After a recent performance, a member of the audience came up to tell me that he’d enjoyed my playing. “I always think,” he said, as if he were being original, “that the violin is the instrument that most closely resembles the human voice.” Outwardly I nodded assent and smiled; inwardly I groaned. If you happen to be a violinist, then you’ll be only too familiar with this particular cliché. But, as the old adage goes, clichés are clichés for a reason. A colleague has a notion that this one came about because playing the violin causes the same areas of the body – head, arms, and chest – to vibrate and resonate as when singing. Whether this theory holds or not, it is undoubtedly true that the violin, or fiddle, is one of the most versatile and expressive instruments we play.
Back in the days when I was immersed in classical music at a specialist school, it was a matter of pride amongst violin students that we could identify, within a few bars, to which of the famous players of the day we were listening. It was pretty easy for us to hear the difference between Itzhak Perlman and Kyung-wha Chung, between Pinchas Zukerman and Anne-Sophie Mutter; we were eating, drinking, sleeping, and dreaming violin, and were being trained to hear all the nuances of tone and expression that gave each of these celebrated performers their distinct musical personalities. However, having long ago lost my obsession with classical violin playing, I’d be hard pushed these days to identify any current stars just from listening. For the last twenty years I’ve mostly been listening to traditional fiddlers and non-classical players, and, for me, it is in these areas that the violin’s versatility and capacity for expression really come to the fore.
Just take a look at the range of cultures and genres in which the violin, or fiddle, has made a home for itself. It’s almost synonymous with Irish traditional music, which comprises many distinct regional styles, the subtleties of which the instrument is particularly able to convey. Listen to Martin Hayes, originally from Feakle, in whose lyrical phrasing and achingly pure tone one might catch the trace of a Gaelic cadence and the outline of the rolling East Clare landscape; to Liz Doherty, from Donegal, whose driving bow and coiled energy bring to mind the sea broiling around the region’s craggy North Atlantic coast; to Kevin Burke, from Sligo via London and Oregon, whose playing fuses the lyricism of Clare and the wildness of Donegal. Never in a million years would it be possible to confuse these three players. Of course, they are all world-class artists, but the fiddle allows them absolute expression of their individual voices.
The instrument thrives in Scottish traditional music too, with just as much variation between regional styles and players. It’s also dominant in English traditional music, in Scandinavian traditional music, particularly in Sweden and Finland, and in American Bluegrass and Old Time. You find it in Breton, Greek, and Middle Eastern traditional styles. In Indian classical music, it is tuned and held differently, and is perfectly suited to the playing of microtonal ragas. But if that’s not enough to convince of the instrument’s rare versatility, the violin also occupies an established position in the world of jazz. Stéphane Grappelli, with his breath-taking virtuosity, is still the most well-known in this sphere, but there are numerous others, such as Stuff Smith, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Regina Carter. They might all be playing jazz, but their individual phrasing and markedly different tones render them distinctive and immediately recognisable.
All pretty remarkable for an instrument that essentially amounts to being a wooden box strung with taut wire and scraped with horse-hair tied to a stick. But back to that cliché about the violin. If, indeed, it is the instrument that most closely resembles the human voice, it is perhaps because it is uniquely able to include all human voices, in all of their infinite cultural and expressive diversity.
Featured image: Jane Griffiths’ violin. Photo by Ian Wallman, www.iwphotographic.com.