The violin is a bowed string instrument with four strings tuned in perfect fifths. Sometimes informally called a fiddle, it is the smallest and highest-pitched member of the string family, which also includes the viola, cello and double bass. The oldest documented violin to have four strings, like the modern violin, was made in 1555 by Andrea Amati.
The violin is normally held in the left hand, balanced between the shoulder and the chin. Children typically use smaller string instruments than adults. Violins are made in fractional sizes for young students: Apart from full-size (4/4) violins, 3/4, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/10, 1/16, and even 1/32-sized instruments exist.
One of the most famous and best-loved violinists was Yehudi Menuhin. Menuhin began his career as a child prodigy, and at the age of 7 became world famous when he performed the tremendously difficult ‘Spanish Symphony’ by Eduardo Lalo. In 1976 Menuhin visited Bermuda and was the driving force behind the inception of The Menuhin Foundation.
The viola is played in the same manner as the violin with the instrument held up under the cheek/chin. It is slightly larger than a violin and as such has a pitch that sits in between that of the violin and the cello. It has four strings, like the other instruments in the string section. These strings from highest to lowest are: A, D, G and C. Viola players read their music in the Alto Clef.
You can find the viola in many different ensembles. It sits in between the violins and cellos in the Symphony orchestra and is one of the instruments in a String Quartet. Many composers and musicians over the centuries have played the viola including Mozart, Schubert and apparently Jimi Hendrix! Over the past 150 years, the viola has become a more popular instrument after undergoing certain modifications by viola virtuoso Lionel Tertis and fellow luthiers making the instrument easier to get around despite its larger size.
There are some wonderful pieces that have been written for the viola that really show off its beautiful mellow tones. Walton wrote a stunning concerto for Viola and Orchestra and Mozart wrote a piece called ‘Sinfonia Concertante’ for Violin and Viola with Orchestra. It has been said that Mozart himself played the viola part at the premiere!
The viola has now come of an age where it can be heard in all forms of music, from Classical to Jazz and from Rock to Folk, lending a more ethereal quality to the music.
The cello, formerly known as the violoncello, became common in the mid-17th Century. The violoncello, (meaning a small violone) replaced the viol. The earliest known makers of cellos were Andrea Amati (early 1500s), Gasparo da Salo (1540-1609) and Giovanni Paolo Maggini (c.1581-c.1632). Early cellos were played either standing up supported by a strap, or sitting down with the instrument resting on the floor held between the legs.
The cello, which plays music in the bass clef, has a very wide range of notes and is often described as the instrument closest to the human voice. Like the other instruments of the string family, it has four strings (A, D, G and C like the viola) and can be played with the bow or plucked.
The rich, mellow sounds of the cello can be heard in many recognizable pieces; try listening to ‘The Swan’ from Carnival of the Animals by Saint Saens, or the Six Solo Suites for Cello by J.S. Bach. The beautiful playing of some of the world’s greatest cellists has made the cello an increasingly popular instrument. These cellists include, amongst others, Pablo Casals, Pierre Fournier, Paul Tortelier and Yo Yo Ma.
The Double Bass
The double bass is also called contrabass, string bass, or bass fiddle. It is the lowest-pitched member of the string family, sounding an octave lower than the cello. The bass strings are tuned four notes apart unlike violin, viola or cello strings that are tuned five notes apart. The bass can either be played standing up or sitting down on a stool and varies considerably in size, the largest is normally 6 feet in length. There are two styles of bass bow - the short and narrow French bow (like a violin bow) or a broader German bow (like a viol bow). The double bass is used in a wide range of musical styles, from classical to rock and roll and jazz.
Recommended listening on YouTube: The Elephant from Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens and Giovanni Bottesini Concerto for Double Bass No. 2 in B Minor performed by Rinat Ibragimov.