Antonio Vivaldi
Antonio Vivaldi
“When you play a violin piece, you are a storyteller, and you’re telling a story.”Joshua Bell, one of the world’s most celebrated violinists, highlights the extreme beauty of this most versatile instrument. The violin, adored by many, has an unrivalled ability to capture any mood, spirit or emotion through its vast range of tone, articulation and pitch.

It is widely believed that the violin we know and love today began life in 16th century Italy but stories of the Byzantine vielle, rebec or lira de braccio can delve a further 700 years back into the clutches of time. Steeped in a history of artistic and cultural revolution and development, this most fascinating instrument tells a unique tale of the changing phases of the world.

Like a magnet, the violin has lured the world’s most illustrious composers with its versatility. The musical canon is littered with some of the greatest compositions ever penned – each one highlighting a different characteristic from the last, creating a rainbow of different styles and colours.

Burnished with a flurry of green, reds, oranges and icy blues, one of the most recognisable pieces in the violin’s repertoire is Vivaldi’s famous Four Seasons. Composed in the first half of the 18th century, this most magnificent work explores a range of all the different characteristics the instrument has to offer. As with the vast majority of Vivaldi’s violin music, the four concertos contrast nimble scurrying passages, pulsing rhythms, moderate dynamic ranges and impressive string crossing techniques against a still simplicity and traditional harmonies – and one thing he’ll never forget is a spellbinding melody to cherish.

However, due to the time of the work and the practices of that time, many of Vivaldi’s compositions fail to highlight the true capabilities of the instrument. Confined to a smaller pitch range, more conservative harmonies and less colourful articulation, Vivaldi delivers a charming but somewhat limited representation of the violin’s true colours.

As time ticked into the next century, the violin was becoming the star of the show, headlining in concertos, symphonies and operas all over Europe. However, in addition to playing its part in the orchestral heavyweights, the violin also became a major game player on the chamber music scene. If Haydn was said to be the father of the symphony, then he was also responsible for the string quartet as we know it. At a time when dangerous political stirrings swept throughout the courts of Europe, philosophers, composers, writers and artists alike continually battered traditional beliefs, subverted established practices and questioned everything in the radical Age of Enlightenment. Inspired by the French philosopher, Rousseau, Haydn did not escape these new ideals.

In the 1770s, Haydn began work on his Op.20 string quartets which entirely transformed the genre. The major development of these compositions was the relegation of the violin. Spurred on by the political thoughts of the day, Haydn sought out parity and gave each voice of his quartet equal power. The violin was no longer the star of the show but became an equal player within the group and was often referred to a more accompanying role within the music. Other radical changes included the increase of minor movements, a reduction of symmetry within phrases and the subversion of traditional structural and expressive idioms.

However, the Classical period evolved quickly from the Baroque voice of Vivaldi. With more conversational phrases interrupted by other voices, a swifter change in dynamics and articulation, Haydn’s quartets welcomed phrases dipping in and out of conversation and exploring a more changeable presentation of tone and character. This gave way to further developments as time moved on in addition to some of the epic violin works still cherished today.

The Romantic age brought forth some of the most powerful violin concertos full of emotion, strength and authority, from composers such as Mendelssohn, Bruch and Brahms. Robed in a rich, passionate sound, with extreme pitch ranges and compelling melodies, the violin became the protagonist of every musical form, as skilful double stops, tricky string crossings and myriad tonalities tested the very best of players.

However, in contrast to the dramatic whirlwinds of sounds heard in the faster movements, the violin was still capable of melting any heart with a pure tone and enchanting melody in the slower movements. By returning to the natural harmonies of basic triads, all three of the composers mentioned managed to create pure beauty through the presentation of natural harmonies subverted and tainted by increasingly chromatic passages. After the initial theme, delivered in a measured way but coloured with a new type of vibrato, the movements become more fluid showing technically challenging passages, increased levels of rubato, a faster harmonic rhythm and huge pitch and dynamic ranges.

The power of the violin continued to entice audiences for years. Born in 1881, the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók created some marvellous works riddled with nationalistic pride. Bartók wrote a number of pieces echoing traditional Hungarian rhythms and harmonies that cannot fail to transport audiences to a remote village in the heart of Eastern Europe.

One of these pieces, Rhapsody no. 1 for violin, starts with stomping rhythms, brash tones, snappy sforzandos and clashing chords. Bartók’s music relies on heavily accented second beats which were extremely common in traditional Hungarian dance rhythms which is hugely apparent by written accents in the melody. The Rhapsody suddenly changes tack to a more melancholic note. The violin shifts to a higher register, the tempo slows, and a softer tone and gentle vibrato before a gradual ritardando launches the piece into its final section – this is a fiery celebration of Hungarian music with clanging harmonies and crashing chords.

Bartók was not alone in drawing on his homeland for his violin works. Dvořák, Smetana, Janáček and Svendsen all produced wonderful music with an exotic lull that embraced national characteristics.

Furthermore, not all nationalism stemmed from Eastern Europe or Scandinavia, bringing us back full circle in time. Composers spanning the history of the violin often have echoes of their native counties. From Spanish Sarasate at the turn of the 20th century, to Italian Tartini at the turn of the 17th, both virtuosic composers have a native essence that makes their music instantly recognisable.

The Devil’s Trill Sonata, is renowned as a devilishly difficult piece to play. With awkward double stops, elaborate ornaments and tight string crossings, The Devil’s Trill is an excellent test of a violinist’s ability but carries a flavour of Italian Renaissance in every note.

The piece tells a Faustian fable about the composer’s dream pact with the devil. From its dramatic opening to the skittish nature following movements, The Devil’s Trill is pregnant with a sense of dramatic foreboding and dark intensity that both thrills and haunts the listener. From the moment of Tartini’s dark pact with the devil, the violin has always been known as the Devil’s instrument.

From the demonic to the divine, the violin is as variable as the sea as it presents a hundred different faces, characteristics and personalities with every single piece. The dark depths of 17th century Italy cannot be more contrasted than with the angelic purity of pastoral England. Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending was written prior to the First World War, but not premiered until 1920. As the melody flutters up and down the fingerboard, we soar as high as a bird at the very top of the instrument’s register, gliding over rural England against a wave of silence.

After World War One, many people heard the beauty of England’s “green and pleasant land” through The Lark’s unrivalled purity portrayed through modal flurries, a pure tone and well-tempered vibrato. Vaughan Williams sets the violin free with one of the most celebrated sounds of 20th century music.

The violin has so much more to say and so many more stories to tell than what’s penned in this article. Every piece of music is different and this one instrument has the ability to never to tell the same story twice. With a different voice for every story all the colours of history and tales of the past are told by the changing face of the violin.