What was the violin repertoire in Amati's time?

October 5, 2022, 10:47 PM · As I understand it, Amati is generally credited with inventing the violin in the 1500s. What kind of material was it used to play when it was first created?

At what point were the amazing technical possibilities of the violin first explored? I assume there was no one doing Paganini-like acrobatic playing yet in Amati's time, or is that not correct?

Did the great early makers - Amati, Stradivari etc. play? I don't find anything for example that talks about Stradivari as a player but I'm incredulous that he could have been such a superb maker, be that connected to the instrument without having some kind of playing chops himself.


Replies (21)

October 6, 2022, 3:40 AM · hi Scott, like you say, Andrea Amati basically invented, or somehow standardized, the modern violin, and that also gave the starting point for composers and musicians to discover the possibilities of the modern violin. before Andrea Amati's time, the primitive violin was mainly a fanfare instrument really, and "orchestra music" was almost exclusively played on wind instruments. your other question (which is a totally different question, as we are talking about 150 years later), about how good did Stradivari played the violin, is a good one, but I can't recall reading anything about it. best!
Edited: October 6, 2022, 4:13 AM · I don't think there's any 16th century music specifically written for the violin that survives today. It's assumed that instruments of the violin family were mostly used to accompany dance. The really remarkable thing is that the basic design has survived for half a millennium and adapted to such a range of sounds that the original inventors cannot possibly have imagined.
Edited: October 6, 2022, 3:17 PM · There probably was little or no specific violin repertoire in the 16th century. At the time, most music was not written for specific instruments; instruments simply played whatever was in their range. The violin would have simply played the treble line. It wasn't until the 17th century that composers began to consider the timbres and capabilities of individual instruments and specify instruments in their scores. Even then, trio sonatas continued to be written without specified instruments well into the 18th century.
October 6, 2022, 5:32 PM · A very good source of information is “The Cambridge Companion to the Violin” ed. Robin Stowell. John Dilworth’s chapter on the origins and development gives quite a bit of detail on the Amati family, and Simon McVeigh on early repertoire explains some of the material early violinists played, and discusses the gradual way in which the violin family replaced the viols. I’m not sure to what extent Monteverdi specifies instrumentation but some of “L’Orfeo” is definitely violinistic, and the same is true of some passages in the Vespers of 1610. It seems that his later Venetian operas may have used fewer string players. A particularly interesting early violinist and composer is Salamone Rossi (1570-1630), a friend and collaborator of Monteverdi’s, who wrote beautiful polyphonic liturgical music for the Spanish synagogue of Venice. You can find some of his string works on ISMLP, and recordings on YouTube. Rossi deserves to be better known, so please, dear V.com colleagues, give him some concert time if you can!

I think Amati violins are regarded as being a bit quieter than those of later Cremona makers. They are a little smaller, I understand, but compared to the viol family in their own time they must have seemed quite firm and forceful in sound. Henry Purcell - much later of course - seems to have liked both families equally. I think his fantasias must have been almost the last music composed for the more gentle consort of viols.

Interesting question you raise, Scott, about whether the Cremona makers played proficiently. I’ve never heard a detailed answer to this, but I assume that they were virtuosi in wood, glue and varnish rather than in notes, somewhat in the way that modern aero-engineers are not necessarily pilots.Your other enquiry was about Paganini-style acrobatics c.1550: I imagine the Amati family turning pale with horror if anybody attempted such a thing on their instruments - unless they had already paid for it in full, cash on the nail!

Edited: October 6, 2022, 5:39 PM · I was considering mentioning Monteverdi, but didn't because I was in a bit of a hurry. He's mentioned in Adam Carse's History of Orchestration, IIRC. Monteverdi was one of the first to specify his instruments. He was also the first composer to use the device of repeated shorter notes in the strings; at first some violinists balked at playing those repeated notes, because they thought purely in terms of pitch and harmony and didn't see the difference between Monteverdi's repeated notes and simply playing a sustained note.
October 6, 2022, 10:27 PM · Richard Pairaudeau
October 6, 2022, 5:32 PM

I imagine the Amati family turning pale with horror if anybody attempted such a thing on their instruments - unless they had already paid for it in full, cash on the nail!

Thanks - I've always thought it's a shame the early master makers never got to hear the amazing music that's been played on the instruments they developed and/or built - but you think they might not have even liked it?

