The violin is one of the most technically demanding instruments, requiring a great deal of skill as well as a more innate understanding of musicality.
This means that, despite the instrument’s centuries-long history, few can truly claim to be one of the best violinists of all time.
But how do you decide who is a great violinist? This is a quick guide to understanding what makes a truly great violin player, and seventeen of the best who have ever lived.
Joshua Bell (1967)
Joshua Bell made his debut at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in the mid-1980s, at the age of just 17. He is one of the few people to truly transform from a child prodigy into a startlingly successful career.
He was made famous outside the classical music world by his experiment with the Washington Post which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008. He earned less than $33 when he posed as a busker in Washington, D.C but played the same selection of music to a sold-out concert a few days before.
He frequently speaks of the benefits of experimenting with techniques to alter the sound, adapting bow speed and pressure in particular to ensure a good sound.
His hard work in the practice room means his timbre is in constant evolution, making him one of the truly great violinists.
Nicola Benedetti (1987)
Nicola Benedetti is currently one of the most sought-after violinists in the world. Concerto performances are central to her work, meaning she is incredibly popular with orchestras globally, but her spirited presence and incredible musical artistry leaves audiences captivated and enthralled by her performances.
Her phenomenal talents are reflected by her Chart success, with her recording of Elgar’s Violin Concerto entering at number one in the UK’s Official Classical Album Chart, and her numerous awards which include a Grammy for Best Classical Instrumental Solo in 2020.
Her education under violinists Menuhin and Boyarskaya lends her playing style agile and vibrant. Her own natural abilities lend her playing a more personal interpretation of classic pieces that are refreshing enough to reinvigorate interest in the genre of classical music.
André Rieu (1949)
Even if you are not a fan of commodified classical music, the influence and popularity of André Rieu cannot be denied. His founding work with the Johann Strauss Orchestra certainly makes him unique amongst other violinists, as does the theatre provided at a recital provided by the Johann Strauss Orchestra.
Even without this element of spectacle, he is a notable violinist, with a rich tone to his playing that is not diminished by stylistic choice. At the very least he should be commended for making highly accessible musical pieces that alone put him in a standout position.
Sarah Chang (1980)
Having been surrounded by violin music from an early age, Sarah Chang is certainly the epitome of a child prodigy. She was accepted into the Juilliard School at the age of just five, following a rendition of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1.
Her first album was recorded at the age of ten and she has worked as a soloist with several of the world’s most prestigious orchestras.
Her playing has left many listeners dumbfounded and can highlight more intricate aspects of the music to elevate the piece substantially. Even from an early age her confidence has shone through with her spontaneous style which is sure to captivate an audience.
Hilary Hahn (1979)
First appearing at Carnegie Hall at the age of 17, Hilary Hahn is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished violinists of her time.
She is most regularly associated with the music of Bach but often collaborates with more contemporary and experimental composers or songwriters, which gives her a wide range of appeal for accessible music.
Her playing in challenging concertos is often technically flawless and supported by her graceful but agile playing style. Overall, her sound is defined by its clear intonation and precise tonal clarity.
Midori Gotō (1971)
Making her debut with the New York Philharmonic at the age of eleven, Midori Gotō’s career marks her as one of the most distinguished and celebrated violinists currently playing.
Her early instruction from her mother Setsu Gotō, also a violinist, is shown by her outstanding technique. Her clarity of playing certainly distinguishes her from other accomplished violinists and this does not diminish with more technical or sinuous pieces.
As such, she has an unrivaled ability to truly bring out the beauty of her music.
Anne-Sophie Mutter (1963)
Having begun her musical career on the piano, Anne-Sophie Mutter first played with the Berlin Philharmonic at thirteen and since then cemented her mark as a fixture of the world’s leading orchestras as a soloist.
Her sublime technical control and unparalleled range of tone have earned her many awards and prestigious accolades.
She has given global premieres of works by many incredible composers and has been the recipient of a Grammy Award on four occasions.
