Violin

Courtesy of Yamaha
🔊
🔊

Pitch range

Violin pitch range, courtesy of Hannah Whale

The violin can do so much: singing, shouting, leaping, whispering, whining, making sounds that are high and wispy, low and gutsy, warm and mellow, soft and silky, shrill and loud… It is suited both to being in the spotlight and being one of a team.

It’s the highest and most agile member of the string family. For over three centuries, many people have seen the violin as the most extraordinary and beautiful instrument ever invented.

It is at home in a whole variety of situations (solo music, orchestral music, chamber music, folk, pop, world, jazz).

From around 1600 to today, the violins have been at the heart of the orchestra, and the ‘leader’ is a violinist.

Nicolò Paganini was such an amazing wizard on the violin in the 19th century that people thought he was in league with the devil. They couldn’t understand how he could play such complicated music, using so many clever effects (pizzicato, harmonics etc.). He would even wow audiences with tricks, such as playing a really difficult piece on one string, having snapped off the other three on purpose!

Inside the orchestra

Plan of the orchestra showing the violins, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Plan of the orchestra showing the violins

The violin section is the largest: there are often around 30. They’re divided into first violins (playing the highest parts) and second violins (playing a bit lower down). The leader of the whole orchestra is a first violinist, and sits at the front. In a concert, the leader comes on stage separately, just before the conductor, and gets a round of applause.

Violins are given a lot of wonderful, soaring melodies: the visual effect of 30 bows rushing up and down at exactly the same time, producing a full and satisfying sound, is very dramatic. The leader may also be given a solo: the clear, sweet sound of the violin can be heard right above the orchestra.

In the 1780s a Frenchman called François Tourte made a brilliant bow. It was thinner, longer and more flexible. It became the model for all others.

 

Violin bow

Violin bow

Outside the orchestra

Solo pieces: No shortage of these, for violin and piano, or just violin.

World music: The violin is played in many other kinds of music, especially folk music, from Scotland (‘folk fiddle’) to Hungary (‘gypsy’ violin) to India.

Concertos: Masses of these exist, where the spotlight is on one violinist at the front of the stage, with the orchestra playing behind.

Chamber music: Duets, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets etc. – sometimes for strings only, sometimes with other instruments.

String quartets (for four people) are very important: the first violin plays the highest part, the second violin plays a bit lower, the viola plays a bit lower than that, and the cello plays at the bottom.

Jazz: The violin is sometimes found here. Stephane Grappelli was a famous French jazz violinist.

Pop music: Electric violins, which produce their sound using electricity, are sometimes used in pop music.

Violinist in playing position, courtesy of Tony Morrell

Violinist in playing position

The great physicist Albert Einstein was a good and enthusiastic violinist: he played chamber music and taught the instrument. But apparently, in a rehearsal of a Haydn string quartet, he failed for the fourth time to begin playing his part at the correct time. So the cellist looked up and said, ‘The problem with you, Albert, is that you simply can’t count.’ What an extraordinary thing to say to Albert Einstein!

To play it

  1. Take the top of the violin in your left hand.
  2. Bring the instrument round so that the bottom sits underneath your chin.
  3. With your right hand, draw the bow across the strings, or pluck them.

 

For more about the violin’s construction, how the sound is made, and its special effects, go to the String Family section.

Find out more about the development of the Violin in .

A Little History of the Violin

Compared with the flute or the harp, the violin is a newcomer. It’s not an ancient instrument (although string instruments have existed all over Europe since before 1,000). The rebec, fiddle and lira da braccio were all important early instruments for the development of the violin.

Around the 1550s, the violin started to make people sit up and listen: it was clear to everyone that this was a breakthrough development for string instruments. It soon replaced its Renaissance predecessors, because it was better at everything it had to do.

Arcangelo Corelli, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Arcangelo Corelli

Violin making

The centre of violin making was Italy: makers such as Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri produced such exceptional instruments that still nobody fully understands how they’re so impressive.

