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Old and new violins

ONE OF THE REASONS why Italy had so many great violin composers was that it was also the foremost centre for violin-making of the time.

Overall the 17th-century violin is very similar to that of the 20th century, although there are some important differences. Both have a similarly shaped body and four strings which are tuned by pegs at the end of the neck. Both use a bow that is drawn across the strings, which are stretched between two holding pins, one being the peg in the neck of the violin, the other in the tail. Between these the strings are pulled across a raised piece of wood on the belly of the violin called a bridge.

But here the similarity ends. In Stradivarius’s day (the Italian Antonio Stradivari made some of the world's most prized violins) the strings were made of gut, the bridge was slightly lower than nowadays and the fingerboard was shorter and placed straighter in relation to the body of the violin.

Most of the changes in violin-making took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The chin-rest, for example, was introduced by the 19th-century virtuoso and composer Louis Spohr (1784-1859). By the time Beethoven composed his Violin Concerto the violin was quite a different instrument to the one Vivaldi had written his concertos for.

Why? Several things contributed to this change. One was the need to produce a bigger sound to fill larger concert-halls. Another was so that the violin could be heard in a concerto, where it had to play against an ever-growing orchestra in which many of the instruments had undergone their own changes, resulting in louder and louder sounds. Bit by bit the violin was becoming the instrument for which Mendelssohn in the 19th century composed his concerto.

However, it wasn't until much later that gut strings gave way to metal strings, metal covering gut, or even plastic strings.

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