Once upon a time, in an age forgotten by time itself, at the dawn of a humanity whose secrets remain a mystery to archeologists, historians, and scholars alike, a taut vibrating string made itself heard…
Yehudi Menuhin – The Violin, 1996
Tracing the origins of the violin is not easy
John Dilworth – The violin and bow, 1992
Its exact historical origins remain unclear, and there is still lively argument among many researchers who have attempted to trace them…
Dominic Gill – The Book of the Violin, 1984
The shape of the violin… emerged during the middle of the 16th century, in Italy, having been gradually evolved from the rebec, a small bowed instrument of medieval times… The origin of such instruments… such as the rebec… can be traced back into the distant past…
Freda Dinn – Music, 1953
and despite the most patient and laborious research on the part of famous savants, no positive information has as yet been furnished regarding this point…
Alberto Bachmann – An Encyclopedia of the Violin, 1925
In no subject of research, perhaps, has the Antiquary so many difficulties to contend with as in the consideration of the ‘Ancestry of the Violin,’ and the study of the precursors of instruments of music played with a bow…
Ed.Heron Allen – Violin Making as it was and is, 1882
Despite all contrary assertions, based upon pretended monuments, Oriental, Greek, and Roman antiquity was unacquainted with instruments played with a bow. Neither India nor Egypt furnish the least traces of them… nor in fact, does the whole of the old civilised world.
F.J. Fetis – Sketch of the History of the Violin , c.1880
The Fiddle Family, like other tribes that have succeeded in making a noise in the world, has given exercise to the ingenuity of learned theorists and time-seekers, who have laboured to discover for it an origin as remote from our own era, as it is, I fear, from any kind of truth…
George Dubourg – The Violin, 1852
Reviewing The Violin in the Modern World
Over time, the written word decays. The Dead Sea Scrolls and Egyptian Hieroglyphs are just two examples of many Mysteries that thousands of years on are still explored and studied with theories abounding, argument and debate sometimes raging. The fact that they have so far survived is crucial to understanding the past and in many cases the mystery is enjoyment in itself. Their facts cannot be ignored, even if their truth is veiled greatly.
The violin, a musical instrument found in countries across the globe, is like language. It varies in appearance from place to place. Used widely in all kinds of music making, it has a long and colourful history. Some of the violin’s history and development can only be guessed at. Exact details are only known to the generations that experienced the events at first hand.
Has the electric violin killed the acoustic art? It has raised the general standard of the profession of violinists. Barely maintaining any resemblance to the ancestors of the violin beyond still being played with bow on strings, the electric violin has swept into the violinist’s life with almost no explanation. If there was any doubt, there is the hidden electric violin, the one that looks completely normal; a traditional or classical violin with microphone, pickup or transducer positioned more or less discreetly, now so very often with electricity somewhere between player and listener’s experience. The band wagon for making electric violins and being an electric violinist started years ago yet more and more people are joining it. Try to look further and you are probably stuck, maybe caught in a loop and hopefully staring at this here!
Common throughout research into any aspect of history is the lost in the mists of time cut off point. Works on the violin start at this improvable beginning point and lead off from there.
Violin history was repeating itself as the second millenium came to a close. Not a case of a significant but minor adjustment barely noticed by the audience, as in the successful or improved shoulder rest or chin support. Here was something as different as seeing and hearing the violin family for the first time maybe. Witnesses to events in the violin’s history in the early 1900s held the vitality of first hand experience. Time has marched on and inevitably there are those who have left without imparting their knowledge. The familiar stories of the ravages of time have also already concealed much for the story of the electric violin. No-one knows for sure who made the first electric violin. In theory the first working model may have appeared well over 100 years ago but those people have died. Instruments and documents have disappeared; records being destroyed, lost or simply never kept. Disputes still rise over the ownership and legitimacy of the electric stringed instrument sound. However, the atmosphere is more positively accepting.
What is undeniable is the gradual change to the sound of the violin. In broad terms the violin has increased the potential volume of sound but so too the levels of subtle nuance available to the player have grown considerably, principally through the acceptance of the electric microphone. Laughably there are those who still think the sound of the violin is heard as it was in the Nineteenth Century as an acoustic non-electrified sound! This is true, they really do. However ridiculous a notion, nothing seemingly will open some people’s ears to the fact that the many millions of us around the globe enjoying listening to music featuring the sound of that common family of violin are in fact hearing it via the medium of electricity. Only fanatics choose a hand-cranked phonograph over modern hi-fi these days?!? At some point in the journey from musician to audience the electric microphone, amplifier and speaker appeared and wedged itself permanently between the two. As gradual changes are made to structural design of violins it seems clear that when an instrument develops to perfection it stays where it is, developmentally. Listening to, looking at and reading about violins around the world is akin to experiencing freeze frames of violin history. Frames are missing as some are yet to be found.