Andrew Hsieh
Edited: October 6, 2022, 5:39 PM

I was considering mentioning Monteverdi, but didn't because I was in a bit of a hurry. He's mentioned in Adam Carse's History of Orchestration, IIRC. Monteverdi was one of the first to specify his instruments. He was also the first composer to use the device of repeated shorter notes in the strings; at first some violinists balked at playing those repeated notes, because they thought purely in terms of pitch and harmony and didn't see the difference between Monteverdi's repeated notes and simply playing a sustained note.

Thanks - interesting how much the conceptualization of music has changed.

October 7, 2022, 12:51 AM · I can confirm that Andrea Amati (b. 1505) is credited with inventing the "modern" violin. The first pictorial reference of a violin is dated 1534, and that was 7 years before the other possible inventor, Gasparo da Salò, was even born.
October 7, 2022, 1:16 AM · Hi Scott! Thanks for your interest and the reply. I kind of agree that it's a shame that the Cremonese makers didn't hear some of the later wonders of violin literature: JS Bach, the best of the Mozart sonatas, the Beethoven sonatas (in their entirety), the Franck sonata...concertos by Tchaikovsky, Berg, Barber, Britten...one could run on almost forever! The other amazing aspect of the violin repertoire is that it is essentially the SAME instrument and sound across the centuries, unlike the keyboard world, with its conflicts at the harpsichord/piano border.

With regard to Paganini, I am going to admit to a pretty strong dislike of almost everything he wrote, so that personally I wouldn't inflict him on Amati, Stradivari and company. I can't play anything by Paganini, but I have never felt a twinge of desire or jealousy to do so. He is like an unthinking Liszt - and a lot of Liszt piano music sounds like a child fooling around with a Waterford chandelier, but is redeemed by moments of astonishing beauty. Oh dear! I have spent decades suppressing this prejudice! I promise this will be the only time... .

October 7, 2022, 1:47 PM · According to a tv programme on BBC Catherine de Medicis court musician wrote the first sheet music for violin, which was to be played on an instrument she had commisioned.
October 7, 2022, 2:15 PM · Richard, It don't fret me none, as we country folk say. Paganini leaves me cold and it's not envy or anything like that. I have simpler tastes.

De gustibus non est disputandum.

October 7, 2022, 2:18 PM · Locatelli's caprices were written in 1733, so when Stradivari and Guarneri Del Gesu were making, though not Amati.

Biber is closer to Nicolo Amati's time though still near the end of it - he was writing quite virtuosic things in 1676, though not quite as Paganinian as Locatelli (really it's vice versa of course, Locatelli's caprices strongly influenced Paganini).

October 7, 2022, 2:30 PM · Lovely answer Ann! People who play folk styles should remember that music for dance was probably the violin’s original thing. We are the keepers of the flame!
Edited: October 7, 2022, 3:16 PM · Richard, I'm playing the classical repertoire but break out in Ashokan Farewell to my teacher's (perhaps pretended) dismay. Oh, how provincial! I have a book of Irish tin whistle tunes which are great fun. He's much out of fashion but Steven Foster wrote some danceable tunes. Leave out the lyrics (such as they are) and you're ok.

My requirement is that whatever it is should have a singable melody and be "pretty." Life is too short to play ugly music. Leave that to the true experts.

October 7, 2022, 3:48 PM · Richard - I suspect you might like this Cantabile by Paganini:


and even consider fooling around with it and learning to play it. I have found it lots of fun playing it with lots of rhythmic "freedom" during the COVID pandemic when music play-dates have been erratically few and far between. Consider the use of harmonics to get to the highest note (B).

October 7, 2022, 4:19 PM · Ann - another enthusiast for 'Ashokan Farewell' here, having found it years ago in an American Strings magazine.

Andrew - thank you! I've downloaded it, will print and play, I promise!

October 7, 2022, 4:30 PM · Richard, there is a truly heartrending version of Ashokan, played on violinperformers.com This lady's videos have helped me greatly, supplementing info from my teacher.

I inquired and this version is published by Mel Bay. It has the composers picture on the cover and includes some extras.

