The Invention of the Violin and the Spanish Guitar

While we can say a great deal about Greek musical theory and the general place of music in Antiquity, we can say much less with certainty about how ancient Greek music actually sounded like. They created a complex system of notation that was partly remembered in medieval Europe but which is nevertheless rather different from the one that was developed during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period. Both Plato and Aristotle stated that instrumental music was inferior to vocal music, a view that predominated until the Enlightenment. The Greeks had percussion instruments similar to cymbals or the tambourine.

Foremost among Greek instruments were those of the family of the lyre, a plucked string instrument, and the aulos, a reed wind instrument made of wood or bone with several finger holes that produced a high, clear, penetrating sound. These were associated, respectively, with the restrained music for the popular deity Apollo, the god of light, prophecy, archery, healing and music, and with the wilder, more excited sounds in honor of Dionysos, the god of wine.

The lyre was a medium-sized instrument usually fitted with seven strings made of sheep gut and plucked by a plectrum of metal or bone. It rarely played solo melodies, being used most often to accompany a solo singer, usually the player himself. The largest of all Greek string instruments was the kithara, an especially big lyre. It usually, but not always, had seven strings, but the resonator at the bottom was a sound-box made of wood rather than tortoise shell, as was often the case with lyres. It, too, was usually played with a plectrum. The word “guitar” for the somewhat different modern stringed instrument is derived from kithara.

In medieval times, various kinds of trumpets and horns were employed in Europe, in addition to bells and cymbals. Drums came in many different shapes and sizes and were used for military and dance purposes. Portative organs were small and were able to be moved around. The large, stationary organ was first widely introduced into European churches during the Late Middle Ages, from the 1300s on. Many of them were show pieces embodying the newest technology in metallurgy and scientific measurement. By the sixteenth century many churches had two organs, one large one at the back plus one smaller one. The largest of these had two keyboards for the hands and a pedal keyboard as well. Smaller, portative organs possessing a single keyboard were used during medieval times in churches and monasteries.

In addition to the organ, which has ancient roots, other musical instruments with a keyboard became popular during the Renaissance, prior to the invention of the piano. The clavichord is a stringed keyboard instrument, normally rectangular in shape with a decorated case. It was developed from the medieval monochord and was popular from late medieval times through the Baroque Age, and still has its share of enthusiasts today. However, it is a very soft and quiet musical instrument by modern standards. The harpsichord, another widely used keyboard instrument, probably first appeared during the 1400s, possibly in the Low Countries. The virginal was another, smaller member of the harpsichord family. In the Renaissance these keyboard instruments did not have legs or a stand, but were simply set upon a table.

The pear-shaped plucked string instrument known as the lute was also very popular. It probably has an Eastern or Asian origin, historically. Most early string instruments were plucked. Bowed string instruments apparently didn’t become common until the Middle Ages. Their origin is uncertain, although quite a few historians suspect it to be found among the horse-riding nomads of Central Asia, from where it may have spread to China and to Europe via the Middle East. The Byzantine lyra probably influenced instruments in medieval Europe. It is the rough equivalent of bowed string instruments such as the rabāb in the Islamic world.

In Spain, two new fretted string instruments related to the lute emerged in late medieval times and spread around the Western world. These were the vihuela (Spanish guitar) and the viol. Our modern, classical guitar is a direct descendant of the vihuela. Because it was plucked it was often called vihuela de mano (hand guitar). Related to it was a Spanish instrument called the vihuela de arco (bowed guitar), better known as the viol. The viol was developed in Spain in the late 1400s. It had six strings and was fretted and tuned like the lute and vihuela, but it was bowed, not plucked. It came in different sizes and was played with the instrument resting on the lap and legs. It is often called by its Italian name viola da gamba (leg viol). Having entered Italy from Spain, it quickly spread from there throughout Western Europe.

The violin is slightly younger than the viol and emerged in Renaissance Italy. It was portable and held off the shoulder.  Its small size caused it to produce higher pitches, and because of its brighter sound it was often preferred for dance music. Throughout the sixteenth century, the viol was considered the aristocrat of string instruments whereas the violin was more low-class, appropriate for semi-professional musicians to play for dancing in taverns. Not until the seventeenth century did it emerge as the dominant bowed string instrument. The violin family now consists of the violin, viola and cello along with the double bass. Italian instrument builders developed the art of violin-making to a peak that has never been surpassed.

Violins appeared after 1520 in northern Italian towns such as Mantua, Ferrara and above all Cremona. Antonio Stradivari (ca. 1644-1737) from Cremona was the most prominent member of a renowned family of instrument-makers. He is often known to the general public under the Latinized version of his name, Stradivarius, or the colloquial “Strad.” He was possibly a pupil of Nicolò Amati (1596-1684), who came from another Italian dynasty of violin-makers.

During his remarkably long life, Stradivari made or supervised the production of more than 1,100 instruments, including harps, guitars, violas and cellos. More than half of these survive and are still being used today by some of the world’s leading string players. He was a careful craftsman and selected woods of the highest possible quality. In fact, scientists are still struggling to explain exactly what set his instruments apart from others. His workshop was by the eighteenth century engaged in a healthy rivalry with that of the Guarneri family, among them Giuseppe Guarnieri (1698-1744). Norman Davies writes in his book Europe: A History:

“With the exception of Jacob Stainer (1617-78) in Tyrol, all the master violin-makers, from Maggini of Brescia to Amati and Stradivari of Cremona and Guarneri of Venice, were Italian. The art of violin-playing was greatly advanced by the development of systematic teaching methods, including those of Leopold Mozart and of G. B. Viotti. The Paris Conservatoire, from 1795, was the predecessor of similar institutions in Prague (1811), Brussels (1813), Vienna (1817), Warsaw (1822), London (1822), St Petersburg (1862), and Berlin (1869). A striking feature of violin-playing from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries was the marked predominance of East Europeans. The phenomenon may possibly reflect the traditions of fiddle-playing among Jews and Gypsies, and more probably the special status of music-making in politically repressed cultures. At all events, Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) was for a long time the first and last of the ‘greats’ who was not either East European or Jewish or both. Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) of Vienna and Henryk Wieniawski (1835-80), a Pole from Lublin who helped launch the St Petersburg school, were founders of the magnificent line which ran through Kreisler, Ysaye, and Szigeti to Heifitz, Milstein, Oistrakh, Szeryng, and Isaac Stern. All played their ‘Strads’.”