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Celebrating violins and all things violinistic

A of A – Z of All Things Violin

violin, Amati, Nicolo Amati, Alard

‘The Alard’ Nicolo Amati 1649 violin

Where else would you start an A-Z of all things violin that at A, and in this case we can start with A itself, the note A. On the violin it is the pitch of the second highest open string (the string 3rd from the left as you hold the violin under your chin). It is the pitch to which all instruments in the orchestra or group are tuned around. The most common used pitch is A=440 Hz, for the A above middle C. It is a reference note and all others are tuned relative to it. A=440 Hz has not always been the standard and at various periods throughout history it has been both higher and lower. The first attempt to standardize it was made by the French who set it by law in 1859 at 435 Hz. In the early 19th century the British had the ‘old’ Philharmonic Pitch of 452 Hz, which was reduced in 1896 to 439 Hz, after which the two standards were referred to as low pitch and high pitch. The advantage of a higher pitch for A is that it produces a brighter more brilliant sound. The disadvantage is that it is a strain for singers and it is their complaints that stopped the tendency for concert pitch to gradually creep up.

The first known formal recommendation of the A=440 concert pitch came at the 1839 conference held in Stuttgart, following the research work of German Physicist Johann Scheibler. This led to it being referred to as the Stuttgart or Scheibler pitch. It was not until 1939 that this was formalised and became known as ‘concert pitch’ and in 1955 it was enshrined by the International Organisation for Standardization. Most modern orchestras use the standard concert pitch with only slight variation. The Boston Symphony Orchestra uses A=441 Hz, the New York Philharmonic uses 442 Hz, as do most in Italy, France, Switzerland, Denmark and Norway. Those of Germany, Austria, Russia, Sweden and Spain use A = 443Hz, whilst the gold standard Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra having once used 445 Hz has come into line with the rest of Germany at 443 Hz.

Most of today’s performers that specialize in Baroque music find A = 415 Hz to produce a sound more authentic to the period.

A string. As mentioned before the A string is the second highest pitch string on the violin and is the string relative to which all the others are tuned.

The Key of A major contains 3 sharps – F#, C#, G#

Notable pieces written in the key of A major include the climax to Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. Beethoven’s Kreutzer sonata, Brahm’s, Fauré, and Frank’s violin sonatas, Schubert’s Trout and Dvořák’s second piano quintet’s are all written in A major. The incredibly popular Mozart Clarinet concerto is also in A major.

A flat major, or A♭ major, contains 4 flats – B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭

There a few well known violin pieces written in A flat major, although Benjamin Goddard’s violin sonata No.4 is. Most of Beethoven’s compositions in C minor use the key of A flat major for their slow movements.

A minor key has no flats or sharps, except in the harmonic scale where the 7th is raised a semitone, so that G becomes G#.

Johann Sebastian Bach has a violin concerto in A minor, as does Antonio Vivaldi (Op.3 No.6, from L’Estro Armonico). Paganini’s caprice No.24 is in the key of A minor, as is Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 24 variations on that caprice, known as Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra (with the exception of variations 12 through 18). Beethoven’s violin sonata No.4 and Schumann’s violin sonata No.1 are other examples of violin works written in this key.

A flat minor has a key with 7 flats in the signature, which means that all 7 notes A to G are flats. In the harmonic minor scale the G♭ is raised a semitone to G natural.

This key is rarely used as the main key for compositions of classical music, although it does appear intermittently in a number of well-known pieces – none of which are for the violin. It occurs in the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s 9th Symphony and the Funeral March from Beethoven’s piano sonata No.12 is also in this key. Also the opening of Stravinsky’s The Firebird is in A flat minor.

A sharp minor has 7 sharps in the key signature in the same way that A flat minor has 7 flats. In the harmonic minor scale the G# is raised half a tone giving us a G double sharp, G. A sharp minor is a scale that is not practical for compositions with the enharmonic equivalent of B flat minor being used instead, which contains 5 flats (B, E, A, D, G). Pieces in B flat minor include Barber’s Adagio for strings, Tchaikovsky’s Sérénade mélancolique and Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto No.2.

