the Chapel Royal of Charles IX were known to have been in Versailles prior to the French Revolution. The Amati style was continued by Andrea’s two sons, Antonio (Anthony) and Hieronymus (Geronimo or Jerome) Amati. The former is said to have lived 1550-1638, the latter 1551-1635. They worked con-jointly, although the latter made some experiments with a larger model than the usual Amati.

Nicolo Amati.—The greatest of the Amati family and the one whose instruments are still highly prized was Nicolo (Nicolaus) Amati (1596-1684), the son of Geronimo. He forms one of the great triumvirate of violin-making, Amati, Guarnerius and Stradivarius. At first he followed the small form adopted by his father and his uncle, although he improved on the workmanship. But about 1625, no doubt as the result of an experiment, he began to use a slightly larger pattern which is known to connoisseurs as the “Grand Amati.” These instruments represent his best work and command a high price. The Amati tone is sweet, mellow yet somewhat delicate, although remarkable in purity; the instruments are unsuited to orchestral work, although admirable in chamber music, particularly of the old style. The varnish is yellowish or amber colored.

Joseph Guarnerius

—In our study of the piano we noted how the small, weak tone of the clavichord and harpsichord gave way before the fuller toned, sonorous pianoforte. which, with its greater possibilities, came into use at a time when composers were seeking for means to give increased breadth and power to the reproduction of their music. It would have been unfortunate for instrumental music if the small though sweet tone of the Amati violin had been accepted as the ideal. We could not have had the surging tumult of Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony, the great dramatic pictures of Wagner with the Amati to lay on the colors. More tone, more sonorousness, more virile singing was needed. One of the men to place in the hands of executants the instrument to work out the conceptions of the great composers was Giuseppe Guarneri or, as he is generally called, Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu. He was born at Cremona, 1683, and belonged to a family of lute and violin makers. He has been credited with having been a pupil of Stradivari; yet his instruments show no trace of that maker’s influence. He seems to have been impressed with the tone-producing qualities of the di Salo violins, for his best instruments have something of their bold, vigorous style. He was an experimenter, ever seeking, it would seem, for the means of producing big, sonorous tone, and changed his model frequently, for which reason his instruments vary much in value. His work was not so highly favored by connoisseurs until Paganini showed the value of a Guarnerius from the standpoint of tone. His best instruments are now greatly admired and, because so few in good condition are, known, command a high price. The date of Guarnerius’ death is not known. Others of the Guarnerius family who lived and worked at Cremona were Andreas Guarnerius, uncle to Giuseppe, his son also called Joseph and known as “filius Andrece” (Son of Andreas) to distinguish him from his cousin, Joseph del Gesu, another son Peter, “of Cremona,” and a son of Joseph fllius Andrece, known as Peter of Venice.

Antonius Stradivarius. — The greatest of violin-makers who united in his instruments the brilliant and powerful tone of di Salo and the Brescian school and the purity and finish of the Amati was Antonius Stradivarius (Antonio Stradivari is the Italian form), born in 1644, one year after the death of Monteverde, and died in 1737, five years after the birth of Haydn, a period of nearly a century in which a most significant development took place in music. He was apprenticed to Nicola Amati, and the instruments of his early years are faithful copies of that master’s work; but as he grew in years and experience he improved on the Amati model, every change tending to produce a more powerful and resonant tone. The differences that strike the eye most strongly are the larger proportions, the flatter arch of the top, and the shape of the sound holes. In his earlier instruments he used a yellowish varnish ; after 1684, one of a reddish tint. Stradivarius also fixed the form and adjustment of the bridge. He left two sons, Francesco and Omoboni, who finished some of their father’s instruments after his death. They both died five or six years later. Pupils of Stradivarius who made excellent instruments were Carlo Bergonzi (1712-1750), Lorenzo Guadagnini (1695-1740) and his son Johannes Baptista Guadagnini (1750-1785) and Alessandro Gagliano.

Other Makers.—Germany’s contribution to violin-making dates from Jakob Stainer, of Absam in Tyrol (1621-1683). Tradition has it that he learned his art at Cremona; if so, his work shows no influence of the Amati; his model is different, somewhat broader and shorter, the arch of the belly is greater, and the sound holes are set differently ; the varnish varies from a brown to an amber color; the tone is sweet and quick to respond, but lacks intensity. A follower of Stainer was Aegidius Klotz (1653-1743), many of whose instruments were sold as of Stainer’s make. France contributed no makers of great renown. The names of importance are Nicholas Lupot (1758-1824), a follower of Stradivarius, and J. B. Vuillaume (1799-1875). In England the most distinguished names are Richard Duke and Benjamin Banks (1727-1795).

The Violin Bow.—A few words must be said in regard to the bow, the means for producing tone from the violin strings. In its earliest form it was simply a bow with a stretched string. Hair came into use, to replace the string, about the 13th century, and the bow lost its original shape, becoming straight for nearly its entire length, curving downward at the point. Corelli used a bow of this shape. Tartini’s bow had the same shape, but was made longer. At the end of the 18th century, Francois Tourte (1747-1835), a Paris bow-maker, lengthened the bow still more, and bent it slightly inward, giving it the form familiar to us today. Viotti was the first great player to use this style of bow, and is credited with a share in perfecting it. It is no exaggeration to say that upon Tourte’s improvements to the bow rests the whole fabric of modern violin-playing, with its wonderful variety of execution and consequent nuances in expression.

The Viola and the Violoncello.—

Two other instruments of the violin type are in use, the Viola, the tenor violin, and the Violoncello, the bass violin; both these instruments shared in the development of the violin, and were made by the great makers, Amati, Guarnerius and Stradivarius. The Contra-bass, the bass-viol, as it is often called, while it is used to furnish the bass to the string orchestra, is a member of the viol family, having the special characteristics, sloping shoulders and flat back. Instruments were made on the violin pattern, but given up as less satisfactory than the viol type.

The impetus given to instrumental composition by the perfecting of the instruments of the string group stimulated makers to work for improvement in those belonging to the family of wind instruments, flutes, oboes, clarinets, horns, harps, etc., thus offering the means to reproduce for hearers the great conceptions of the tone-masters.


Grove.—Dictionary of Music and Musicians, article on the violin.

Stoeving.—Story of the Violin.

Hart.—The Violin. Its Famous Makers and their Imitators.