JAN, 2013


The history of Bowed instrument (String Musical Instrument) goes back to the 9th century with the LYRA of the Byzantine Empire (Medieval Roman Empire), a bowed instrument similar to REBAB, used at that time in Islamic Empires (Central Asian). It is usually plucked.

The BYZANTINE LYRA spread through Europe in the 11th and 12th Century and European writers used FIDDLE and LYRA interchangeably when referring to bowed instruments. Over the centuries, Europe continued to have two distinct types of bowed instrument.

  • Lira da braccio (Violin for the arm)
  • Lira da gamba (also called, Viola da gamba, Violin for the leg)                                                            

During the Renaissance, the gambas were important and elegant instruments but eventually, lost ground to the Lira da braccio family of the modern violin. The earliest stringed instruments were mostly plucked (e.g. the Greek lyre). Bowed instruments may have originated in the equestrian cultures of Central Asia, an example being the Kobyz. Turkic and Mongolian horsemen from Inner Asia were probably the world’s earliest fiddlers. Their two-stringed upright fiddles were strung with horsehair strings, played with horsehair bows, and often feature a carved horse’s head at the end of the neck. The violins, violas, and cellos we play today, and whose bows are still strung with horsehair, are a legacy of the nomads. It is believed that these instruments eventually spread to China, India, the Byzantine Empire and the Middle East, where they developed into instruments such as the erhu in China, the rebab in the Middle East, the lyra in the Byzantine Empire and the esraj in India.

                   The violin in its present form emerged in early 16th-Century Northern Italy, where the port towns of Venice and Genoa maintained extensive ties to central Asia through the trade routes of the silk road. The modern European violin evolved from various bowed stringed instruments from the Middle and the Byzantine Empire. It is most likely that the first makers of violins borrowed from three types of current instruments: the rebec, in use since the 10th century (itself derived from the Byzantine lyra and the Arabic rebab), the Renaissance fiddle, and the lira da braccio (derived from the Byzantine lira). One of the earliest explicit descriptions of the instrument, including its tuning, was in the Epitome musical by Jambe de Fer, published in Lyon in 1556. By this time, the violin had already begun to spread throughout Europe. The oldest documented violin to have four strings, like the modern violin, is supposed to have been constructed in 1555 by Andrea Amati, but the date is unknown. (Other violins, documented significantly earlier, only had three strings and were called violetta). Venice gave an important contribute to the birth of the violin that was called locally “lira”. In the 1510s (it means 50 years before the flourishing activity of Andrea Amati) in Venice seven “lireri” or makers of bowed instruments including protoviolins were present.

The violin immediately became very popular, both among street musicians and the nobility, illustrated by the fact that the French king Charles IX ordered Amati to construct 24 violins for him in 1560. One of these instruments, now called the Charles IX, is the oldest surviving violin. The finest Renaissance carved and decorated violin in the world is the Gasparo da Salò (1574 c.) owned by Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria and later, from 1841, by the Norwegian virtuoso Ole Bull, who used it for forty years and thousands of concerts, for his very powerful and beautiful tone, similar to those of a Guarneri. It is now in the Vestlandske Kustindustrimuseum in Bergen (Norway). “The Messiah” or “Le Messie” (also known as the “Salabue”) made by Antonio Stradivari in 1716 remains pristine. It is now located in the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford.


The Violin as a string instrument usually has four strings, tuned in perfect fifth. It is sometimes informally called a fiddle, regardless of the type of music played o it. The word “Violin” comes from the Medieval Latin word, vitula, meaning string instrument; this word is believed to be the source of the Germanic “fiddle”. It first emerged or has it ancient origins from Italy, early 16th century from the Brescia area (1585 – 1595). Brescia was the cradle of a magnificent school of string players.

The Most famous makers of violin are the Luthiers, between 16th and 18th Century. It is debated whether the first real violin was built by Andrea Amati, one of the famous Luthiers, but from history, he remains the inventor in 1555. Others did but, it was mainly three (3) string violins called Violetta.