Composer-violinists

As violin making began to thrive in Italy, composer-violinists started popping up too. They raised the art of violin playing to new standards.

The first master composer-violinist was Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713). As well as getting all the bows in the violin section of the orchestra to go in the same direction, he wrote music that really let the violins sing. He was closely followed by a lot of other ‘i’s: Tartini, Torelli, Albinoni, Vivaldi, Geminiani, Locatelli.

Music for strings and harpsichord by Arcangelo Corelli

Concerto grosso in D major, Op. 6 No. 1, VII. Allegro

Anna Hölbling, violin; Quido Hölbling, violin; Ludovít Kanta, cello; Daniela Ruso, harpsichord; Capella Istropolitana; Jaroslav Krček. Naxos 8.550602

The Bow

Then came Tourte’s brilliant bow. In the 1780s François Tourte produced a bow to match Stradivari’s ‘perfect’ violin, and he’s never been forgotten. As well as being thinner and more flexible, his bow was longer than previous ones: about 75 cm for the violin.

Violin bow

Violin bow

Virtuosi

By around 1800 the evolution of the violin was almost complete – only the chin-rest was yet to come. Violin ‘virtuosi’ – stunningly good players like Nicolò Paganini and Joseph Joachim – appeared in the 19th century. They were given suitably challenging concertos to show off with: those by Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky are among the most famous.

Today

The violin still attracts top musicians, and standards of playing have soared to incredible levels. The number of violinists who can perform with breathtaking skill is astonishing – yet they were all beginners once…

Corelli said that no longer could one person in a section be bowing upwards while another bowed downwards: they must do the same things at the same time. Messy bowing wasn’t tolerated! If just one person was out of line, Corelli would stop the whole orchestra. He had high standards! These days, string players in each section of a professional orchestra always bow in unison.

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 How many strings does a violin have?

a. 3
b. 4
c. 5

 Which of these people was famous for dazzling audiences on the violin?

a. Puccini
b. Fellini
c. Paganini

 To play it, you hold the violin under your what?

a. Chin
b. Arm
c. Leg

 What is it called when the violinist plucks the strings?

a. Pizzicato
b. Agitato
c. Gelato

 In an orchestra, what is the most important violinist called?

a. Maestro
b. Soloist
c. Leader

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Selected Violin Extracts

Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
The Four Seasons: Spring: I. Allegro (extract)

Is it a violin, or is it the birds in spring? Vivaldi’s four violin concertos called The Four Seasons are unbelievably famous. They are brilliantly descriptive, making you picture all sort of things that are found in each season of the year. The first concerto is called ‘Spring’, and here it is describing the springtime birds. (You can hear all four seasons if you go to Composers/Vivaldi and scroll down to ‘Play More Music!’.)

Performers: Takako Nishizaki, violin; Capella Istropolitana; Stephen Gunzenhauser

Taken from Naxos 8.553219

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64. I. Allegro molto appassionato (extract)

This is a taste of one of the greatest violin concertos ever written.

Performers: Takako Nishizaki, violin; Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Kenneth Jean

Taken from Naxos 8.550153

Jules Massenet (1842–1912)
Thaïs: Meditation (extract)

The solo violin soars beautifully here, and you can hear the harp underneath, along with the rest of the string instruments playing softly.

Performers: János Selmeczi, violin; Camerata Transylvanica; György Selmeczi

Taken from Naxos 8.553509

Nicolò Paganini (1782–1840)
Violin Caprice No. 24 in A minor (extract)

Just listen to the acrobatics here!

Performers: Ilya Kaler, violin

Taken from Naxos 8.550717

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture (extract)

All the violins in the orchestra are scurrying around together, bows rushing up and down at the same time.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Anthony Bramall

Taken from Naxos 8.554433

Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908)
Scheherazade: I. The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship (extract)

One violin – the leader – plays a starring solo role in this work.

Performers: David Nolan, violin; Philharmonia Orchestra; Enrique Bátiz

Taken from Naxos 8.550726

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Symphony No. 1: II. Andante sostenuto (extract)

The whole violin section of the orchestra soars passionately over the top of the music.