Her style of playing is captivating and greatly engaging with audiences, making her one of the best violinists of all time.
Nigel Kennedy (1956)
After abandoning his classical music training in favor of more alternative genres, Nigel Kennedy remains an exceptional violinist.
His background at Yehudi Menuhin’s school and Juilliard, as well as his family history, have given him all the technical skills required of a great violinist but his own flare on the discipline marks him as unique amongst the greats.
His love of live music is demonstrated by his vibrant and engaging performances and this feeling is preserved to an extent in his albums by his single-take recording method.
This methodology, while unusual, gets results as his recording of Vivaldi is one of the best-selling classical records in history.
Kennedy’s talents are undeniable and are seamlessly integrated with many genres of music, as demonstrated by his varied career. One thing that is constant is his technical prowess and boisterous energy which makes him the violinist to see live.
Itzhak Perlman (1945)
Itzhak Perlman’s breathtaking musical prowess is made more impressive by the fact that his early years of violin playing were entirely self-taught.
He later took training at Juilliard and at what was the Academy of Music in Tel-Aviv, giving Perlman a strong understanding of theory and technique.
Stylistically, Perlman’s playing is defined by warmth and intensity that wonderfully compliments orchestral tones. The lighter aspects of his playing style counteract more lumbering orchestral tones but succeed in creating engaging pieces for audiences.
Julia Fischer (1983)
Julia Fischer is not only one of the best violinists of all time, but also occasionally dabbles as an outstanding concert pianist.
She began playing both the piano and violin parts of sonatas at the age of just four and it is this approach that gives her an unmatched understanding of harmony.
Her passion for music and belief that a career in music can only ever be about the music, and never the career, makes her truly one of the greats. Her love for her genre can be seen in her full-bodied sound and rich timbre, matched by incredible precision.
As such, she is able to truly engage an audience in her performances.
Janine Jansen (1978)
While Bach specialists are not rare, Janine Jansen’s romantic tone and dedication to the discipline are what set her apart from her contemporaries.
Her album preferences are also rare as she chooses to record with five solo strings, rather than a whole orchestra. By doing this, the listener can truly understand her mastery of the violin – from her technical abilities to astounding finesse.
Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999)
The number of world-class violinists Yehudi Menuhin taught is probably enough to place him on this list. He was, however, an astounding player in his own right and played with a truly flawless left-hand technique.
Spending his early career playing in Germany against the background of the rising Nazi Party, Yehudi Menuhin’s pure intonation and dextrous phrasing distinguished him as a great violinist in the twentieth century.
Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840)
Paganini is considered by many to be the founder of the modern violin technique and was the first to use the violin as a solo instrument.
Though his talents developed very quickly and from a young age, there are suggestions he was playing better than his tutors at the age of seven, he did not become famous until he played in La Scala in 1813.
Nevertheless, the fact that his name remains sacred in the violin world means that he is truly one of the best violinists of all time.
Joseph Joachim (1831-1907)
Joseph Joachim spent his formative years under the tutelage of the best tutors in Hungary, before making his debut with the Philharmonic Society in London at the age of twelve.
He was also an accomplished composer, though later stopped as he felt Brahms’ work was far superior, with his second violin concerto often described as one of the most important pieces in the mid-nineteenth century.
His compositions mirrored his own prowess in intricate musical phrases, though the romantic aspects of his tone cannot be overlooked.
Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931)
Eugène Ysaÿe’s reputation was somewhat enigmatic during the peak of his career, distinguishing him from other violinists. Any rumors of the supernatural origins of his violin are not enough to make him one of the best violinists, which comes from his legendary techniques.
His later role as a teacher has made Eugène Ysaÿe’s influence over modern violinists unimaginable, as did his ability to compose sonatas that played to the soloist’s strengths and natural abilities.
Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962)
Fritz Kreisler is perhaps one of the most expressive violinists who has ever lived. Famed for his unique style, he studied under several acclaimed composers and violinists which gives his work a definite stylistic flair and appealing tone.