One such frame in history is Niccolo Paganini, one of the last generations of violinists to live in the unrecorded world of sound. The gap between his death in 1842 and the first known recorded sounds in the 1850s is enough to keep Paganini at the top of the list of Legendaries forever. Imagine though by a freak of scientific amazement and discovery of a lost invention an audio recording of Paganini was found. We might turn to another legend but from America living around the time of Paganini. The story is briefly as follows:
Captain Obidiah Pickman Grunte discovered the electric violin one day in 1789 whilst sitting against a tree playing on a violin some where in Dunwich, Massachusetts. He was hit by a bolt of lightning which threw him against a fence rich in copper-ore. The fence conducted his electrified vibrations to a hollow log which acted as an amplifier. The log transmitted the sound over twenty miles scaring the local townsfolk into dancing all night.
The real story, by the end of the 19th century was that things had to change in terms of violin making and playing. At the beginning of the 1900s the violin as taught and learnt for a few hundred years came under new scrutiny once recorded. The electric violin of today then is proof of the extreme lengths some have gone to ensure continuation of the violin family into this third millenium? Digital Violin is possibly the future though right now the electric violin deserves the lime-light.
The most recent developments in the violin’s history have come about as a direct result of advances made in communications technology. Although development of the violin is constant, the rate of change was barely perceptible until the Electric Telegraph and recorder player devices brought about the need for a total rethink about presentation, for review and examination of the state of music as a whole and, perhaps most vital of all, the demand and opportunity for creative experimentation, the very lifeblood of progress. It is a futile effort to prevent progress. These are the base facts.
Thomas Alva Edison, the prolific inventor and genius of so many scientific objects and entertainment devices has actually had much to do with the development and playing of the violin. He bluntly questioned the ability of violinists and demanded a better violin instrument. The art of electric violin begins where the scope of the classical violin technique to Edison’s ear begins to show signs of strain. Reflecting on available material relating to violin and general music history; and after a lot of sifting and sorting, direct links are found to exist between the simple machine that allowed messages to be sent as Telegraphy and the equally simple machine that makes electric violin music. Despite all the jargon that can be attached to current technology what is at work is elementary and more importantly time-tested. Some things about this instrument have not changed since their first discovery.
Following the establishment of the Electric Telegraph in the mid-nineteenth century, sounds could be communicated over vast distances. The successful transmission using the then brand new Trans-Atlantic Wire must for some have been the impossible made possible, a wholesomely mind-altering moment; others were surely left with their minds completely blown. With wireless broadcast the musician was no longer necessarily addressing only those within earshot. This is fundamentally different from all musical experience before it. With the Phonograph sounds could be recorded and reproduced. Again, this was a major change to the musical experience. Telecommunications technology advanced rapidly and there was soon worldwide interest and gathering excitement in the all new recording companies. Music had never before come under such close scrutiny – once a performance had only ever lived on in the memory. Broadcasting and recording made an entirely new set of demands to the performer which were only conquered by great effort. Very few years separate the inventions and the industries they spawned. There was no preparation time; performers simply had no grounding in recorded performance, only the word of mouth and accuracy of memory. The new companies soon acquired a cut-throat and callously cold reputation for not waiting for the performer to polish up an act, the next person on the list would be called. The demand to be selected was going to be huge.
With the new technology musicians were put under a brighter spot-light. There being more evidence of what sound was actually made than what was intended. It took the non-musician to point this out to the musical profession. Edison records in his Diary that when he first started recording music he found most musicians were unaware of the sounds they were making. The tone Edsion adopted later in his published diaries, especially in the section aimed towards the violinist is severely critical and challenging. The technique of violin playing in the modern world is more diverse than ever before, the politics of making certain sounds and ignoring others dictates beyond sense in all fashions of music, and electricity, as an almost immediately responsive medium and so useful to the sensitive demands of all violinists remains a hole in the modern day violinist’s technique.
Electric violin technique should be found to encompass and extend beyond the better known and accepted classical violin technique. Electric technique may be based on the study of harmonics. However, being so completely personal; open to inspection; and intended to stimulate the creative mind, there are concrete facts that must be digested first if this is to be understood as intended. These facts are pretty much all there are to go on in forming a well considered opinion on the electric violin, if approaching it for the first time.
There is no easy way to open a beautiful violin case, pick out a magnificent violin, tighten an incredible bow and then play delightful violin music when nothing is known about what makes it a good thing or not. Too many violinists know nothing about, or sadly, seem to appreciate the electric violin. What frightens most classically aspiring artists away from the electric violin is not easy to pinpoint but surely has something to do with the fear of the physics, maths, engineering and computer skills demanded to even begin studying properly. The concepts are simple in theory and practice but of the kind that make clear, coherent explanation a nightmare. Despite this danger there is more urgency attached to actually trying to understand and enjoy the new subject. The best thing to do at the point of arguing over the ethics and aesthetics of electric versus acoustic is to abandon the fight and get on with it.
