On Radio 3 Now

In Tune

16:30 - 17:30

Sean Rafferty presents a selection of music and guests from the arts world.

Next On Air

17:30 Opera on 3

View full schedule

Musical Instruments
Violinist from the BBC SO
The large and varied family of stringed instruments all utilise the musical sounds that can be obtained by causing a stretched string to vibrate, either by plucking it, striking it or bowing it. Within the Western tradition, stringed instruments go back as far as Ancient Greece: a marble statuette discovered in the Cyclades and dated to the third millennium BC personifies a harpist. The Greeks also played other stringed instruments such as the lyra and the kithara .

The lyre and the harp continued on during the Roman and Medieval periods, but it was during the tenth century that a significant new instrument appeared in Europe -- the vielle or fiddle . Unlike the harp and lyre, the vielle was not plucked, but bowed: this allowed musical sounds to be sustained, rather than dying quickly away as did those made with plucked strings. The bow itself was an Asian development, and similar instruments to the Medieval European fiddle can still be found today amongst folk musicians in Turkestan and Mongolia. A plucked form of the vielle, known as the cittern , also developed at this time, and the lute 's originally Arabic name 'al'ûd' reflects its introduction into Spain by the Moors during the tenth century.

By this point the fundamental techniques for playing stringed instruments were all available in Europe, and the many subsequent developments can be regarded as increasingly sophisticated variations upon the relatively limited possibilities available.

During the middle ages, for instance, there developed the mandola (closely related to the lute), the rebec (a kind of bowed lute, and a forerunner of the violin ) and the psaltery , a variant on the harp or lyre, but with a soundboard attached.

In the Renaissance period the vielle acquired a new, lighter sound-box, enabling the tone to resonate more effectively, and a curved waist to its body, enabling the player to sound just one string at a time by slanting his bow. Despite the fact that the lute had been introduced into Europe via Spain, in that country uniquely a primitive version of the guitar came to overtake it in popularity. Elsewhere the lute held its own, due to its varied potential both as a solo and accompanying instrument, and began to develop an important written repertory of its own.

Meanwhile the use of keyboards as a means of sounding strings by plucking or striking them was taken up. Of the two methods, the clavichord employed pieces of metal called 'tangents' to measure lengths of string and set them vibrating, while the mechanical plucking of strings was the special feature of the spinet and the harpsichord (known in England as the virginals ). All these instruments developed from the Medieval psaltery or from its 'struck-string' equivalent, the dulcimer , but the use of keyboards introduced boundless new possibilities in terms of chordal or polyphonic textures. As with the lute, both the clavichord and the harpsichord acquired extensive written repertories for domestic music making.

Meanwhile, the bowed stringed instruments began to spawn whole families of different sizes, enabling them to play in consort pieces requiring the highest notes and the lowest notes, as well as everything in between. From the vielle there developed two more sophisticated forms, the viola da gamba (held in front of the body between the knees, hence 'leg viol') and the viola da braccio (held on the shoulder, hence 'arm viol'). Its regular characteristics were five strings, frets to help stop the notes (as on the modern guitar) and a flat sound box for ease in holding. In England it was known as the viol , and an entire family -- usually consisting of descant , treble , alto, tenor, bass and sub-bass viols -- was called a chest of viols after its place of storage. Composers such as Orlando Gibbons , John Jenkins , William Lawes and Henry Purcell wrote prolifically for such viol consorts.

The drawback of the viol was its lack of volume, which is where the rival four-stringed viola da braccio scored highly. With its brighter tone quality, the viola (as it was called for short) -- attended by other family members such as the smaller and higher violino (or 'little viola' -- in English 'violin') and the larger and lower violoncello (or 'little violone -- later shortened in English to 'cello') -- became popular for public performances, where its sound carried better than that of the viol family.

Thus around the cusp of the Renaissance and the Baroque periods the viol declined and the violin moved into the ascendancy. The original form of the viol, the viola da gamba , remained a specialist interest into the eighteenth century ( Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for it occasionally, notably in his Sixth Brandenburg Concerto) but then died out altogether, though it left an important legacy to the lowest instrument of the violin family, the double bass , which has many of the characteristics of its predecessor, the bass viol .

The rise in the growth of the orchestra in the Baroque period favoured the violin and entire string sections formed the bases of the new ensembles. In terms of the quality of the instruments themselves, the violin reached its peak among Italian makers from the late-sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries, notably Nicola Amati (1596-1684) and Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737). Many of the world's leading soloists still perform on instruments adapted from originals by these makers. Such 'adaptations' were mostly carried out during the nineteenth century, when the increased size of concert halls required a bigger tone. At this period, too, gut strings gave way to coated metal wire, which offered greater brilliance. In recent decades a revival of interest in the playing styles of earlier periods has led to the restoration of some older instruments.

The later development of two other stringed instruments deserves to be noted. The technical genius of Sebastian Érard and later the firm of Pleyel revolutionised the mechanism of the harp in the nineteenth century, while a revival of the guitar in the classical field in the twentieth was outstripped by its resurgence as the popular instrument of the day. The further evolution of keyboard instruments has been so enormous as to require a separate discussion.

Guide to Classical Music
Related Links
on radio 3
on bbc.co.uk
on the web
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.