Arpeggios and scales form the backbone of all technical work for the violinist and form an important part of exams. Arpeggios are alternatively referred to as ‘broken chords’ as they are the notes of a chord played sequentially one after the other, rather than at once. However, the two terms should be distinguished as in an arpeggio the notes are played in sequence, ascending or descending, whilst in a broken chord the chord notes are not necessarily played in order. Thus an arpeggio is a type of broken chord. The term arpeggio is derived from the Italian word ‘arpeggiare’, which literally means ‘to play on a harp’, as you can imagine the notes of a harp would not be played simultaneously but rather plucked one after the other. The simplest arpeggios are formed from the tonic triad of a chord, which is the first, third and fifth notes of the chord. So the A major arpeggio would consist of the notes A (the root of the chord), C# (the third note of the A major scale) and E (the fifth note). Then A♭ major would consist of A♭, C and E. Many composers have used arpeggios within their compositions and knowing your arpeggios thoroughly is not just a must for music theory and examinations but is also of huge practical importance for playing pieces and writing tunes.

Articulation is about how a note or group of notes are played and how you get from one to the next. Are they short, sharp, disconnected (eg. Staccato) or longer and smoothly connected (eg. Lagato). The most common forms of articulation for string instrument players are spiccato, staccato, marcato and accented notes, tenuto, natural harmonic, legato or slur and pizzicato. The performance of each form of articulation has its own bow technique.

Amati – Although not the originator of the violin in its modern form, as has sometimes been wrongly attributed, Andrea Amati was amongst the early luthiers who moved from making viols and rebecs to producing violins and became the true founder of the Golden Age of violinmaking and the father of a dynasty of Cremonese violinmakers that has never been equalled anywhere in the world. The Amati family can be traced back to 1097, with Andrea Amati being born in Cremona in 1525. When he turned his hand to violin making around 1560 he made some significant changes to their design, making them smaller than the large sized instruments popular at the time, and introduced an elegance and finesse to their previously coarse appearance which he further enhanced with delicate detail. During the reign of Charles IV he was appointed as violinmaker to the Royal French Court. Cremona was at this time under French rule. Andrea had two sons that became renowned violinmakers, Antonio and Hieronymus (Girolamo), who are sometimes referred to as the ‘brothers Amati’. It was the son of Hieronymus though that was destined to become the greatest of them all through the new levels of artistry that he brought to the world of violinmaking. Born in 1596, it was natural for him to follow in his father’s footsteps as a violinmaker and his early instruments show little departure from his father principles, being small in size and with high arching front and back. It was not until after his father’s death in 1630 that his productions started showing signs of originality and evolution of the design, culminating in what is known as the ‘Grand Amati’ pattern by 1640. This was a small violin still but of greater width. They are widely regarded as the height of elegance in violinmaking, with mathematically calculated outlines, sweeping curves and long clean cut corners, all finished off with the trademark Amati precision cut purfling and beautifully balanced scroll.

violin, Amati, Nicolo Amati

                            Nicolo Amati 1649 violin ‘The Alard’

Nicolo Amati also introduced a further innovation into the world of violinmaking. It was traditional for the sons to carry on the family business but having none Nicolo Amati became one of the first to take apprentices from outside his family into his workshop. At the age of 53 Nicolo did eventually have a son, Hieronymus (named after his grandfather), who eventually became a pupil of Antonio Stradivari. There is to this day much debate as to whether Stradivari, the greatest violinmaker of all time, was himself a pupil of Nicolo Amati. One of Stradivari’s early instruments bears a label stating that he was a pupil of Amati but was he just referring to himself being a student and admirer of the work of Amati rather than an apprentice in his workshop? There is evidence to support both views. There is much less doubt that some of the other great names in the history of the Golden Age violinmaking in Cremona were apprenticed to Nicolo Amati. They include the first violinmaker in the Guarneri family Andrea Guarneri, Francesco Rugieri and Giovanni Batista Rogeri.

All told, the Amati family of the mid 16th to late 17th centuries not only made the violin what it is today but also made violinnmaking what it is today.

Other A list violinmakers include the Antoniazzi brothers, Riccardo and Romeo, born in Cremona (1858 and 1862, respectively) with a violinimaking father and grandfather whose names were both Gaetano. They moved to Milan where they worked in the Bisiach workshop for many years, whilst also making instruments with their own labels.

