Its amazing to see how people from cultures around the world make art. What is even more amazing is the fact that many people can appreciate art from other cultures even before they fully understand its story. That is because of our shares experiences, things like joy, sorrow, challenges and victories. When we look at art as a communication of our human experiences we can see a distinct connection between truth, nature, and art. The violin for example became so popular very soon after its birth because of it’s connection to truth and nature and the ability people have to use it to express human emotions. This becomes apparent when we look at when and where the violin came to be and what else was going on at the time.
The violin emerged around 1550 in Northern Italy and has had minor alterations made to its construction since then (all having do to with volume, range expansion. I’m not talking here about the electric violin which is another topic). The earliest clear evidence we have for the violin are the paintings of Gaudenzio Ferrari who painted for churches near the city of Milan located in modern day Northern Italy, the earliest of these being ‘La Madonna degli aranci’ (Madonna of the Orange Trees) which he painted c. 1529 – 30 (David D. Boyden, “The History of Violin Playing from it’s Origins to 1761”, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, 7). The violin in this painting has only three strings, but it didn’t take long for the fourth string, the famous “E” string, to be added. In his L’Epitome musical of 1556, the French composer and theorist Jambe de Fer described the modern violin for the first time in history. Instantly, historically speaking, the violin gained international popularity with Italian violinists traveling to the courts of France and England. Violinists were recorded as being part of ‘The King’s Music’ in England from 1555, and Charles IX apparently commissioned multiple violins from the Italian Andre Amati. Today in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, we can still see two Amati instruments bearing the arms of France (Boyden, 35). These are just a couple examples of evidence of how quickly the violin came to be played accros the continent. Now the violin is know in musical cultures around the world.
So that described what happened, but we still haven’t talked about why. What was it that made the violin so desirable to people in Europe during the 1500’s and following? When we look at what was happening musically and aesthetically during this time the answer becomes very simple. People had an interest in the human and in nature. They had an interest in connecting the emotional power of music to actual compositions. If we look at the music of the middle ages it is very different from the music of the Renaissance. In music of the Medieval ages, music is an event in itself. It doesn’t talk about anything else. It just is. There was no connection made between text and music, even though modes were connected to emotions theoretically (to compare Medieval and Renaissance music, see http://daniellecumminsviolinist.com/music-appreciation-historical-eras-classes-6/). Whereas composers of the Renaissance consciously used sound, harmony, rhythm, etc. to express human emotions and things they saw in the world. This was part of a widespread interest in expressing the world and the human experience through art. When we look at the paintings of Michelangelo and Raphael and compare them to the Medieval paintings from earlier eras we can see a definite change, an immediacy and connection to our own human lives and a real connection to nature. And what better instrument than the violin to depict human emotion? It is said even to day that this instrument sounds most closely to the human voice.
These priorities flowered in Monteverdi and his opera “Orfeo” written in 1607 in Mantua. The violins present in this composition directly answer the voices and also express human emotions on their own as we can hear in the overture. I believe it is impossible to imagine “Orfeo” without the violin.
This was a highly experimental time. People were making observations everywhere and exploring everything. The result was tumultuous, but it was also a time of great artistic growth, an exciting time of discovery. The violin is just one of the ways people stepped out of the norm, observed what they saw in nature, and expressed what they felt as human beings. This honesty and daring is something to be admired and even emulated even today.
BTW, you can actually download the facsimile of Philibert Jambe de Fer’s treatise at www.greatbassviol.com/treat/jambe.pdf