Performers: BRT Philharmonic Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.550278

Johann Strauss II (1825–1899)
Pizzicato Polka (extract)

The sound is completely different here as all the violins are played pizzicato (plucked) – so the players don’t use their bows at all, but pluck the strings with their fingers, creating this bouncy effect.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Alfred Walter

Taken from Naxos 8.554523

Giuseppe Tartini (1692–1770)
‘The Devil’s Trill’ Sonata (extract)

According to a legend, the Baroque composer Tartini dreamt that the Devil appeared at the end of his bed and the dream inspired him to write this fearsome sonata! It has double-stopping trills – playing two notes together and then trilling (alternating two notes very fast) on both at the same time. It’s very tricky for the violinist!

Performers: Bin Huang, violin; Hyun-Sum Kim, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.555960

Dave Swarbrick (1941–2016)
My Heart’s in New South Wales

The violin (or ‘fiddle’) is also a folk instrument. Dave Swarbrick, also known as ‘Swarb’, was a well-known English folk violinist and singer-songwriter. Here he plays one of his own compositions for violin and guitar.

Performers: Dave Swarbrick, violin; Kevin Dempsey, guitar

Taken from Naxos 76045-2

Violin and Orchestra

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Concerto for two violins in D minor, BWV 1043

Concertos come in all different shapes and sizes. This one by J.S. Bach has two solo instruments: a pair of violins. All the string instruments knit together so neatly that it can be difficult to pick out the soloists sometimes: it’s easier when you see them live, standing at the front of the stage! Like Bach’s Concerto in A minor for solo violin, this work is much loved. There is energy when it is fast and beauty when it is slow – beauty that is difficult to put into words. Listen to the slow movement (track 2) and see what you think. At the beginning of this movement, one of the solo violins begins the tune: see if you can hear the second one take over at 0.16. They keep doing this kind of thing all the way through, developing the music bit by bit as a perfect pair.

Performers: Christine Pichlmeier, violin; Lisa Stewart, violin; Cologne Chamber Orchestra; Helmut Müller-Brühl

Taken from Naxos 8.554603

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216

Bright and attractive, Mozart’s violin concertos are often found in concerts. He wrote five of them. Concertos have sections called ‘cadenzas’, where the orchestra stops and the solo instrument plays something completely alone – usually something that shows off the instrument and/or the player. Here, the cadenzas (one in the first movement, 6.13–7.22, and one in the second movement, 5.24–6.28) are by the violinist himself but still in the style of Mozart’s writing.

Performers: Henning Kraggerud, violin; Norwegian Chamber Orchestra

Taken from Naxos 8.573513

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61

It’s not often that timpani (kettle-drums) begin a piece of music – but here they are! Four isolated notes on just one of them, before a big introduction from the orchestra begins. The solo violin climbs in at 3.16. It’s a long concerto, and one of the best known. The cadenza of the first movement begins at 20.21, with the violin warming up to its acrobatics: this is its chance to shine alone. At 20.56 it plays the tune but also a supporting, accompanying line: this is ‘double-stopping’ – playing more than one note at once. Lasting nearly three minutes, it’s a big cadenza: the orchestra doesn’t come back in until 23.49.

Performers: Takako Nishizaki, violin; Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Kenneth Jean

Taken from Naxos 8.550149

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64

One of the most perfect and popular of violin concertos. It was unusual at the time for the solo part of a concerto to begin straight away without an introduction by the orchestra: listen to how the solo violin is in charge right from the start here! There are also no gaps between the three movements – another bold move from Mendelssohn. So from 12:08 movement 1 (track 1) builds dramatically and lands on a final chord… but what’s that? There’s a note dangling from the bassoon! That note guides us smoothly, seamlessly into the next movement (track 2), like a little footbridge over water. And the violin gets ready to sing again. (In a performance or even on a CD, there would be no break at all – the slight break here is only because the recording is online.)

