The violin is one of the most loved and played instruments in the world. It has inspired composers and musicians alike, so I decided to take a look at some of the most famous violin players of all time.
The violin is inextricably linked with Italy, but it goes way further back than the master builders of the 16th Century. Cultures had string instruments going back over 2000 years. So, the violin is an instrument that evolved rather than was invented.
Its Earliest Designs
Whilst it was used in Palestine and Israel in those days, it wasn’t until the 11th Century we had a confirmed design. The Rebab appeared from North Africa in the wars against Spain.
At some point, it evolved into an instrument called the Rebec, which seems to be a European version of the Rebab. It was smaller, though, and if you are trying to predict evolution on the instrument, the Rebab might have more in common with modern cellos.
For 200 years, it evolved, and we see design changes, especially in France. In the Court of Versailles, the viola da braccio appeared with F-holes to help the sound.
Here Come the Italians
Andrea Amati lived in Cremona in Northern Italy. He established himself as the foremost designer and builder of the time. He established a school for violin making, and this was attended by his grandson Nicolo.
It was Nicolo who taught Antonio Stradivari, the grandfather of Giuseppe Guarneri and others. The finest violins ever made were made during this period. Today, those still in existence are extremely rare and very valuable. We owe a lot to a small village in Northern Italy.
When comparing famous violinists of today with those from the past, there is a problem with this list. We say we are going to look at the most famous Violin players of all time, but that isn’t probably wholly accurate.
Some whose names are lost in time were excellent and maybe even better than what we have today. But I can only take a look at those we do know.
Today’s musicians, it could be said, have a wider choice than in the past. But having choices doesn’t always raise the standards. They don’t all play a Stradivari, Guadagnini, or a Guarneri, but they do use quality instruments.
So, time to take a look at some of the greatest violinists. Let’s start with a name familiar to most.
Top 9 Most Famous Violin Players Of All Time
Yehudi Menuhin was born in New York and is the son of Lithuanian Jews. His sisters were both well-respected pianists. He started to play at the age of four, and before his teenage years, he was performing concerts to stunned audiences.
By the age of 12, he had Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms violin concertos as part of his growing repertoire. He had also appeared as the solo violinist with both the Berlin and San Francisco symphony orchestras.
He spent the majority of his performing life in the UK, where his concerts and recitals attracted an admiring audience.
World War Two
He performed concerts for Allied soldiers during the war along with Benjamin Britten. He also famously played a concert for surviving prisoners at the Bergen-Belsen Concentration camp in June 1945.
An Act Of Reconciliation
Yehudi returned to Germany in 1947 to play as a soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic. He was the first Jewish musician to play there following the Holocaust. Some Jewish groups criticized him, but he was adamant.
He saw it as an act of reconciliation and rehabilitation for German music, which, after all, is the greatest music in the world.
A Lifetime with His Violin
He played concerts, toured, and recorded for his entire life. He set a record as having the longest-ever contract with a music company. That was from 1929 to 1999 with EMI in London.
One of his greatest loves, though, was teaching violin. He established the Yehudi Menuhin School in Stoke d’Abernon, in Surrey, England. Also, a music program in California. In 1965, he received an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II.
A Life In Music, A Life With The Violin
He crossed genre boundaries as he explored the potential of his instrument. He was great friends with Ravi Shankar and played with him at the Bath festival in 1966. They even recorded an album called West Meets East. Also, he recorded an album with jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli called Jalousie.
When we are talking about the most successful violin players, this man’s name will be at the top or near the top of the list. Endless recordings, of which a few examples are:[bl]
- Bach: Complete Sonatas & Partitas for Violin Solo.
- Beethoven & Mendelssohn: Violin Concertos by Yehudi Menuhin/Wilhelm Furtwängler.
- Yehudi Menuhin – The Album.
Yehudi Menuhn played the Soil Stradivarius. It was made by the master himself and is considered one of the finest instruments he made.
Let’s keep a Menuhin link with this British-Italian classical violinist born in Scotland in 1987. After starting to play at age 4, it was quickly recognized this was no ordinary pupil. She rose to lead the UK Children’s Orchestra by the age of just 8.
