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This 500-year-old Instrument Has A Rich and Quirky History

girl playing violin

While violin lessons are a time-honored tradition for American schoolkids, many of us only know a few facts about this legendary instrument.

Here are some fiddle details that may surprise you.

  1. Strings for the violin were once made from sheep intestines.

The word for this is “catgut,” but it was never made from cats or their guts. Historically, these sheep innards were dried, stretched out, and twisted, and this provided for the violin strings. These days, strings can be made from perlon (a synthetic), solid steel, or stranded steel. You can also still get “gut” strings.

  1. One violin once sold for $16 million.

A vintage violin made by legendary artisan Antonio Stradivari was valued even higher, but other Stradivarius violins have sold for $10 million each, and more. Stradivari built these violins in the early 1700s.

  1. In the seventeenth century, King Louis XIII of France gave the violin a big boost.

The king of France established an orchestra called Les 24 Violons du Roi in 1626, and this orchestra was the first to feature violins so prominently.

  1. Before orchestras had conductors, the first violinist would lead the orchestra.

This first-violin position is called the “concertmaster” position, and it is still a seat of great honor in the orchestra. Before the age of modern-day conductors, composers would often lead large ensembles through their symphonic works while sitting in the first violin chair and playing those lead melodies.

  1. In World War I, a violinist named Fritz Kreisler used his sensitive hearing to determine the enemy’s location.

During the First World War, violinist Fritz Kreisler served in the Fourth Battalion of the Austrian army. Given his finely-tuned listening skills, he was able to figure out the trajectory of missiles as he heard them fly through the sky. This skill proved helpful in the trenches.

  1. One city in northern Italy, Cremona, was home to many of the world’s great violinmakers.

Handmade violins are what the small Italian town of Cremona is best known. The luthiers of Cremona have been making violins, violas, cellos, and double basses there since the 1500s. Among the legendary artisans who worked in that town were Francesco Rugeri, Vincenzo Rugeri, Giuseppe Guarneri, Nicolo Amati, and the most famous of all, Antonio Stradivari.

  1. Before Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart learned piano, he studied violin.

Mozart’s father encouraged the young boy to study violin as his first instrument. Though most of us think of the composer as a master of keyboard instruments — harpsichord, piano, and organ — violin was his entry-way into the world of music, at age 5.

  1. The violin is a prominent instrument in many countries, ranging from India to Israel, Ireland to Saudi Arabia, and Argentina to Canada.

Not only is the violin used in a vast majority of nations across the globe, but in a wide range of styles. Rock, jazz, country, folk, Irish, traditional Chinese opera, and Arabic music all employ the violin (or the fiddle) extensively.

  1. It’s called “col legno” (which means “with the wood” in Italian) when a violinist hits the strings with the wooden side of the bow.

Rather than drawing the hair of the bow across the strings, violinists can play “col legno,” and strike the strings with the wood of the bow. This happens in Mahler’s second symphony, as well as in “Mars, Bringer of War” from Holst’s The Planets.