church edicts to destroy the violin -- 3/15/19

Today's selection -- from Stradivari's Genius by Toby Faber. It took the influence of Catherine de Medici, queen of France and member of Italy's powerful Medici family, to secure the place and reputation of the violin:

"[In the early 1500s] the violin had a distinctly questionable reputa­tion. The accepted view was that it might provide a good ac­companiment for dancing, but it was not something in which true musicians should take an interest. In parts of ltaly there were even church edicts directing the destruction of this licentious object. Viols, another recent invention, were considered far more suitable for both courtly and religious music. With fretted fin­gerboards like the lute and guitar, but played with a bow, the var­ious members of the viol family were softer-voiced than their violin equivalents. Ultimately this was to prove their undoing, but initially it was an advantage. In 1556 Philibert Jambe de Fer, writing in Lyon, praised the viol, expressing only opprobrium for the 'harsher sound' of the violin, which (the ultimate insult) 'few persons use save those who make a living from it through their labor.'

"For the violin to flourish, the support of someone as influen­tial as Catherine de Medici was crucial. An Italian dance band of violinists, headed by the marvelously named Balthasar de Beau­joyeux, had first arrived at the French court around 1555, before Henri's death but under Catherine's patronage. The band's orig­inal instruments have not survived, but some of their immediate successors do. Soon after Charles IX reached his majority, he and his mother set off for a tour of the kingdom, one that would last two years. At around the same time Catherine ordered a set of thirty-eight string instruments from Italy. Whatever her faults as a ruler, she knew how to buy. The entire set was made in the northern Italian town of Cremona. It included that small violin from 1564 that now lies on the floor of its case in the Ashmolean Museum, the earliest surviving violin in the world. And all the instruments were made by Andrea Amati. He and his family would dominate violin-making for the next one hundred years.

ex "Kurtz" Violin, ca. 1560 -- This violin may have been part of a set of instruments presented upon the marriage of Philip II of Spain to Elisabeth of Valois in 1559. 

"The violin is one of the great products of the late Renaissance, the result of a process of evolution, rather than a moment of in­spiration.

"At the end of the fifteenth century there were only primitive instruments, good for providing dance music or ac­companying voices but not for carrying their own tune. By 1535 Gaudenzio Ferrari was painting the ceiling of Saronno Cathe­dral to show not just violins (or possibly what we would now re­gard as violas) but also a cello, although both have just three strings. A workshop serving the courts of Mantua and Ferrara in northern Italy had probably made the crucial breakthroughs, combining the pegbox of the rebec, a lute-like instrument of Moorish origin, with the soundbox of the lira da braccio, itself a development of the Renaissance fiddle. Although he cannot have been the violin's inventor, Andrea Amati's delicacy and awareness of geometric principles established the blueprint for others to follow; everything of the instrument's form and func­tion can be seen in that 1564 violin....

"By the end of the sixteenth century the power and the ver­satility of the violin were undeniable. In 1581 Balthasar de Beau­joyeux composed the first music specifically for the new instrument, a ballet to celebrate the marriage of Catherine de Medici's daughter. From about 1600, paintings by Caravaggio and others depict the full beauty of the violin: it had emerged from the shadows, a work of art, but also the most advanced technology of the age."



Toby Faber


Stradivari's Genius


2006 Random House


Copyright 2004 by Toby Faber


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