After also leading the National Youth Orchestra, she went to the Yehudi Menuhin School in England, where she studied under Menuhin. She was given the honor of playing a violin solo at his memorial in Westminster Abbey in London.
A touring musician who plays concerts all over Europe and America…
Occasionally, she works in a trio with the British-Ukrainian Alexei Grynyuk on piano and Leonard Eischenbroich, a German cellist.
She has won too many national awards to keep track of here. But, she was made an MBE for services to music and charity in 2013 and a CBE in 2019.
A virtuoso violin player…
Nicola continues to stun audiences with her abilities at concerts. Classical music is what she is most known for. But she is also very aware of her Scottish roots and plays traditional music as well:[bl]
- Homecoming – A Scottish Fantasy.
- Elgar Violin Concerto.
- Tchaikovsky & Bruch: Violin Concertos.
Nicola Benedetti has played the Gariel Stradivarius violin since 2012.
Let’s keep the Menuhin links going, but this time with a player with a difference. Grappelli is a well known jazz violinist with a great love for Gypsy music.
He was born in Paris in 1908 to French and Italian parents. Stephane had to suffer plenty of changes and movement due to the First World War. So, unlike some of the others on my list of the most famous violin players of all time, he didn’t even start to learn the violin until he was twelve.
He is famous for his wildly exciting and emotionally-charged “Gypsy Jazz” and formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France. They were one of the first jazz bands just for string instruments and also included Django Reinhardt.
Living through two World Wars…
And the intervening period in Europe was far from easy. However, his music provided a distraction not only for him but for those who heard him play. As I have already said, he teamed up with Yehudi Menuhin to record the album, Jalousie in 1973. But he also collaborated on other works like:[bl]
- Menuhin & Grappelli Play Gershwin, Berlin, Kern, Porter, Rodgers & Hart and Others.
- Parisian Thoroughfare.
In recognition of his great friend and guitarist, Django Reinhardt, there is Tribute To Django Reinhardt- Jazz Club. He recorded hundreds of pieces and became known as the “Grandfather of Jazz Violinists.” He is recognized as being “different” but also as being one of the greats.
As always, space is at a premium, and there are always more musicians than space to include them all. So, let’s summarize a few who must be included before we move on to the final two on my list.
Italian composer of the Baroque Period who wrote many great pieces. His work is still played and taught in classical teaching today. He was the dominant figure in Venetian music in the 1700s and a virtuoso violinist.
He had been a Catholic priest for a short while and was also the Benefactor of a local orphanage. His most famous work is probably The Four Seasons.
Another child prodigy. Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, he went to the Juilliard School in New York at age 13. He has toured and recorded all his life and is a respected violinist of the highest order.
Another child prodigy, this Dutch violinist, comes from a musical family and began performing at age 6. She is known for not over-elaborating and doesn’t often play with a full orchestra.
She has performed all over Europe, including the Proms in London in 2006. And she has set up special musical events in her native Holland. She is renowned for her performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Her music is one of the most downloaded from internet sites.
Yet another child prodigy, Hillary Hahn, began playing at age four and by ten was attending a Music College in Philadelphia. She had completed her studies there by the age of 16.
At 11, she played with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She writes her own music as well as film soundtracks and performs Classical music all over the world. A highly-rated Violinist in today’s world.
I have tried to include a majority of violinists who are relevant today. Whilst also including a few important past masters of the instrument.
There obviously wasn’t room for them all…
So, let’s complete this list with two musicians who changed the face of the instrument in different ways whilst still being virtuoso players.
It is fair to say that music was in the genes of Nigel Kennedy. His grandfather was with the BBC Symphony Orchestra as principal cellist. His uncle was at the Royal Academy and was the principal cellist with the Royal Philharmonic.
Nigel was what you might call a “boy wonder.” At an early age, he could pick out Fats Waller jazz songs on the piano. At the age of seven, he met and played for Yehudi Menuhin, who immediately invited him to his school in Surrey.