Performers: Tianwa Yang, violin; Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä; Patrick Gallois

Taken from Naxos 8.572662

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77

The German Romantic composer Johannes Brahms wrote this Violin Concerto for his friend Joseph Joachim. As usual with concertos, there are three movements. 1 and 3 sound powerful and tough. Sandwiched between them, like a jewel, is a beautiful slow movement (Adagio means ‘Slow’). This Violin Concerto is one of the greatest (among thousands) ever written.

Performers: Ilya Kaler, violin; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Pietari Inkinen

Taken from Naxos 8.570321

Pablo de Sarasate (1844–1908)
Zigeunerweisen (‘Gypsy Airs’), Op. 20

The Spanish composer Pablo de Sarasate was also one of the best violinists of his time. In 1878 he composed Zigeunerweisen, based on musical themes of the Roma people. It has four sections. If you listen at 7.07, you’ll find the music comes to life after a slow and melancholy section, with the violin rushing around; at 8.17, can you hear how the violinist has to swap between bowed and plucked (pizzicato) notes, really quickly?

Performers: Tianwa Yang, violin; Navarre Symphony Orchestra; Ernest Martínez Izquierdo

Taken from Naxos 8.572191

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
The Lark Ascending

This piece shows Vaughan Williams’s love of folksong and his love of the violin. It describes the English countryside, and the flight of a bird called a skylark. Can you imagine the bird flying as you listen?

Performers: David Greed, violin; English Northern Philharmonia; David Lloyd-Jones

Taken from Naxos 8.553955

Philip Glass (b.1937)
Violin Concerto No. 1

Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto has the solo violin whirling around and above the orchestra. The first and third movements are punchy, while in the middle is a tender movement where the violin seems almost to cry. la wrote the concerto in memory of his father, and said, ‘His favourite form was the violin concerto, and so I grew up listening to the Mendelssohn, the Paganini, the Brahms concertos… I wanted to write one that my father would have liked.’

Performers: Adele Anthony, violin; Ulster Orchestra; Takuo Yuasa

Taken from Naxos 8.554568

John Williams (b.1932)
Schindler’s List: Main Title Theme

This heartfelt music comes from a film called Schindler’s List, which is about the story of the Jews in World War II. It begins with a solo from the cor anglais, which sounds like a deeper, darker oboe. Then there is the violin, speaking of sadness – and maybe a little hope…

Performers: Thelma Handy, violin; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Carl Davis

Taken from Naxos 8.578215

Solo Violin & Violin and Piano

Nicolò Paganini (1782–1840)
Violin Caprice No. 1 in E major

Nicolò Paganini was so amazing at playing the violin, people thought he was connected with the devil! They couldn’t understand how anyone could do such clever things on the instrument. He travelled as a ‘virtuoso’ (someone who displays exceptional ability and skill), performing on the violin and wowing audiences as he went. He composed 24 Caprices which have been a great challenge for violinists ever since. Can you hear how the bow is bouncing quickly across the strings here to make a kind of bubbly sound? This is a technique called ‘spiccato’.

Performers: Ilya Kaler, violin

Taken from Naxos 8.550717

Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
Salut d’amour (‘Love’s Greeting’)

One of the best things the violin can do is play a lovely melody that you can sing, or even whistle, for a long time afterwards. The melody of Salut d’amour (‘Love’s Greeting’) became one of the most popular ever written by the English composer Edward Elgar. He gave the piece as a present to his future wife, Alice.

Performers: Takako Nishizaki, violin; Jenó Jandő, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.578215

Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
Slavonic Dance in G minor, B. 170 (arrangement by Fritz Kreisler of Op. 46 No. 2)

This is a gentle dance, for violin and piano. Sometimes the violinist bows one string at a time, so you hear the tune in clear notes. But can you spot when the violinist is playing two strings at once? Instead of hearing one clear note you hear two together. It means the violin is creating a chord – a thicker sound that is satisfying to listen to.

