are part of the family of strings (instruments
whose sound is produced by the vibration of one or several strings),
played with a bow.
The violin came into existence around 1550.
It came into its own as an instrument at the beginning of the
1600s, a time when it began to be used systematically in Italian
opera orchestras. During the 18th and 19th centuries, some violinist-composers
(of whom Vivaldi) made important technical progress. Their concertos
and sonatas for solo violin necessitated a deeper sonority, clearer,
more sparkling and a greater string tension to ensure the adequate
playing of some passages. Some secondary modifications were made
to the internal structure and to the fingerboard of the violin,
in order that they could bear the increased tension. It was in
the first part of the 18th century that the technique of placing
the violin under the chin became widespread, rather than holding
it against the chest or the clavicle. The violin took its current,
definitive form towards the end of the 19th century.
Alongside the violin itself, the violin family
is made up of three other important members: the viola, the cello
and the double bass. The viola is only slightly bigger than the
violin but this bigger size gives it a characteristic softer sonority.
Its history and evolution closely mirror that of the violin, although
it has never shared its degree of popularity as a solo instrument.
As the viola had neither the suppleness nor the brightness of
the violin, it was more commonly used as an accompanying instrument
to sustain and enrich the harmonies. It is only since 1900 that
its importance as a solo instrument has grown.
The history of the cello is very different.
Almost twice the size of the violin, its large resonance chamber
possesses a rich sound that carries well. It appears for the first
time in the 16th century but its importance dates from the beginning
of the 17th century, at a time when it started to be used to hold
a continuous bass line and sustain harmonies in orchestras and
smaller ensembles. During the Romantic period, during which its
expressive qualities were greatly used, cello virtuosos made great
The double bass is the biggest member of the
violin family. Having inherited some particularities of a more
ancient string instrument – the Bass Viola – its construction
is slightly different from that of other family members. Even
thought its somewhat dampened sound makes it an instrument little
adapted for solo work, the double bass plays a vital role in orchestras
and large ensembles. It is given the task of playing the lowest
notes and the bass part. It often plays one octave below the cellos,
which gives a depth and richness to the instrumental thread.
The modern bow is longer than its predecessors.
More flexible, it bears a greater tension. During the last four
centuries, instrumentalists have considerably improved the art
of bow use. In order to reproduce a wide range of necessary nuances,
the modern musician must know at least a dozen ways of using it.