Overall, his violin sound is sweet and delicate with a relaxed feel that compliments the sentimentality that comes from his work.
He was, however, able to create rich and grand sounds where the music requires and this ability to find a balance between the two styles makes him one of the best violinists.
Papa John Creach (1917-1994)
Papa John Creach certainly has one of the most unique backgrounds to his career, so it is hardly surprising that he did not remain a solely classical violinist.
Papa John Creach began playing the violin for people in bars and as a busker in Chicago from the age of eighteen. This meant that he was not limited by genre and gained a good reputation as a jazz and blues musician, as well as classical.
Famously collaborating with Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong, Papa John Creach’s natural talents and flexibility across styles and genres allowed him to introduce his work to a much larger audience.
As such, he deserves a place on the list of greatest violinists of all time.
What Makes A Good Violinist?
All violinists have a unique style and their own preferences and it is these differences that make the genre so engaging – each performance cannot be replicated entirely.
That said, there are some common traits amongst great violinists that are part of the reason why they are as accomplished as they are.
Firstly, a good violinist has excellent hearing and detects even the smallest changes in intonation or sound quality and adjusts accordingly.
A good violinist also needs to have an understanding of how adjusting for these changes will affect the work as a whole and the implications this would have on the audience.
Good hearing is also needed for rhythm, a fundamental aspect of playing music, and this allows a player to understand how the pacing of the piece will affect how the audience engages with the piece.
Slower music, for example, is generally more relaxing than faster or energetic music and these differences in the ambiance are dictated by rhythm but can be communicated through the charisma and body language of a good violin player.
Emotions also play a large role in making a violinist great, as an emotional connection to your instrument makes for a more engaging performance and will fire up a player’s natural instinct and curiosity.
This, in turn, will allow a violinist to create a style or sound that is unique to them and to have an extremely dedicated work ethic.
A strong work ethic is perhaps one of the most important attributes of a world-class musician as there is always room for improvement.
Frequent practice is the only way to develop the level of skill that the best violinists possess, though it would help greatly if the player possessed a natural talent or gift for their instrument of choice.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are The Most Famous Violin Pieces Of Music?
Many violinists turn to Bach’s work for classical inspiration. His work is famed for its clear structure but delicate and delightful complexities.
Chaconne from Partita No.2 in D Minor is no different and allows the violinist to demonstrate technical prowess, as well as their innate musicality.
As such, this masterpiece is one of the most popular pieces amongst musicians and enables them to capture the audience’s attention with artistic expression.
Outside the classical music world, other renowned pieces include Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which opens with the most famous violin section of all time.
Clear and distinctive playing is a must for this piece, owing to its tuneful but simple phrasing. The catchiness of the tune has made it an almost guaranteed favorite with audiences.
Who Makes The Best Violins?
Historically, a Stradivarius violin could be considered the best in the world. The name refers to any string instrument built by the Stradivari family but particular deference is given to Antonio Stradivari, born in 1644.
During his ‘golden age,’ Stradivari’s work revolutionized the violin world and heavily influenced modern techniques. His work was to such high standards that many of the currently living greatest violinists still play his violins that are worth millions of dollars.
Other notable violins include the Lord Wilton Guarnerius, played by Yehudi Menuhin, crafted by Guiseppe Guarneri in the eighteenth century, and the Dorothy Delay Gaudagnini which was made by Giovanni Guadgnini in the late eighteenth century and played by one of the early tutors at the Julliard School of Music Dorothy Delay.
Why Can Violins Be So Expensive?
There are multiple factors that affect the value of a violin. The most important of these are the origin geographically and the quality of the craftsmanship. In short, violins are valued at how closely they replicate a Stradivari or Guarneri work.
An Italian violin is often worth six times more than a violin made in France or Britain and these are in turn worth more than a violin made in Germany.
This is largely due to the differing qualities of craftsmanship across the countries.
This, however, is not as important as the condition of the violin as a poor-sounding violin in perfect condition would be worth more than an excellent-sounding violin that had been repaired.