Violin Pedagogy: How Did They Learn?

Historical Background of the Violin

by Dr. Robin Kay Deverich

Before discussing the history of violin pedagogy, it seems relevant to first consider: when did the violin emerge, who played the violin, and why did they play it? Scholars have found it difficult to determine the definitive origins of the violin. John Dilworth noted this when he stated:

Tracing the origins of the violins is not easy. Instruments played with a bow appear in European carvings and illustrations from around 900 AD, but interpretation is difficult, and the names given for them in texts vary and overlap. Broadly speaking, however, they fall into four categories: the rebec, the medieval and Renaissance fiddle, the lira da braccio and the viol.[8]

Although it is outside the scope of the present paper to consider in detail contributions early stringed instruments may have made towards the evolution of the violin, research by Peter Holman indicates that the violin family emerged between 1495-1505 in Italy. Most histories of the violin tend to rely on iconographical evidence such as visual depictions of the violin in artwork in order to date its beginning. Holman, however, sought to establish the date of the violin's inception by examining how the early violin was used and played. He determined that the first usage of the violin was in a consort. Violin music seems to support Holman's assertion, because the majority of violin literature from the 16th and early 17th century appears to be for violin consorts, and it was not until the mid-17th century that solo repertoire for the violin developed.[9]

Neal Zaslaw described who was likely to play the violin during these early years:

During the first part of its meteoric career, the violin was played in public by formally trained professionals, servants, and illiterate folk musicians. Ladies and gentlemen, when entertaining themselves in private circumstances, preferred the elegant sounds of viols and lutes to the raucous power of brash fiddles. The violin appears first to have entered 'polite society' as a consort instrument.[10]

Holman suggested that the viol consort and violin consort were developed for the same reason: "to provide an alternative to wind instruments in polyphonic music." Holman further clarified the different uses for these consorts:

Throughout the 16th century the two families were used as alternatives by professional musicians; the soft sonorous viol, with its reedy, incisive tone, was ideal for contrapuntal music, and for accompanying the voice, while the sprightly violin quickly became the favourite instrument for dance music.[11]

There is even some indication that in the early years of the violin's introduction, violin and viol consorts may have been used interchangeably. Holman stated: "From the way that the string consort is described in court documents in the first decade of its service in England, it looks as if it used viols and violins interchangeably until the end of Mary's reign."[12]

Viols and violins also differed in terms of their difference in social status. David Boyden referred to this when he stated:

For the most part, reputable people and musicians in the sixteenth century thought of violins as instruments of lowly origin played mainly by professionals. In comparison, viols and lutes, both belonging to an older and more aristocratic tradition, were played not only by professionals but also by amateurs and gentlemen, who ardently admired these instruments. To play the viol or especially the lute was considered an admissible, even highly desirable, part of the general education of the well-born; and these instruments enjoyed a vogue among persons of social standing, who as amateurs generally regarded music as a commendable avocation, but not as a proper profession. The violin enjoyed none of this social prestige.[13]

Jambe de Fer, author of the 1556 treatise, Epitome musical, described the fretless appearance of the violin, how it was tuned, and noted that the violin was primarily used to perform dance music, or sometimes double vocal parts. His views regarding the lowly status of the violin are apparent in the following passage:

The violin [violon] is very different from the viol [viole]. First of all it has only four strings, which are tuned in fifths . . . and in each of the said strings there are four tones [tons] in such a way that in four strings there are as many tones as in the five strings of the viol. The form of the body is smaller, flatter, and in sound it is much harsher [rude]; it has no frets . . . [tuning instructions follow] and the French and Italians differ in no way as regards playing the instrument. Why do you call one type of instrument viols and the other violins? We call viols those with which gentlemen, merchants, and other virtuous people pass their time . . . I have not illustrated the said violin because you can think of it as resembling the viol, added to which there are few persons who use it save those who make a living from it through their labour.[14]

Early writings about violin playing tend to be descriptive such as de Fer's description of the violin. This dearth of pedagogical information can be attributed to the apprenticeship system of musical instruction that prevailed during this era among professional musicians. Walter Woodfill referred to the apprenticeship system when he stated:

While originally developed primarily to serve economic ends, the system of apprenticeship, the means by which guilds and companies discharged their educational function, had taken on independent life of its own by the late Middle Ages, so deeply had its roots grown into the social fabric: many companies tried to maintain the system of apprenticeship long after its economic usefulness to them had disappeared. Musicians found it as valuable in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as it had ever been, and the educational function of their company ranked second to none. Besides serving economic ends, the system provided the sole school for professional secular musical training, contributed to the preservation of order and morality and tended to maintain or raise standards of musical performance and professional discipline. Traditionally apprentices lived with their masters, who were expected to bring them up in religion and good citizenship as well as in the customs and techniques of their trade.[15]

It should also be recognized that professional musicians, particularly those employed by the court, were often family members, therefore, written instructional treatises would be unnecessary, particularly when information was passed down from father to son. Holman described the connection between family relationships and how court musician positions were awarded.

Like most court business, the outcome of such contests [royal musicians chosen by the sovereign] tended to depend more on family connection, influence, or chance than on the merits of the case. The instrumental consorts, in particular, employed members of the same family over large periods of time. Four generations of Lupos served in the court string consort, from 1540 until the Civil War; there were Bassanos for even longer in the wind consorts, for Henry Bassano did not die until 1665. Such nepotism was unremarkable in a system founded on family interest, and in an age when professional musical skills were commonly passed down from father to son.[16]