The violin is a string instrument with four strings tuned in perfect 5th. It is the smallest, highest pitched members of the violin family which includes:

  • Viola
  • Violin
  • Cello
  • Double bass

All instrument names in the violin family are derived from the root “Viola”, a derivative of the Medieval Latin word, Vitula (String Instruments).

  • Violin à “little Viola”.
  • Violone à “Big Viola” or “Bass violin”.
  • Violon cello or “cello” à “Big Viola” or “Small big Viola”.

(N.B. Violone is not part of the modern violin family. Its place is taken over by the double bass)

The Double bass is an instrument with a mixture of Violin and Viol characteristics). The Viol is a string instrument best known as Viola da gamba developed in the Renaissance and Baroque period. The string instruments have ranges;

  • Violin à G3 to E7
  • Viola à C3 to A5
  • Cello à C2 to A5
  • Double bass à E1 to C5

Violinists and collector particularly prizes the instrument made by families in Brescia and Gemona which includes, Gasparo da salo, Giovanni Paolo Maggini, Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati and Jacob Stainer of Austria.

(N.B. A person who makes/repair a Violin is called a Luther; while someone who played the violin is called a violinist or fiddler.)

Violin is played by musicians in a wide variety of musical genres including:

  • Baroque Music
  • Classical
  • Jazz
  • Folk Music
  • Rock and Roll
  • Soft Rock


Between the 16th and 19th centuries, several changes occurred in the development of the violin. It includes:

  • The fingerboard was made a little longer to be able to play even the highest notes, in the 19th century.
  • The fingerboard was tilted a little more, to produce even more volume as larger and larger orchestras became popular.
  • Nearly all old instruments were modified, including lengthening of the neck by one centimetre, in response to the raising of pitch that occurred in the 19th century.
  • The bass bar of nearly all old instruments was made heavier to allow a greater string tension.
  • The classical luthiers nailed and glued the instrument necks to the upper block of the body before gluing on the soundboard, while later luthiers mortise the neck to the body after completely assembling the body.

The results of these adjustments are instruments that are significantly different in sound and response from those that left the hands of their makers. Regardless, most violins nowadays are built superficially resembling the old instruments.


Parts of the violin includes

  1. Scroll
  2. Neck
  3. Peg box
  4. Finger board
  5. Bridge
  6. F-Holes
  7. Waist
  8. Upper Bout
  9. Lower  Bout
  10.  Fine Tuners
  11.  Tailpiece
  12.  Chinrest
  13.  Sound post (located Inside the bout of the violin)
  14.  Strings


10.       DAVID OISTRAKH (1988 to 1974)

He was Russian and became world famous for his recordings and recitals of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto, as well the standards by Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn. He was friends with several prominent Russian composers, including Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khachaturian and Glazunov, all of whom wrote works dedicated to him, and which he premiered. Tchaikovsky’s Concerto was his favourite work, and some say he made the best recordings of it, which is a huge feather in any violinist’s cap. He described the last movement of it as the violin equivalent of running a 3-minute mile.

9.         FRITZ KREISLER (1875 to 1962)

Fritz Kreisler One of the first true masters of the pre-recording age to make his mark in the sound studio. Kreisler lived from 1875 to 1962, and was known for a very polite, charming tone quality, not bombastic or forceful, but technically perfect, as if he were asking the audience’s permission to show off now and then. He is typically contrasted with #5, whose technical abilities were just as perfect, but whose tone was much more aggressive, even in slow passages. Kreisler was one of the few classical musicians to die wealthy back then. He was known to be supremely polite and gentlemanly to everyone he met, and this has been noted as an abiding quality of his playing. He wrote what is, today, the most popular cadenza for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D.

