The Form of the Fiddle by Otis Tomas

The Form of the Fiddle by Otis Tomas

The elegant proportions, lines, and curves of a classic violin strike us with an immediate sense of easy grace and timeless perfection. We feel a harmony of design that we take in with our eyes as well as our ears, and which hints to us of a music that is deeper and more fundamental than that which our separate senses can discern.

The aesthetic traditions from which the violin's design evolved, have roots that can be traced back to some of the earliest expressions of our civilization. In Ancient Greece, the idea of harmony signified the joining together of separate elements into a unified whole, and was given a simultaneously musical and mathematical treatment by Pythagoras and his followers in the sixth century B.C. They found the simple ratios that describe the relationships between the lengths of strings or weights of hammers that sounded the musical intervals, and these they held as evidence of a deep and simple mathematical harmony underlying the complexities of nature. One hundred and fifty years later, Plato describes the architect of the world bringing order out of chaos by dividing it up and laying out the heavens and the earth in proportion, according to the musical ratios; and the planets sent humming in their spheres in accordance with the musical geometry of this cosmic harmony. continues below

As the Renaissance began to flower in Italy, a newly reinvigorated examination of the early Greek writings infused the intellectual climate of the times with a keen interest in the Platonic and Pythagorean ideas on philosophy and aesthetics. The ancient musical geometry, focussing on the classical idea of harmonious proportion became an important element in the legacy of renaissance art. Leon Battista Alberti, who wrote treatises on both architecture and painting which were widely circulated amongst the artists of the time, went into detail describing the simple proportions of the intervals of the musical scale as the key to the harmonious composition of spaces in architecture and in painting.

The luthiers and violinmakers of the time participated in these ideas, and it would have only seemed natural that an object designed to create music in the worldly sense would incorporate the classical principles whereby it would reflect also the cosmic harmony that echoed throughout nature and society. The early violin makers took as their starting point the idea that the outward design of their instruments should naturally reflect the inner musical voice, which in turn was the reflection of Nature's original harmony, and to which geometry was the key.

With compass and straightedge, the renaissance luthiers laid out the flowing arcs and eloquent proportions of the violin, incorporating the classical mathematical ratios such as the arithmetic and harmonic means, by which the Pythagoreans had divided the octave into the pure consonances of the fifth and fourth (and similarly dividing the fifth into major and minor thirds); and the "golden" mean, whose self replicating proportions echo the whole within its parts --hinting at the mystery of existence, of infinity in the world, and a deeper harmony heard not with the ears but with the soul.

So the next time you see a violin whose curves and proportions are especially enchanting, stop for a moment to hear with your eyes and with your whole being for a tune just out of reach...

 by Otis Tomas

Otis A. Tomas -- Stringed Instruments -

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last upddate11/7/2000