October 8, 2022, 3:53 AM · Ann - again, thanks for great conversation!
Edited: October 12, 2022, 2:13 PM · Richard, talking of Liszt, do you know his Faust Symphony? A highly underrated work in my opinion.
Something I note is the relative attention that Paganini and his contemporary Spohr get these days - yet, in their day, Spohr was the classical composer and Paganini was just a pop artist for the masses (his word). And what Spohr wrote about Paganini leaves a bit of a wry taste in the mouth.
Edited: October 10, 2022, 9:57 PM · Although almost a century after Amati produced the first violins as we still know them, I think we had to wait until the 17th century to get really good violin music. What were violinists doing before that?

My answer is speculative, based on the impression that as new instruments appear they are first used to play already-existing repertoire conceived for other instruments, and only over time is new music composed for the new instrument. In my casual study of viol consort music it seems the earliest repertoire was renaissance vocal polyphony wherein the viols (of various sizes/ranges) would play the notes rather than those notes being sung. Probably in scholas the viol was also used to double the parts, to give pitch to the singers in training, much like the organ. But within a generation or two, there were composers writing instrumental music conceived specifically for viols.

Turning now to the question of repertoire for the new violin of Amati's time, I think there would have been a similar progression. Think of the violin as a new soprano instrument that would have been suited to already-existing dance music, such as 4-part dances collected and published by Pierre Attaingnant in the early to mid 16th century. I found a London Pro Musica Edition of his Second Livre de Danceries, originally published in Paris 1547. This edition is nicely updated to modern notation (top 3 voices in G clef, lowest in F clef), and the instruments are not specified. Probably a lot of this music was originally played on lutes and recorders, which came in various sizes/registers.

Being 500 years old and in 4 parts, such music seems almost suitable for viols. But I don't think such dance music would have been played much by viol consorts in its own time, since viols were a gentleman's instrument, played socially with a certain poise, in private sessions mostly for the players themselves, a bit like a card game is also a social event but not really for spectators. The vulgar violin, on the other hand, was found in taverns and would have been naturally suited to dance music, and in England to similar broadside ballad airs surviving from the Elizabethan and Jocobean periods. Soon thereafter John Playford was collecting and publishing similar dance music, for us common folk hearing violins and other noyse in the pub.

But by then there was also much finer virtuosic violin-specific instrumental music by many composers, as well as violin parts specified in early operas and some madrigals, such as by Monteverdi and Rossi (and Francesco Cavalli), as mentioned by Richard Pairaudeau above. Virtually none of this finer 17th-century music would be concert music as we hear today, as the venues were typically aristocratic courts or, say in the Venetian republic, in the mansions of the super-rich. In that instrumental music for violin, the other instruments included lutes, theorbo, viols (and harpsichords and organ positives), usually in a continuo role providing harmonic background to the violin soloist. If you want real melodic dialogue between violins and other instruments, except for a few exceptions such as Salomone Rossi or Giovanni Paolo Cima, you'd have to wait until the 18th century trio sonatas (2 soloists and continuo), and then the modern quartets such as by Haydn and Mozart and the Romantics to follow.

Richard also mentions above the relative softness of volume of the Amati violins as compared to later violins. That was also true for the other early stringed instruments of the 17th century (including the harpsichord), which were often plucked and were less sonorous than modern orchestral instruments. They were also usually tuned to lower pitch. Today's HIP ensembles have almost standardized around A=415, but there was actually much variety, perhaps from 390 to 460Hz. The more intimate venues (before the rise of concert halls for ticket-buyers) would have found these quieter instruments and lower tunings plenty loud enough.

That fine seventeenth century "private" music is my favorite violin repertoire, and though I'm still a very rough amateur it is my focus of study, with a fine teacher specialized in early violin music (though she's capable of anything!). In that vein, I collect recordings and sheet music by violin composers such as Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Dario Castello, Giovanni Battista Fontana, Giovanni Paolo Cima, Tarquinio Merula, Antonio Bertali, Marco Uccelini, Biagio Marini, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Giovanni Battista Buonamente, Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli, Giulio Caccini, Giovanni Valentini, Giovanni Battista Vitali, Aldebrando Subissati, Johann Rosenmuller, Georg Muffat, Giovanni Antonio Leoni, Isabella Leonarda, and Giovanni Buonaventura Viviani.

October 10, 2022, 2:24 PM · John, I’ll certainly give the Faust symphony a try. I like Les Préludes very much.
October 10, 2022, 3:20 PM · Will, very interesting contribution to the discussion, thanks!

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