8.         MISCHA ELMAN  

His admirers and the virtuosos today consider him to have been one of the greatest in the age of recording, along with #5. He had a pristine technique and a tone quality that #5 described as a photograph of my painting. The emotion he could express via his instrument was rich, full of passion and yet very refined, though lacking, perhaps, a little of the intensity and verve #5 expressed. He lived from 1891 to 1967, and #2 recommended him for the Imperial Academy of Music in Odessa, Ukraine. He could already play, at 11 years old, some of the most difficult pieces ever written, including Wieniawski’s 2nd Concerto. He was quite short, at about 5 feet 3 inches, and, along with his wide fingers, this hindered his ability to hit the very high notes. He practiced for years until he perfected his technique, and would bend over a bit during performances in order to play properly. It worked for him, and he used to say that he didn’t care what he looked like while he played. He is also the progenitor of the famous joke, when walking home one evening in New York City, from a poorly received recital, he was stopped by a passerby who intended to go to his performance, but was late. The passerby asked, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Elman winced and said, Practice, practice, practice! as he walked on.


Giuseppe Tartini Tartini lived from 1692 to 1770, and his origins on the violin are fun. His parents wanted him to be a friar, since that was one of the few careers that would guarantee he didnt starve. All monasteries taught basic music as part of their schooling. He took up fencing at the University of Padua, where he studied law, and after his father died, he married Elisabetta Premazone, whom his father would not have liked because she was of a lower class. But she was a mistress of Cardinal Giorgio Cornaro (there was more of a Cardinal in the bird than in him), who promptly accused Tartini of making off with her. So he fled, rather than be caught and excommunicated or killed. He went to the monastery of St. Francis of Assisi, and began studying the violin. He had a lot of talent for it, and the story goes that when he considered himself a master, he went to a performance of Francesco Veracini, whose playing made Tartini flee to Ancona and practice a lot more. By 1821, he was the primary performance rival of #3, famous all over Europe for his impeccable trills and tremolos. His most famous work makes extensive use of trills: the Devils Trill Sonata for solo violin (played above by notable extra Itzhak Perlman), in which the performer must play rapid, grueling double- stop trills. Many professionals today cannot handle it. Some say that Tartini heard the devil play it in a dream, and his composition the next morning was terrible compared to what he remembered.

6.         OLLE BULL

Ole Bull He is not an American Indian, as his name seems to suggest in English. He was Norwegian, and lived from 1810 to 1880, during which time he toured Europe concertizing with the likes of Franz Liszt, Clara (and Robert) Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn and others. Back then, the public didnt have TV to distract them until 7:00 in the evening, so they showed up at noon, with their lunch and supper, and the recitalists had to wow them for up to 6 hours. No one person can be expected to do this, of course, so various great performers would collaborate when passing by each others home towns. Robert Schumann considered Bull to have an uncommon clarity and precision in his technique, to the point that, no matter how fast the music got, Bull never missed a note, and you could hear them all just fine. Clara loved him more than any other violinist she heard in person. Not an easy virtuoso to outmatch, but as so often happens when ranking great performers before the recording age, at some point the rankings begin to split hairs. That is the case, save one or two entries, with this list.


Jascha Heifetz By far the greatest performer of the modern recording age. Born in 1901, died in 1987, he is one of the very few, if not the only one of, players who can hit the high note at the end of Tchaikovskys Violin Concerto and give it vibrato in

the fifth of a second or so of its playing time. He became legendary with his recording of Zigeunerweisen, written by another performer on this list, which showcases almost every technique a violinist par excellence should have. It became Heifetzs signature piece. After a slow segment, the fast part incorporates hair-raising pizzicato and bowing passages at the same time. Heifetz was more than equal to the task. His admirers have all expressed wonderment at his marvelous tone quality, however difficult the piece of music he was performing.


