Violin Tales

Charlotte SmithTue 4th May 2010
The Bow ProjectThe Bow Project

Exploring the origins of the violin

Does the history of an instrument matter? When listening to a performance of, say, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto we praise the soloist, conductor and orchestra, and on a recording the quality of the engineering and sound production, but how often would the audience comment on the merits of the instrument itself?

The art of fine instrument making is something that has always fascinated me. A violin maker is a wood craftsman, but equally a musician in his own right, moulding the wood, applying the varnish and placing the soundboard in such a way as to create the perfect quality of sound. And just as individual musicians have specific styles of performance, the instrument reflects the distinct temperament of its creator.

It is intriguing, too, that stringed instruments in particular develop and often improve with time. The contraction and expansion of the wood, and the aging of the varnish transforms the sound from a generally brighter quality to a more mellow character. Indeed, the sound of an older, more temperamental instrument may change by the day according to temperature and humidity – often to the chagrin of its owner.

It is the very long lifespan of stringed instruments that has prompted violinist Daniel Hope to launch The Bow Project, a documentary and online resource exploring the roots of the violin. 2010 is the 400th anniversary of the first sonata for violin, making it the perfect time to investigate an instrument whose origins and evolution beyond its sudden appearance in 16th century Italy remain shrouded in mystery. Hope has already travelled throughout Europe, America and South Africa, and this year will continue his exploration in India, China and Mongolia.

It is his belief that stringed instruments’ close comparison to the human singing voice has helped them to move so fluidly around the globe, “from the mouth bow of Africa and the Mongolian Morin Khuur to the sound of the fiendish fiddling of the great Paganini”. Eventually he hopes that his website will become an “interactive ethnomusicology resource”, complete with discussion forum, providing a means for sharing violin stories.

While undoubtedly ambitious, the project promises to let the violin – that most human of instruments – add a historical element to its musical voice. My own violin was made in 1770 by a Parisian craftsman named Chapuis. Beyond those bare facts I know absolutely nothing of its past, how often it has been played in its 240 years, by whom and in what capacity. Perhaps one-day Hope’s budding project will shed some light on the story it has to tell.

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