The violin takes a bow


The master, Yehudi Menuhin, in a concert.

The master, Yehudi Menuhin, in a concert.  

EVER IMAGINE that the sound of horsehair scratching sheep gut over a gourd could produce such lovely sounds? Well that's what the violin is all about. This fretless instrument is one of the most difficult to master. For the beginner, to play just the open strings without fingering and get a perfect note takes over three months. Most are reduced to tears and give up during this crucial time.

The next set of dropouts occurs in the subsequent three months, when every simple melody that is tried out sounds like an animal felled by intestinal cramps. Despite such discouraging precedents, composers have written more works for the solo violin than any other instrument, with the exception of the piano.

Practice four hours a day for six years, and you may be able to play the solo portion of the Brahms Violin Concerto, if you are lucky - unless you happen to be a prodigy, in which case you can have it easier and faster.

Playing the violin is the most unnatural work a human hand can do. No other activity requires the left hand to be positioned in the way required to play the violin. Apart from the fingering, there are over 15 types of basic bowing techniques, over 80 variations if you want to become a soloist. The bow has to become an extension of the player's right arm, and just to get it moving across the strings straight is another complicated exercise. No wonder then that the best violinists are naturals who start young.

There are some left-handed violinists who string and bow exactly in the mirror image of the right-handed ones. No one knows why, but these southpaws have not produced the real greats. Among the more famous of the left-handers was a certain Charlie Chaplin who, as everyone knows, made his mark in another performing area.

Violin, as we know it today, is the result of an improvement over its immediate predecessor, the viol. Viols, in turn, were the successors as it were of the East and Central Asian, and East European stringed instruments, called rebec and vielle respectively.

Viols were of two types, viole da baccio or arm viols, and viole de braccio, the leg viols. The leg viols had to be placed between the knees. The arm viols developed into the violin and viola, while the leg viols became viola da gamba, which further evolved into the modern cello and double bass. All this happened between the 16th and the 17th centuries.

The earliest known violinmakers were Italian. The zenith in their craft was between the 16th and 18th centuries. Andr�a Amatti (1505-80) and his family were followed by Antonio Stradivari (1644-1733) and the Guarneri families who made hundreds of violins.

Many of these prized instruments exist even today, selling for around $1 million at Sotheby's and Christie's auctions. It is not for the sake of antiquity that these instruments sell for as much. Their sound is exquisite. No one knows why the instruments made in Italy, especially in and around Cremona during that time, sound so good. No one has really been able to duplicate their technique, which died with the formidable violinmakers in the 18th Century.

These craftsmen used to season the maple wood and make the varnish and glue themselves, all of which have a telling effect on the quality of the sound of the instrument.

The bow, however, was perfected by Francis Tourte (1747-1835).

A soloist's violin has to soar high over the might of the entire orchestra, comprising more than 60 instruments playing a concerto, before a full concert audience of around 2,000. Unlike in India, amplification by artificial means is strictly taboo in Western countries.

The structure of the sound that the violin (and the rest of the string family) is made of many different layers of vibrations called formants. The resultants of these formants, in turn, give the solo violin a sophisticated sound. The formants that each violin makes differ from player to player. The tone that each violinist produces is like an individual fingerprint. This is why a Stradivarius played by Menuhin sounds different in tone than one played by Pearlman.

Various formants made by violins playing together give a resultant totally different from a solo violin playing. And when all the violins play together, they sound breathtakingly beautiful. It is no wonder then that the violin section in an orchestra usually gets away with 80 per cent of the total melodies played in a composition. This includes 90 per cent of all the orchestration in Hindi film songs of the last Century.

For a new listener who would like to savour the beauty of the violin as played in Western classical music, I would suggest the following works that may sound the most appealing to the Indian ear.

For a solo violin sonata, try getting hold of Beethoven's Violin-Piano Sonata No.5, called the Spring Sonata. Among concerti, I would suggest Mozart's 5th Violin Concerto called Turkish, the Beethoven Violin Concerto, and of course, that universal favourite - Bruch Violin Concerto. To sample the beauty of violins playing in an ensemble of strings, Dvorak's Serenade for Strings is ideal.

By the way, it takes over 70 parts to make a violin, excluding the bow.

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