Arcangelo Corelli He was born in 1653, and his spot on this list may make you ask, how do you know how well he played? Well, even today, almost every violinist can trace his or her performance training back to Corelli. The techniques you hear performers using, fingering, bowing form and posture are all thanks to Corelli. He was famous throughout Western Europe in his own day as a performer of the highest order. He did not like the idea of playing very high notes. Not to say he couldnt, but he thought it always sounded screeching, however well anyone played. His own music almost never goes above D on the highest string. The story goes that Handel wrote an A above this in one of his oratorios, which the visiting Corelli refused to play. He thought it sounded terrible. Handel, an organist, proceeded to play it on his own violin, and Corelli was offended. I didnt say, Herr Handel, that I couldnt play it. I said it shouldnt be played. Handel himself remarked at the voracity with which Corelli could run through scales, faster than anyone else he had heard, and strike the perfect leaps, from octaves to 12ths, 15ths and more.


Antonio Vivaldi Vivaldi was 25 years Corellis junior, and became his primary virtuoso rival during Corellis latter years. Vivaldis music faded into obscurity after his death, until Fritz Kreisler and Alfred Casella revived it in the 20th Century. Today he is one of the three most popular Baroque composers, with Bach and Handel. He seems to have had asthma, and this prevented him from learning wind instruments, but not the violin, and by his twenties, he had become well known in much of Italy and France as a virtuoso of nearly unrivalled technical artistry. Even without that virtuosity, he would have landed a spot on this list for introducing the idea of tone painting, or representing images through music. This he did marvellously with his Four Seasons, which are four concerti intended to depict, in four movement each, the appearances of nature throughout the year. With the solo violin, which he played in their premieres, he depicts birds singing, lightning and thunderstorms, frozen lakes, etc. The technical demands in these pieces are quite high.

2.         PABLO DE SARASATE   

Pablo de Sarasate George Bernard Shaw once said of Sarasate that he left criticism gasping for miles behind him. He lived from 1844 to 1908, and we should consider ourselves supremely lucky to have some of his wax cylinder recordings, from around 1904, including his own piece, Zigeunerweisen (recording above). The recording capabilities back then were terrible for anything other than percussive sounds, like a piano or drums, unless the sound was directed straight into the megaphone. A violin can do neither very well, and it is difficult to hear all the passages of the piece, but they are there, and he doesnt miss a single note. His technique is actually a little more crystal clear than Heifetzs, without so much as one fuzzy or scraped note, but with all the  emotion and speed up to par and brilliant. Any violin virtuoso is inevitably compared with the next entry, and almost always somewhat unfavourably, but Sarasate was one of the rare exceptions whom people can actually hear perform.

  1. 1.                   NICCOLO PAGANINI

They say he sold his soul to the devil to be able to play so well. Some like to say that the devil was sure to have been in attendance at every one of his recitals. On a list of violin virtuosity, no one is allowed to top Paganini. Robert Schumann once said, who is most responsible for the foundation of Christianity? Paganini must stand on the same rung of the violins ladder. He lived from 1782 to 1840, and travelled Europe leaving the public in abject awe after every recital. He practiced 10 hours a day, by his own admission, and, coupled with his talent, he had no choice but to become as fluent on the violin as he was in Italian. Il Cannone has an extremely shallow bridge under the strings, enabling the player to play 4 notes at once with ease, but at the price of an extreme demand for technical precision. Paganini never missed a note. He wrote what remain, by far, the most difficult pieces of violin music of the worlds repertory. His very first opus number is comprised of his 24 Caprices for solo, the 24th of which, in a minor, is the most well known, having been transcribed for other instruments, and set to variations, by many great composers. Paganini could, according to Mendelssohn, who went to several of his recitals, play this caprice on one string. A violin has four strings, and the performer is supposed to use any one of them to facilitate scale runs, octave leaps, etc. Otherwise, very long fingers, and extraordinary dexterity and accuracy are required. His fingers were quite long, but there had been no cheats or tricks of any kind. He was simply well practiced.


Top 10 Greatest Violinists of all Time


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