Very few musical instruments have their own “National (instrument name) day/week/month…” Earlier this year I blogged about two of them – the piano and the guitar. Let’s close out the year with another, and one of the oldest: the violin, whose national day is celebrated on December 13th.
Some music historians believe the violin is a descendent from stringed instruments played by ancient Mesopotamian equestrian cultures, originating as far back as 2700 years BCE. Some also draw a straight line from the “modern” lyre, used in ancient Greece around 1400 BCE, and then spreading throughout the Roman Empire, changing shape and materials along the way.
Most people believe that the violin as we know it today was developed in 16th century Italy. Instrument makers in Brescia, Venice and Cremona took the lead in Europe in developing the instrument. It’s said that King Charles IX of France elevated the instrument when he ordered two dozen violins from Andrea Amati in 1560 for his palace ensemble, known as The King’s Violins. One of the violins still survives and is called The Charles IX.
Whether the instrument emerged from the maple and spruce trees of northern Italy or elsewhere, the music written for it has also endured. This versatile instrument shines equally as bright whether playing solo, duo with a piano or other instrument, or part of a larger ensemble. Here are a handful of the most famous violin pieces that you should get to know.
Everyone thinks of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons when showpieces for violin are discussed, (and they are excellent pieces to get to know), but how about his idea to put four outstanding violinists on stage at the same time? Here’s his Concerto for Four Violins, Op. 3, No. 10. This all-star line-up includes violinists Isaac Stern, Ivry Gitlis, Ida Haendel, and Shlomo Mintz. Zubin Mehta conducts the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Bach’s Partita No. 3 was part of his collection of pieces called “Sonatas and Partitas.” We know that they were completed by 1720, although not published until 1802. No. 3 remains a favorite of violinists. It is played here by Midori.
Mozart’s first music teacher was his father Leopold Mozart, a violinist in the orchestra of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. Leopold also published a violin textbook the year his son was born, so what better teacher for the four-year-old? Although he was taught to play violin and keyboard simultaneously, the young Mozart gravitated to the keyboard and began composing for it by age five. He never forgot his early lessons, however, and wrote five violin concertos. Some say it was just a way to show his nagging father that he could do it, and then get back to composing for his other favorite instruments. We may never know why he wrote only five when he was more than capable of writing more. His 5th Concerto, nicknamed the “Turkish,” is often hailed as his most mature. Here’s Christian Tetzlaff joining the German Chamber Philharmonic of Bremen and conductor Paavo Järvi.
Beethoven’s Violin Concerto was written in 1806 but did not have a successful premiere. Later, in 1844, the 12-year-old violinist Joseph Joachim, who was already on the cusp of becoming one of the greatest violinists of that century, played it with Felix Mendelssohn conducting the London Philharmonic Society. Joachim declared it the greatest German violin concerto, and ever since the piece has become one of the best known (and longest). Here’s violinist Uto Ughi playing with the Orquesta Sinfónica de RTVE with conductor Luis García Navarro.
Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto was meant as a gift for his longtime friend Ferdinand David, the concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. It took him six years to complete it. The autograph score is dated September 1844, but it’s said that Mendelssohn was still not quite happy with it and was consulting with David right up until its premier in 1845. One of the most unusual aspects of this piece is that the cadenza was written out, whereas in other concertos of the era, the cadenza is improvised by the soloist. Ray Chen is the soloist here, along with conductor Kent Nagano and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.
It quickly became one of Mendelssohn’s most popular pieces, and considered one of the “greats” in the violin repertoire.
Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso was written in 1863 and was originally intended to be the finale of his Violin Concerto No. 1. It was so well-received at its premiere that Saint-Saëns published it as a stand-alone piece.
Itzhak Perlman’s version is considered by most to be “the” classic recording. Here he is playing it with Charles Mackerras conducting the Sadler Wells Orchestra.
Saint-Saëns dedicated the piece to a leading virtuoso of the day, Pablo de Sarasate, who performed the premiere.
Pablo de Sarasate was a composer in addition to being a violinist. His Carmen Fantasy is based on music from Bizet’s opera Carmen. The piece was published in 1882 as a piece for violin and piano. Although it’s only about 12 minutes long, it’s considered one of the most challenging pieces for violinists to play. Here is Gil Shaham, with conductor Claudio Abbado leading the Berlin Philharmonic.
The Carmen Fantasy is often performed at violin competitions by violinists hoping to show their range of abilities.
The last of Niccolò Paganini’s 24 Caprices is widely acknowledged as one of the most difficult pieces for a violinist to play, with everything from fast scales to arpeggios (chords played one note at a time in rapid succession) to left-hand pizzicato (plucked strings) to parallel octaves. Paganini himself was a violin virtuoso and showman of “rock star” legend. He was nicknamed the “Sorcerer” and many accused him of “selling his soul to the Devil” to be able to play as he did. Violinist Augustin Hadelich makes it seem like it’s his own.
The Caprice No. 24 is not only appreciated on its own, but for the countless variations by other great composers, including Brahms, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and even Andrew Lloyd Webber, who did a version for his brother, cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, and rock band.
And one more worth getting to know: 20th century American composer Samuel Barber wrote his Violin Concerto in 1939. It was commissioned by a man whose son was a budding violinist. Barber presented the first two movements and the man complained that the piece was too simple for his son. Taking the criticism to heart, Barber wrote a more complicated third movement. The violinist himself then complained it was too difficult. By that point, the frustrated Barber called one of his music students to come and sightread the piece, which he did with ease. There were no more complaints afterwards. Here’s Joshua Bell and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, led by David Zinman.
There are so many gorgeous, exciting, romantic, complicated and simple pieces for violin. These are but nine with some of the greatest violinists of our time. Enjoy this intro for National Violin Day, and happy exploring on your own!
CODA: Let me end this blog post as I started it, with a quote, this time by novelist Freda Bright. This is her telling of the story about the best violins in the known universe:
“In the late 1600s the finest instrument originated from three rural families whose workshops were side by side in the Italian village of Cremona. First were the Amatis, and outside their shop hung a sign, ‘The best violins in all Italy.’ Not to be outdone, their next-door neighbors, the family Guarneri, hung a bolder sign proclaiming: ‘The best violins in all the world!’ At the end of the street was the workshop of Antonio Stradivari, and on its front door was a simple notice which read ‘The best violins on the block.’”