In 1929, two years before Thomas Edison died; the music industry was really taking off. Curiously, in the last two years of the life of a man who brought light, messages and music to people’s homes we see him turn his back on the fledgling Entertainment Industry. For the job, electrically driven but acoustic recording and playback machines were the best in the pioneer’s mind. In his last business venture, called the “Ediphone”, he seemed to have found an alternative use for electricity and a continued preference for cylinders to capture the all important audio imprint acoustically. Despite these devices being marketed as dictation machines for business, their mechanism is useful to contemplate.
An Ediphone looks rather like a small lathe housed in a metal box and works in some way as follows. Mains electricity powers an electric motor causing a wax cylinder on a metal rod to spin. Ensuring the cylinder spins steadily is the sole purpose of the electric motor . The recording/playback device, which can be called the machine-head, moves mechanically, smoothly along the length of the spinning cylinder rather in the manner of the ink-nozzle on a computer printer. A tube with one end connected to the machine-head and the other connected to a small funnel is used to transfer sound.
In recording sound enters through the funnel end of the tube and causes the air to become under pressure in the thinner section of the tube. A membrane inside the machine-head responds to slight changes in air pressure, and through lever-mechanics a cutting stylus in direct contact with the wax cylinder scratches out an imprint of the subtle inflections of sound. As the cylinder spins and the head moves along it the stylus cuts a long spiral around the entire length of the cylinder. Under a magnifying glass the spiral ‘groove’ looks like a thin wobbly line. In playback the above process is reversed. The groove scratched out in the wax causes movement in a playback stylus, acting against the membrane via the levers. This causes the air in the tube on the other side of the membrane to fluctuate and by the flared end of the tube the sound has amplified naturally so as to be audible.
In a simple but effective way sound can be either transmitted or received. However, using wax cylinders and acoustic-recording mechanics in the electrical world of 1929 was soon to be out-numbered. By 1930, acoustic recording techniques for music were definitely on their way out. Electricity was in to stay and with profound implications for the violinist.
It is easy to imagine Edison in some musical circles remembered as someone who thought he knew about music and ‘if anything’ about the violin. In other circles the name Edison means the inventor of a new musical instrument, something much more important than just a machine that makes music for you. The main focus of much of today’s music relies on the latter circle of people, known as Djs, or mixers, who blend sounds together from almost any source – legally or not. The great American inventor certainly facilitated a new breed of musicians, only these musicians were not to achieve significant levels of commercial success until 100 years after the tools were invented. Creating music from two different recordings, each with their own slightly different tempo required original skills and attention to a new detail.
What Edison maybe did for the violinist was to question assumptions that playing standards were as good as they could be. Two assumptions appear to have been that virtuosos could play all the right notes and play in tune. Edison pointed to his audio recordings and simply said that he could see exactly where the flaws were. Published memoirs of players and participants in the early period of the recording industry point to evidence that Edison was right. Violinists needed to improve.
Eventually familiarity with recording and broadcasting devices lent comfort to the performer as being ideal learning tools as well as a means of music being heard. In the example of ‘modern-djing’ it was soon learnt that a gramophone record can be played from beginning to end, end to beginning, fast, slow, in sections, repeated over and over; the combinatorial possibilities of more than one ‘record-deck’ is amply demonstrated in non-stop broadcasting. With two or more record players and a device to switch and blend between each recording seemless sounds can be made. With delicate precision, mere fractions of change bring about an entirely new sounding music.
Bowed stringed instruments have long been noted for their capacity to make seemless sounds and be responsive to the slightest to most demanding gestures. Many authors of violin works have used words to this effect, the violin is considered the closest to the human voice because with masterful use of the bow an unending tone can be spun out, making the heart leap with delight and cause the mind to be ravaged by the beauty of the violin’s angelic voice…
How can such things be written about the violin today ?
It is not necessarily known that the stylus-mechanism found on a standard record-player – allowing all fluctuations in sound to recreate all musical types and entertain billions of people – is basically the same thing under-pinning electric violin technology. A good electric violin is as responsive and delicately sensitive as a stylus.
To many violinists electric violins are just full of tricks. However, these so called tricks offer solutions; possibilities to improve violin technique in general, and lead to a deeper understanding and respect for the whole family of musical instruments. This can only be said with resolution because enough time has gone by thinking about, practising and demonstrating the results whilst embracing the concept of there being a most up to date violin. The use of bowed electric violins, violas, cellos or basses in education is only just beginning but it has begun.
There is no reason why violin cannot be trusted as a career move. Electrically it embraces a world of music and Digitally it is unknown. The inventions of our past really are the platforms for the future.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]