Just what is it about a violin anyway? I took it up in the 1760s, but Leopold was such a meanie, to his son of course, but to me, an aristocrat! A couple of centuries later, I attempted the cello, thinking its greater size would better suit my large hands, but alas. The world is a better place for my surrender.
I am in total awe and admiration of the string players. My own instrument, the piano, seems so crude in comparison. Well, so I won’t compare.
With the evolution of the “modern” violin, which is really old, from the “chest” of viols (and lutes as well, hence the term “luthier” for violin maker), guitarists have exclaimed: “What, no frets?! How do you know where to put your fingers?” And students have fretted over that ever since.
Cremona, Italy became the epicenter of the art of violin making in the early 17th century. The honor roll inspires costly dreams and envy in the hearts of string professionals everywhere: Amati, Stradivari, Guarneri (del Gesù, no less). How did they “know” the proper acoustic properties to derive from pieces of maple and poplar, with mysterious varnishes, themselves the stuff of legend, without scientific equipment?
And let’s not forget the “business” end of the thing: the bow, made of endangered pernambuco wood from Brazil, and strung with the tail hair of Chinese horses.
Then there’s the whole “demonic” thing. Paganini, possibly the greatest violinist of all time, or at least the most savvy “pre-P.R.” violinist, did nothing to discourage rumors that he was in league with Satan himself. But a century before Paganini, Tartini composed his “Devil’s Trill” sonata, the supposed result of dictation taken during a particularly feverish dream.
Or, the “angelic” thing: How about Alma Rosé, violinist and daughter of a celebrated violinist (and Mahler’s niece)? While imprisoned at Auschwitz in WWII, she founded a women’s orchestra in the camp, directly saving the lives of approximately 43 women, even those who played no instrument, though she perished from disease before freedom was attained.
Just the parts of the violin alone sometimes sound more like a trip to the veterinarian: neck, tailpiece, saddle, ribs, belly. Let’s not forget the nut, pegs, fingerboard, bridge, purfling, soundpost, bass bar, and F hole. That’s not a swear word, like A-hole. It refers to those two curvy openings on the front that allow the sound to resonate outward.
The small size of the violin makes it eminently portable, ready to go anywhere and sing with almost human tones its melodies, or, in the case of Bach, polyphonies. The six sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin by Bach were not the first of their genre, but have been the most memorable for as long as players have struggled to master them. Later, Belgian master Eugène Ysaÿe would create six more of his own, inspired by the Bach pieces.
All that music coming out of just four strings stretched taut, and a bow drawn across them with just the right amount of pressure and speed.
As Einstein once said: “A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit, and a violin, what else does a man need to be happy?”
© 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs