Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Berlioz, Mozart, Brahms, Handel, etc. It’s easy to name the famous composers.
While most people can name a legendary pianist, it’s a little harder to name a performer famous for playing the violin or from the strings section.
Whether they were a conductor, soloist, or composer, there have been a good number of skilled musicians who underwent violin tuition the instrument and are renowned for violin playing throughout the history of music.
Be it romanticism (the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major, for example), baroque, or classical music, there are plenty of famous violinists who have performed as solosists and as part of the orchestra.
Whether you prefer a sonata, ensemble piece, traditional composition, jazz or rock music, here’s everything you need to know about the greatest violin player from each of the major musical periods!
Violin’s Beginnings with Monteverdi
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was one of the most famous concert violin players of all time. He was born in Cremona, a centre of violin manufacturers in Italy. In fact, Cremona was home to the Guarneri family of instrument builders and Stradivarius, whose instruments still exist today.
It's hardly surprising that the young Claudio became familiar with music very quickly. While there are no sources to prove it, it’s very likely that the musician was trained by Marc'Antonio Ingegneri, the musician for the city’s cathedral.
Claudio Monteverdi would have also probably have taken classes at the University of Cremona in order to broaden his knowledge of the subject. The instrument owes a lot of its success to Monteverdi’s works. The opera L’Orfeo helped establish it.
While the instrument was also used by the greats, at the same time, it also became a royal instrument.
Monterverdi’s main works:
- L’Orfeo in 1607
- Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland) in 1640
- L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) in 1643
Other composers also left their mark on the 16th century. With the birth of the true violin, composers like Salomone Rossi didn’t hesitate to make use of the instrument in their pieces and add to the instrument's repertoire.
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Before we get anywhere near the electric violins of today, we need to look at another one of the greats from long ago.
Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) is one of the most famous French composers in the history of music.
He is famous for having attracted the attention of Louis XIV and being the royal composer from 1653.
This Italian-born musician was the official dancer and violinist. He started his career with the Mademoiselle de Montpensier and quickly caught the attention of the king who made named him superintendent of music and composer for the King’s chamber. He created the Petits Violins (Little Violins) orchestra.
He composed music to accompany pieces by Molière such as the Le Bourgeois gentilhomme and Georges Dandin. Some believe that Lully himself even played the odd solo while presenting his work. He held the violin on his shoulder in order to making dancing easier.
At the height of his career, he succumb to gangrene after striking his foot when he conducted somewhat vigorously.
Lully’s main works:
- Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme in 1670
- Atys in 1676
- Te Deum in 1677
Of course, the 17th century didn’t end with Lully. While he definitely deserves a place in the history of the violin, special mentions should also go to the Italian composer Arcangelo Corelli and the English composer Henry Purcell.
If you take violin lessons for beginners, you’ll definitely end up hearing more about them!
18th Century: Vivaldi’s Influence on the History of the Violin
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was one of the most famous musicians during the 17th century and the Baroque period. However, during his younger years, Antonio Vilvaldi was a priest.
After being ordained in 1703, the young man gave it all up due to health reasons.
Having been born into music, and thanks to his father being a violinist, he became a master violinist and virtuoso in an orphanage and Italian conservatoire.
This is where he would write some of his most famous pieces, including his quartet of violin concerti. Here are some of Vivaldi’s violin pieces to add to your playlist:
- La Stravaganza in 1712
- Four Seasons in 1725
- Orlando Furioso in 1727
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Born into a family of musicians, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) learnt music early on. A gifted artist, he composed his first pieces aged just 4!
While more famous for his piano pieces, the musician didn’t forget the violin lessons his father, a violin a teacher, taught him. This is probably why the famous artist integrated violin parts into a lot of his works.
Important works by Mozart:
- Violin Concerto No. 5 in 1775
- Requiem in 1791
- The Magic Flute in 1791
Romantic Music and Violinists in the 19th Century
It was at the age of 5 that Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840) started playing the violin. Our older readers probably didn’t want to hear that.
