Review: The Violin: A Social History of the World’s Most Versatile Instrument

By David Schoenbaum

The violin is the world’s premier musical instrument. A box with some strings, and a stick to slide across them, has become an art object, a cultural symbol and the undisputed leader of the symphony orchestra. Now Schoenbaum devotes a massive book to what he calls “the power of the bowed string,” displaying equal knowledge of the musical and business aspects of the instrument: what it takes to produce a beautiful sound is covered, but so is the economic climate during the years when violin-making began—years that, Schoenbaum notes happily, “coincide with the introduction of printing.”

Schoenbaum has divided The Violin into four sub-books. “Making It” is about the craftsmen of the instruments, including legendary ones like Antonio Stradivari. In “Selling It,” we learn about the prices people will pay to get a good violin and about the people who have counterfeited or stolen them. (“Upper-end violins,” Schoenbaum points out, are “easy to hide, disguise and turn into cash.”) “Playing It” is about violinists through the ages, and finally we get “Imagining It,” a rundown of violin images in high and popular culture, from Marc Chagall’s famous fiddler on the roof to a bunch of cheesy Hollywood movies starring Jascha Heifetz.

Because of the loose structure of each section, it can be hard to figure out if there’s an overall point being made, or if we’re just reading a collection of amusing or interesting violin-related stories: Schoenbaum puts in just about everything he can think of that relates to the instrument, even the full text of an obscure Gershwin song about Russian fiddlers. But in the end, the pileup of detail creates the same dizzying impact as a good violinist; after following the fiddle through all these different people, countries and classes, we have to agree with Schoenbaum that “the solo violin exercised a gravitational pull no other instrument or combination of instruments could match.”