A is also for Auer, Leopold Auer. Almost every top violinist and violin teacher can trace their lineage back to one of one or two great violin pedagogues of which Leopold Auer is widely respected as the very best. Born in Hungary in 1845, he was an excellent violinist in his own right but it was his teaching methods and the string of premiere league topping violinists that came from his pupillage in the early 20th century for which he is renowned. The list of his famous students reads like an A-Z of the most famous violinists of the time. Starting with the man that is regarded by piers and all subsequent generations to date as unsurpassed, the legendary Jascha Heifetz. Follow that with Nathan Milstein, Mischa Elman, Efram Zimbalist, Benno Rabinof, Toscha Seidel, Oscar Shumsky, Sascha Lasserson, Konstanty Gorski, Georges Boulanger and Kathleen Parlow. It is said that although he was exacting in his demands for strict technical accuracy he did not teach technique, instead he focused on musicality and interpretation; and was the strictest of disciplinarians.

The Tchaikovsky violin concerto and the same composer’s Serenade Melancolique were both dedicated to Leopold Auer, although he chose not to play the violin concerto initially because he felt that some passages were not suited to the instrument. He did later perform it having amended these sections. Auer wrote a number of his own compositions, none of which have made it into the popular repertoire of today, but many of the cadenza’s that he wrote for some of the great violin concerto’s such as Brahm’s and Beethoven are widely played. He also edited, arranged and transcribed many of the pieces in today’s standard repertoire. His contribution to the world of the violin has been immense.

The 75 year old Leopold Auer plays Hungarian Dance No.5, recorded in 1920.

Other famous A violinists include Jean-Delphin Alard (1815 – 1888), the son-in-law of one of Frances best known violinmakers, Jean Baptiste Vuillaume. Alard was also a notable pedagogue as the principal professor at the Paris Conservatoire for over 40 years, with his most famous student being Pablo de Sarasate, and also composed for the violin. Perhaps he is best known for his naming of the world’s most famous (and infamous) Stradivarius violin, the Messiah Strad 1715 (Le Messie). The violin was originally known as the Salabue after its first owner outside the Stradivari family, Count Cozio di Salabue, who sold it to the notorious violin dealer Luigi Tarisio in 1827. Tarisio made frequent trips to Paris laden with the best Italian violins he had collected around his homeland including many made Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati and the likes. On arriving in Paris Tarisio would visit all the leading violin dealers, including Vuillaume, regaling them with stories of the best Stradivari violin of them all, magnificent and as pristine as the day the varnish dried, but he would never bring it with him. One day Tarisio was recounting stories of this Salabue Stradivarius to Vuillaume in the presence Jean-Delphin Alard who suddenly proclaimed to Tarisio “Then your violin is like the Messiah: one always expects him but he never appears”. Thereafter the violin became known as the Messiah Stradivarius, a name which it retains to this day. Vuillaume did eventually acquire the violin on Tarisio’s death, who in turn left it to his daughter and her virtuoso violinist husband Alard. He himself had at least one Stradivarius violin named after him, the Artot-Alard of 1728, as well as the 1741 Guarneri del Gesu violin and a Nicolo Amati 1649.

vioolin, Strad, Stradivarius, Stradivari, Antonio Stradivari, Antonio Stradivarius

The Alard Strad of 1715, regarded as one of Antonio Stradavari’s finest violins.


violin, violin scroll, Strad, Stradivarius, Stradivari, Antonio Stradivari, Antonio Stradivarius, Stradivarius violin

Scroll of the Alard Strad 1715

Of contemporary violinists we have the amazing French all-rounder Gilles Apap, who was born in Algeria in May 1963. An outstanding classical violinist who has crossed into all genres and either amazes or outrages (depending on viewpoint) music lovers everywhere with his own cadenza’s for classical standards that draw on influences from many different parts of the world. Here is an example of his cadenza to the final movement of Mozarts violin concerto No.3

He is certainly one of a kind.

Born in 1910, Tom Anderson has been described in his entry to the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame as “…the most prominent personality in the entire history of Shetland fiddling”. He was a folk musician who was an unparalleled Shetland fiddler but left a legacy after him through his teaching, compositions and collecting of traditional tunes which kept the music of the Shetlands alive for future generations. In 1977 he was awarded an MBE by the Queen but perhaps his greatest achievement was his successful campaigning to have fiddle playing taught as part of the curriculum in all Shetland schools. He went on to become the first official fiddle teacher in the islands school system, and one of his first pupils was the now legendary Ally Bain (more about him in B). In 1981 he was given an honorary doctorate by Sterling University. Here he plays some of his own compositions at his 80th birthday celebration concert

