Is there a more expressive or versatile instrument than the violin? It can sing; it can weep; it can growl. It occupies the prime spot in the orchestra and plays vital roles in other genres (folk, country, jazz, pop). It has spawned classical superstars (Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, Anne-Sophie Mutter). And just imagine Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” without it!
A descendant of the stringed Greek lyre, the violin as we know it was first produced around 1530 in Italy. It proved popular especially with European nobility, which commissioned instruments from the famous violinmakers Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari. Since then it has become the most indispensable instrument at concert halls and hoedowns alike. Find out more about its influence on the classical world and beyond.Violin vs. fiddle: Is there a difference?
Chaconne, Partita No. 2 (Johann Sebastian Bach): Violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin called it “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists.” Joshua Bell, adding that it’s “one of the greatest achievements of any man in history,” famously played this piece while anonymously busking in a Washington, D.C., metro station in 2007. Here’s Bell, far from the madding crowd.
Sonata No. 9, “Kreutzer” (Ludwig van Beethoven): Known for its length and technical difficulty, this piece was dedicated to Rodolphe Kreutzer, one of the finest violinists of Beethoven’s day. Ironically, it left Kreutzer cold but inspired no less than Leo Tolstoy to write a novella in its honor. Listen to Itzhak Perlman’s interpretation.
Sonata for Violin and Piano (Amy Beach): The composer and her work, mainly written around the turn of the 20th century, were largely cast into obscurity until the past 50 years. But her Romantic style was well-received by her contemporaries, save for a few who found her derivative (“for which the feminine character furnishes ground and excuse,” one reviewer said). Here is the sonata’s opening movement.
The Lark Ascending (Ralph Vaughn Williams): The British composer’s poet wife, Ursula, commented that Vaughn Williams had “made the violin become both the bird’s song and its flight.” Indeed, the thrilling, trilling notes that open the piece conjure the idyll of rural England, counterbalanced with a pensive undertone that some have ascribed to the advent of World War I.
“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (Charlie Daniels Band): What epitomizes the fiddle better than this tune about a demonic fiddle face-off? The tune, originally written by Vassar Clements as “Lonesome Fiddle Blues,” was adapted with lyrics by the Daniels Band.
“Come on Eileen” (Dexys Midnight Runners): The radio version usually leaves off the lovely violin intro, a rendition of the Irish ditty “Believe Me, If All These Endearing Young Charms.” But the strings keep the Celtic flavor of this perennial karaoke favorite going. Earworm ahead!
“Sawin’ on the Strings” (Alison Krauss): Ably abetted with the fine picking of Union Station, Krauss shows off her fiddle chops (and crystalline voice) in this tribute to a fella called Fiddlin’ Will. There’s no better illustration of how the fiddle and bluegrass are a match made in heaven.
“Sugar Plum Fairy” (Black Violin): This hip-hop duo made up of string instrumentalists Kevin Sylvester (aka Kev Marcus) and Wilner Baptiste (Wil B) turns the classics on their head. Listen to how the added beats emphasize the rhythm of this favorite from Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.
Now you’ve heard the dual capabilities of the instrument, as violin and fiddle. It can tell any kind of musical story. And that’s why the violin is the best instrument ever!
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