The Violin in History
The violin knows all about history. People have plucked and bowed for centuries; barely out of caves, having scraped a hole in the dirt to grow a pallid turnip or two, they picked out their first tentative tunes on the tromba marina: a wooden vessel resonating to a single string adjusted by a movable bridge. Fingers slid up and down the string between the bow and the bridge, producing a limited range of notes. A taxing discipline —and requiring more skill than one might expect—to coax music from a construction little more complex than a cigar box traversed by a rubber band.
Then one day, someone with an active imagination and a full stomach thought, “Well, we’ve got enough turnips for now. Why don’t we add another string to this thing?” And so were born the crwth and the rebec, the rebec boasting three vibrating filaments, just one less than the modern violin. Scales climbed higher and deeper, chords were invented; harmony joined melody in its flight through the air.
Despite this increased range and versatility, ancestral violins were considered mere folk instruments, their squawking and wailing suitable only for accompanying the heel-toe heel-toe and twirl your partner of a village dance. It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the violin received serious consideration by court musicians; the band that entertained the first Queen Elizabeth included seven lusty fiddlers. (Old King Cole, you may remember, merry as he was, only had three.)
This was the beginning of the great age of violin making in Italy. While Shakespeare’s blank verse filled lungs and hearts in London, Andrea Amati’s chisel carved songs out of wood in Cremona. His sons Geronimo and Antonio, and, most notably, his grandson Nichola, who perfected the form, followed him. Nichola’s apprentice, Antonio Stradivari, was to become the most celebrated of the Cremona masters, with the exception of Giuseppe Guarneri, born a generation later. Their violins are still prized above all others. ut of the 1200 instruments made by Stradivari only 540 violins, 12 violas, and 50 cellos still exist. Almost half have vanished.
How did they vanish — spontaneous combustion due to an excess of Paganini? Or one by one, each a reluctant sacrifice, given a dearth of firewood in the remote Alps winter after wolf-haunted winter?
Life is full of mysteries. For example, I know an ordinary family driven mad by the sight of a piano in their living room. The thing just sat there, elephantine, refusing to move, so they chopped it to bits with an axe, deaf to its death-trumpetings across the savannah of stain-resistant nylon carpet.
Among musical mysteries is the multi-hued sonority of a Cremona violin. Theories are manifold: perhaps the wood used for these elusive instruments floated first across the salty Mediterranean, its chemistry being thereby minutely altered, or a fine layer of volcanic ash coated the wood before the varnish was applied, or the lustrous varnish itself contained some mysterious unknown compound. All these explanations are organic and physical; the results potentially reproducible. We think that if we find the right materials we can achieve the same magic.
But maybe the magic, maybe the element no laboratory has been able to isolate in varnish or in wood, is simply time itself. These are old violins. For two or three or four hundred years, song has warmed the air inside them; loving hands have stroked their bellies and backs, quick fingers danced on their strings, tears rolled down cheeks onto their shining sides. A Cremona violin carries within it an atlas of emotions — epithalamium and elegy, the history of families, of cities, of countries at war and at peace. It knows more than any single musician, and brings that knowledge to each note it plays.
Music, everyone says, is the art of time.
© copyright Susan Glickman 1999