Salvatore Accardo was born in Turin September 1941. He is renowned for his Paganini interpretations and was the first person to record all of his concertos. In 1995 he was permitted to make a recording using Paganini’s Il Cannone Guarneri del Gesu violin and has been privileged on occasion to use it in recital, the first occasion being in 1958 as first prize winner in the Genoa Paganini competition. Here Accardo is the soloist on one of our A list violin pieces, the beautiful Adagio Appassionato Op.57 by Max Bruch

Another A composition is the widely loved Adagio for strings by Samuel Barber. If you only know the arrangement for orchestra then take a listen to it in the form it was originally composed in the String Quartet Op.11

There are many compositions with the title Adagio. One of my favourite non-classical pieces for the violin is Secret Gardens deeply moving Celtic flavoured Adagio

A further Adagio was composed much earlier by one of our A composers for the violin, Thomaso Albinoni, an Italian Baroque period composer who was born in Venice. He lived from 1671 – 1751 and was thus a contemporary of Vivaldi and Corelli. In his early years studied the violin and also singing, and during his lifetime was most famous for his operas. However, it is his instrumental works that have stood the test of time with the likes of his Adagio in G minor for violin, strings and organ (although this has now been attributed to Remo Giazotto, who claims to have found fragments of a manuscript by Albinoni shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War in the ruins of Dresden Library and that he (re-)constructed the rest of the piece from that.

Perhaps his oboe concertos are his best known but there are also a number of violin concertos and sonatas played today. Albinoni’s compositions were an influence on Johann Sebastian Bach who used his themes for at least two Fugues.

The Swedish violinist and composer Tor Aulin (1866 – 1914), will I am sure be a new name to many. He wrote three violin concertos and formed the first professional full-time string quartet in Sweden, which was named after him. He was also concertmaster of the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm. His third violin concerto is particularly lyrical with distinctive flavours of Bruch’s major compositions for violin to it. It is definitely worthy of a listen:

The contemporary American composer John Adams wrote a violin concerto in 1994 based on the poem by Californian Robert Haas entitled ‘Body Through Which The Dream Flows’ with the violin representing the ever present dream in the piece and the orchestra portrayed as the organised mass of blood, tissue and bones of the body. Here it is played with soloist Leila Josefowic and the composer conducting the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.

A contemporary composer that I have only very recently come across is Lee Actor. Born in Denver, Colorado, US in 1952, he was a violinist with Albany Symphony Orchestra before becoming a conductor and composer. Actor has won many competition prizes for his compositions. His concerto for violin and orchestra has been described as “…a major work deserving of national attention. … This concerto verges on a masterpiece” and was a finalist in the 2012 American Prize for Orchestral Composition. Elsewhere, his compositions have been defined as “characterized by its dramatic impact and emotional expressivity, featuring a striking use of harmony, counterpoint, motivic development, and lyricism with a fresh, modern flavour.” Here the second movement, ‘Meditation’, of his violin concerto is played by the wonderfully talented Pip Clarke.

There are numerous musical terms that you will come across beginning with A, here are a selection of the most common (all the following are derived from the Italian language).

Accellerando (accel.) – gradually getting faster.

Accento – accented, emphasized.

Ad libitum – at choice, the passage may be performed freely.

Adagio – slowly, a speed between Largo and Andante.

Adagietto – rather slowly, a speed a little faster than Adagio.

Affettuoso – tenderly.

Agitato – agitated, restless.

Al or Alla – in the style of…

Allargando – broadening.

Allegro – fast.

Allegretto – rather faster, a tempo between Andante and Allegro.

Andante – walking speed, moderately slowly.

Andantino – like walking speed (can be slightly faster or slightly slower than Andante)

Animato – animated, lively.

Appassionato – with passion.

Arco – with the bow (usually following a section played pizz./ pizzicato)

Assai – very (eg. Allegro Assai – very fast)

Attacca – go straight on, move to the next section.

The Art of Violin is the title of a video by Bruno Monsaingeon, principally about the great richness of violin virtuosi of the 20th Century.

The Art of Violin is also the title of a two part book on violin playing by the great violin pedagogue Karl Flesch. The first volume covers in detail every aspect of violin technique whilst the second, subtitled ‘Artistic Realisation and Instruction’, is more about expression.

And finally,

Aubert – renowned makers of violin bridges.




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