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  • The Violin: A Social History of the World’s Most Versatile Instrument by David Schoenbaum
  • Kirstin Dougan
The Violin: A Social History of the World’s Most Versatile Instrument. By David Schoenbaum. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013. [xxvi, 710 p. ISBN 9780393084405. $39.95.] Illustrations, bibliographic references, index.

A social history is usually defined as a “history of the people,” and this volume tells the history of the violin through the people involved with it, including makers, sellers, and players, as well as filmmakers, artists, and writers. A long-time amateur violinist, David Schoenbaum has used his professional skills as a historian to give an account of the violin and its origins. To accomplish this, Schoenbaum draws information not only from standard musicological sources, but also from other disciplines ranging from sociology (e.g., Max Weber’s Society and Economy, 1922) to psychology (J. Richard Hackman on teams). He uses historical censuses, statistical data, and directories to provide a wider context for this very narrow topic in a way not usually seen in this type of book. He looks at the influence of trade routes, geography, politics, war, plagues, and famines on the violin, its makers, music, and players. By applying his knowledge of global history and economics, Schoenbaum brings the big picture into focus with the violin at its center.

There are many well-respected books on the violin that focus on only one specific aspect such as construction, repertoire, players, makers and dealers, etc. Perhaps the closest in scope to this volume is Robin Stowell’s The Cambridge Companion to the Violin (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992). It also addresses the violin’s history from multiple perspectives, but does so in a way that is more practical in nature for performers (and historians). It includes many topics that Schoenbaum does not, such as fundamental [End Page 440] acoustical properties, technique and teaching methods, solo and ensemble repertory, pedagogical literature, traditions in folk music and jazz, and aspects of historical performing practice. Walter Kolneder’s 1972 Das Buch der Violine, translated as The Amadeus Book of the Violin: Construction, History, and Music (trans. and ed. Reinhard G. Pauly; Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1998), covers much of the same ground as Schoenbaum in looking at the origins of the violin, however it is directed at a more academic audience. Schoenbaum’s aim is broader and he provides a meta-analysis of the existing literature, interweaving the story of the violin with anecdotes.

In the introduction, titled “The Global Instrument,” Schoenbaum explains that although the term “globalism” was first used in print in the mid-twentieth century, the violin has been a global construct since the mid-sixteenth century (p. xvii). This is a major premise for the text. What follows are four books (parts), “Making It,” “Selling It,” “Playing It,” and “Imagining It,” each divided into multiple subsections. The opening section of “Making It” provides a helpful literature review of the major historical writings about the violin. Here Schoenbaum does not offer a technical outlook on the construction or acoustics of violins, but instead focuses on the makers themselves, while only briefly mentioning the differences in the various schools of violin (and bow) making. In a pattern that is repeated throughout the text, he follows the dissemination of the violin, beginning in Italy, then examining England, France, and Germany, and then moving outward to Asia, the U.S., and elsewhere, with each geographic location discussed chronologically. Schoenbaum also mentions the challenges for new makers to establish themselves and the difficulty in getting widespread adoption of new types of instruments.

In “Selling It,” Schoenbaum outlines the skills necessary to be a violin dealer, the history of the violin trade, the evolution of the market for old Italian instruments and the economics thereof, the effect on the market of copies (not just a modern phenomenon), the emergence of new makers and their place in the market, and the ever-changing dynamic between makers, players, sellers, auction houses, collectors, and museums (and other nonprofits such as foundations). A large section is devoted to the Hill violin shop in London, of course, given its age and importance, but others...


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