Stephane Grappelli invited him to play in concert at Carnegie Hall, and his recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons sold over two million copies. That made it one of the biggest-selling Classical records ever.
He Wasn’t Impressed With Musical Snobbery
Although, he did have the ability to upset the establishment and liked to rubbish musical snobbery where he found it. He went to the Juilliard School in New York, where his tutors forbade him to go to Jazz clubs. He went anyway, bunking off some lessons if necessary to do so.
On the last night of The Proms in The Royal Albert Hall in London, he caused a furor. He was introduced to play with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in front of a few thousand people.
A very serious and traditional occasion…
The orchestra sat there, men in their formal black-tie dinner suits, ladies also suitably attired. He came onto the stage after a big introduction carrying a mug of tea and wearing an Aston Villa football shirt.
He then delivered a brilliant virtuoso performance that brought raptures from the crowd. And. a standing ovation from the orchestra.
He produced many virtuoso performances in his career, this being just one.
The End, Or Maybe Not?
In 1992, he announced that he would play no more Classical music concerts. He went off to play with Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin and played on a compilation album of his favorite Jim Hendrix songs.
Rock and Roll violin, I guess. But, he returned to the classical stage in the 2000s and has since made several appearances again at the London Proms.
Nigel also plays concerts in Poland, where he spends half of his time with his wife. He is considered by many to be the finest violinist of his age. He plays the Cabriac Stradivarius Violin.
If Nigel Kennedy gave us “Rock n Roll Classical violin,” it was Vanessa-Mae who added the glamor. Vanessa-Mae Thanakorn was born in Singapore to a Singaporean mother and a Thai father. She was adopted by a British father after her parents split and moved to London when she was four.
Vanessa started playing the piano in Singapore but took up the violin on her arrival in the UK. She was sent to Beijing to the National Conservatoire of Music at the age of 8 to study the instrument.
On her return…
She entered the Royal College of Music in London. At just 13, she became the youngest ever soloist to record both the Beethoven and the Tchaikovsky Violin concertos. In 1995, she tried to combine Pop with the Classics and her first album, The Violin Player.
Her performances have drawn worldwide attention, and she was listed as the world’s richest female performer under 30. She opened the Winter Olympics in 2002, playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Summer 111 Presto.
In the list of the biggest-selling classical albums ever, she has three entries. The Violin Player, Storm, and The Classical Album 1.
The world of classical music can be brilliant…
But, it is often a little conformist and stuffy. Vanessa blew that impression right out of the water with her, at times, racy stage performances and costumes. Combined, of course, with her brilliant playing.
Quite often, you will get musicians who rely on the image they create to remain in the public eye. Not the case here. Glamorous, yes, even at nearly 50, but one of the greatest violin players of our generation.
She considers herself to be a “classical techno-acoustic fusion” violinist and has used a variety of instruments. Her classical concert preference is a Guadagnini violin that dates back to 1761. She also uses a range of electric violins.
Are You Interested in Playing the Violin?
If so, have a look at our informative articles on How Can I Learn to Play the Violin on My Own, Violin Fingerboard Tape Placement, Tips For Better Violin Bowing, Tips For Tuning Your Violin, and Easy Violin Songs for Beginners to Play for more useful violin information.
Also, check out our comprehensive reviews of the Best Student Violins, the Best Cremona Violins, the Best Electric Violins, and the Top Violin Brands for Beginner and Intermediate Students you can buy in 2023.
Most Famous Violin Players Of All Time – Final Thoughts
The violin is a special instrument often played by very special people, as we have seen here. It takes years of dedication and an incredible amount of talent to make the violin sound the way it can.
You will probably have noticed that many of the best violin players started very young. There was something inside them, and in some cases, from as young as four years old.
I can’t tell you where it comes from. Nobody can. But, it makes them child prodigies, and that’s what we have seen here. In some cases, as with Nigel Kennedy, it is in the genes. With others, it suddenly just appears. Each, though, has proven themselves to be a genius on the violin.
So, until next time, let the music play.