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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 7 April 2012

Instrumental Insights: Violin

by Carissa Klopoushak / April 1, 2012

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Early History

The violin is the highest-pitched member of the string family. Predecessors of the violin can be traced back as early as 800 C.E. Early examples include the Arabian rebab and instruments by the nomadic, equestrian cultures of Central Asia. The bows of horsehair are still part of our violin heritage today.
As trade increased between East and West, so did the sharing of new ideas. The first variant of the rebab, called the rebec, appeared in Spain during the 11th century. Other variations followed, such as the vielle by the 13th century in France. The route through Europe transformed the original two-stringed instrument with the body of a gourd into a three-stringed instrument with a body of wood. These violin-like instruments were common by the 1500s. The violin proper evolved directly from the Italian viola da braccio at the beginning of the 16th century. The violin underwent its most innovative period of development in Italy, becoming the universally used and appreciated instrument of music that it is today. The four-stringed violin, the first of which is attributed to Andrea Amati in 1555, quickly became very popular in certain courts. By the 17th century the violin was ubiquitously known, even replacing folk instruments all around Europe. The Amati family was pivotal in establishing the basic proportions of the violin, viola, and cello, and the original Amati design was perfected over the next 200 years. The familyís contribution to the art of violin making was evident not only in the improvement of the instrument itself, but also in the apprenticeships of subsequent gifted makers including Andrea Guarneri and Antonio Stradivari.
Recognized as the greatest violin maker in history, Stradivariís instruments are still prized today. He finalized and refined the violinís form and symmetry, and experimented with the type and thickness of wood which helped to improve the acoustics of the instrument. By this time, the violin had acquired most of the specifications common to the instrument today, but for a few additional changes. Makers continued to experiment through to the 19th century with the overall length, the angle of the neck, the length of the bass bar, and the bridge height. The violin achieved mainstream use during the Baroque period, becoming the fixture of western art music that it is today in solo, chamber, and orchestral settings.

Modern Mastery

The position that the violin enjoys in western music is truly enviable. No other instrument can boast a larger or more musically diverse repertoire as the violin. For over the last 200 years, a rich heritage of master composers, performers, and pedagogues has developed. Many of the greatest violinists were also composers for their instrument, including Corelli, Vivaldi, Tartini, Kreisler, Ysaˇe, Enescu, Sarasate, and Paganini. Other violinists collaborated with composers in famous pairings, like Joachim and Brahms, David and Mendelssohn, Oistrakh and both Shostakovich and Prokofiev. In the last century, violinists have focused more on interpretation rather than composition, giving rise to many virtuosi like Heifetz, Menuhin, Mullova, Bell, Hahn, Haendel, Neveu, Gitlis, Stern, Mintz, Ehnes, Faust, Kremer, Mutter, Kavakos, Zehetmair, Perlman, Szeryng, Tetzlaff, Shaham, Znaider, and Zukerman. A great many more gifted performers are not predominantly soloists, performing in chamber music ensembles or specializing in Early Music.
The violin has an important role outside of the western art music tradition; for example, Indian classical music relies heavily on the violin. The violin is extremely important in folk traditions around the world, including Maritime and Acadian fiddle traditions in Canada. Roby Lakatos, Gypsy fiddler, and Gilles Apap, who bridges the gap between folk and classical traditions, are commanding performers of the genre. The violin has a solid presence in jazz, thanks to players like Stephane Grappelli and Stuff Smith. Toronto-based violinist-composer Owen Pallet is a prime example of the ever-merging worlds of indie and classical music.

True or False?
A ďfalse stringĒ is one that doesnít produce the intended pitch correctly when brand new. Gut strings may ring false brand new more often than synthetic; however, all strings can become false with use. Many violinists use the term to describe any string that doesnít sound right; the life of a string is dependent on its construction, frequency of use, and even sweat. Some players replace their strings every few weeks while others play happily for a year or more on the same set.

Muted Moments
Placed on the bridge of the instrument to limit vibrations, mutes can be made of metal, rubber, leather, and/or wood. Experimenting with different mutes proves interesting where extensive use of the mute is mandated, like in Prokofievís first violin sonata. Some musicians prefer the warm resonance of a leather mute, while others enjoy the metal-and-rubber Heifetz mute. And letís not forget the overbearing practice mute, perfect for hotel stays!
Did You Know?
Derived from pine-tree sap, rosin is rubbed on bow hair to better grip the strings and make them speak. When choosing the right rosin for your instrument, you have to take climate into account. Lighter-coloured rosin is better in humid climates, while darker rosin is better for dry. If you travel, it may be wise to carry a few options. 

Carissa Klopoushakís Violin Tips

What would you consider to be an important, yet often overlooked element of instrument care that violinists should follow in order to maintain their instrument?
Itís important to get into good habits for storing your instrument early on. Remember to loosen your bow, wipe the rosin from your violin, and place your violin in a case, closed, with special attention to the temperature and humidity. Avoid DIY repair jobs; seek professional help, whenever necessary! 

What is an essential daily routine that an intermediate-level violinist should have in their arsenal to maintain and further develop their playing?
Stretching and properly warming up are paramount. Habits established at this stage are more easily carried into the future. Scales and studies, used wisely, decrease the time needed to learn new materialóa lifesaver. Once youíve got a handle on traditional methods (Flesch, Sevcik, etc.), try jazz/modal scales or Terje Moe Hansenís method.

What would you recommend as a potentially inexpensive way to upgrade a violin for someone who may not be able to afford a professional instrument?
As Pemi Paull suggested in the February issue of LSM, seeing a trusted luthier regularly is important. Strings and bow hair need regular replacement, and the occasional sound post adjustment (extensive experimentation can lead to an ideal placement) goes a long way. Changing tailpieces, tail gut, chinrests, bridges, and shoulder rests can help make meaningful changes to the sound and projection of your instrument. However, itís important not to over think our equipment choices; often the equipment is not to blame! 

If you could recommend one work and recording that would romance anyone into falling in love with the violin, what would it be and why?
The G major Sonata by Johannes Brahms. Itís perhaps the most lyrical composition among all of Brahmsís instrumental works. It takes you on an emotional journey through bliss and sorrow, longing and rapture. There are many wonderful recordings, but one of my favourites is Joseph Suk and Julius Katchen. [Brahms: The Violin Sonatas; Joseph Suk, violin; Julius Katchen, piano; Decca: Legendary Legends (1967)]

Winner of the 2009 Eckhardt-Grammattť Competition, Carissa is highly sought after as a recitalist and chamber musician. She performs with such ensembles as Mooncrest, PortmantŰ, Boundary, the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and is a director of the Ritornello Chamber Music Festival in Saskatoon. Carissa is completing a Doctorate in Violin Performance at McGill University with Jonathan Crow.
www.carissaklopoushak.com, www.ritornello.ca, www.tytitam.com

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