Performers: Takako Nishizaki, violin; Jenó Jandő, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550306

Antonio Bazzini (1818–1897)
La Ronde des lutins (‘The Dance of the Goblins’), Op. 25

This is a ‘Dance of the Goblins’ – and it sounds like these goblins dance very fast! The bow is bouncing along the string and the fingers are running up and down the fingerboard furiously as the music scampers along. The violinist is playing at top speed and the piano is keeping up brilliantly… Can you hear little ‘pings’ every now and again when the violinist plucks the strings?

Performers: Chloë Hanslip, violin; Caspar Frantz, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.578215

Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
Humoresque No. 7 in G flat major, Op. 101 (arranged by Fritz Kreisler)

This playful, jaunty little piece is another by the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák that was originally written for piano only: again, the Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler arranged it for violin and piano, giving the most important bits to the violin! You can hear the violinist making the most of it – it’s as if the violin is cuddling the melody all the way through, enjoying every moment.

Performers: Takako Nishizaki, violin; Jenó Jandő, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.578215

Vittorio Monti (1868– 1922)
Csárdás

The violin has been important in Hungarian gypsy music for many years. Even in modern Hungary, with its technology and smart devices, Hungarians love to hear a violin played like this: fast and furious! The other instruments playing include the cimbalom – an instrument with strings that sounds a bit like a very old piano. The slow sections build up the excitement… Shout a Hungarian ‘hurrá!’ when you hear the fast music!

Performers: Ferenc Santa Jr. Gypsy Band

Taken from Naxos 8.578215

Chamber Music

Béla Bartók (1881–1945)
44 Duos for two violins, Sz. 98, BB 104: Book 1

Bartók wrote these duos (duets) for two violins to help students practise and develop. There are 44 in total, arranged in four books, which go from easy to more difficult. Here is Book 1. Can you hear the two separate violins? As always with Bartók, folk music is never far away – these duos are based on the folk music of Hungary and other Eastern European countries. Sometimes there are unexpected, clashing notes, even in the easiest pieces: for Bartók, simplicity didn’t mean a lack of colour!

Performers: György Pauk, violin; Kazuki Sawa, violin

Taken from Naxos 8.550868

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49

One of the many remarkable things about the violin is how it goes so well with other instruments. A ‘piano trio’ means violin, cello and piano. As with a lot of Mendelssohn’s chamber music, his Piano Trio in D minor is joyful both for the musicians and the listeners. The cello starts it off, then the violin comes in at 0.18, taking over the melody and developing it. Listen to the expressive slow movement (track 2) – the phrases are perfectly formed, and all three instruments are expressive. Can you hear the cello’s pizzicato (plucking) at 4.08? It helps the piano to accompany the violin’s high melody, before both violin and cello accompany the piano’s melody. They are like three great friends on the same scenic walk – up hill, down hill, pause to take in the view, run through a field, and relax…

Performers: Gould Piano Trio

Taken from Naxos 8.555063

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
String Quartet No. 19 in C major, K. 465, ‘Dissonance’

A string quartet has two violins, in addition to a viola lower down and a cello lower down still. There’s a truly mysterious beginning to this one by Mozart. It is this beginning that gives it the nickname ‘dissonance’, which means notes that clash. The instruments enter in order of bottom to top: cello, viola, second violin, first violin. But after just under two minutes of this curious music, something more cheerful breaks through (at 1.50). Mozart, along with Haydn and Beethoven, helped to perfect the form of the string quartet.

Performers: Moyzes Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.550105

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
String Quartet No. 6 in B flat major, Op. 18 No. 6

Many composers have enjoyed writing for a string quartet because the sound of the four instruments is neat and balanced. Beethoven’s quartets came a little after Haydn’s and Mozart’s, so he built on what those composers had already achieved. This one, No. 6 (of 16 in total), was part of a set published in 1801. Listen to the cheerful beginning: it’s as if the violin starts to tell a story, then the cello chips in (0.06), and the violin repeats it, as if to say ‘yes, that’s right!’ Chamber music is often like conversation between friends.

Performers: Kodály Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.550560