The Italian violin star revolutionised the way the instrument is played. His technique brought him a lot of success. Spectators came from far and wide to see his concerts.
According to some sources, Niccolo Paganini owed his success to a special ability, being able to spread his fingers more than usual. The musician, who was internationally successful, moved from capital to capital playing for willing audiences. His charisma and gambling made many think that he’d made a deal with the devil. As a result, the Church refused to bury him when he died.
Paganini’s main works:
- Duetto Amoroso for Violin and Mandolin in 1807
- Violin Concerto No. 1 in 1816
- 24 Caprices for Solo Violin in 1817
The 19th century is famous for Romantic music which was expressive and emotive.
The Success of Violinists in the 20th Century
The Belgian Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) learnt the violin thanks to his father, who was also a musician. To help his family, the young artist played the violin outside of churches.
Once enrolled at a conservatoire, Eugène Ysaÿe, slowly but surely, became a great virtuoso. Positive encounters did the rest. He became one of the most influential violinists of the 20th century.
The Ukranian David Oistrakh (1908-1974) is one of the many musicians who got into music thanks to their parents. With a mother who was an opera chorister, David Oistrakh learnt the violin at the age of 5. After his first tour of Ukraine, his career took off. The Soviet Union even allowed him to travel to the West for a few concerts.
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Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) is more than just a violinist. During the Second World War, he played over 500 concerts for the Allies. Having been a star from the age of ten, the young man was already familiar with international tours. Throughout his long career, Yehudi Menuhin supported other artists from totalitarian regimes. He was named a UNESCO goodwill ambassador in 1992.
Isaac Stern (1920-2001) started playing the violin at 8 years old, just a few years after arriving in the United States. Originally from Ukraine, Isaac Stern joined the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra before joining the New York Philharmonic. When he died, the New York Times had this to say about him:
“Isaac Stern [...] was considered one of the great instrumentalists of the 20th century.”
Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987) was a Russian violinist who became a naturalised American citizen after the Russian Revolution in 1917. Before leaving Russia, his father taught him violin from a young age. He continued his studies in the Vilnius Royal Academy of Music and then the St. Petersburg Conservatory. When he arrived in the United States with his family, he continued his exceptional career in a new continent.
Current Young Violin Prodigies
The great violinists of the past have also inspired an entire new generation of virtuosos. Some are already proving themselves and on their way to becoming greats themselves. The best thing about these violinists is that they live in an age where they can be recorded. While for older violinists, you'll have to take our word for it, you can actually search for the concert that you're interested in. Let's have a look at a few international stars of violin music.
Born in Armenia in 1966, Samvel Yervinyan showed promise from the age of 7. He now travels the world performing. The American Federation of musicians described him as:
“a violinist of extraordinary ability, as demonstrated by sustained international acclaim.”
Did you hear about the young prodigy from across the Channel?
Camille Berthollet rose to fame on the French TV show “Jeunes Prodiges” (Young Prodigies). At just 16 years old, she won the competition and found her way into the spotlight. The young artist then sold over 75,000 copies of her album, the best selling classical of 2015 in France.
The prodigies don’t stop there.
Born in 2001, the Swedish violinist Daniel Lozakovich quickly became known for his musical talent and is a veritable child prodigy. After showing his mastery of some of the world’s greatest pieces, he made his debut with the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra just two years after he started learning to play the violin. From Beethoven to Bach via Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky, nothing’s out of reach for this young virtuoso. The young boy has performed and toured all over Europe.
However, the violin isn’t just for the very young musical prodigies. There are older violinists showing off their talents around the world. The American violinist Lindsey Stirling, who’s 31 years old, has performed shows all over the world including covers and her own original pieces: The soundtrack from Zelda, Rihanna covers, nothing stops this girl.
Of course, this list isn't exhaustive and you should also check out composers and violinists like Sibelius, Sarasate, Rossini, Glazunov, Wieniawski, Prokofiev, Milstein, and Mendelssohn.
If you want to learn more about the violin and other orchestral instruments like the cello, fiddle, viola, etc., remember that you can find tutorials online and around the UK.