The earlier forerunners of the violin such as the rebec, Slavic gusle or eastern kemene are found in all Romania’s neighbours, but not in the existing traditional music of Romania.
It is possible that early violins were used in the courts and during the 15th to 16th. The first documentation of the violin in Romania is from the 17th century by an Italian monk regarding the violini music of Moldavia. This is unlikely to be the modern violin which developed less than a century earlier in western Europe. A later 17th century painting by Graz Codex shows a fiddler playing a rectangular bodied four string instrument.
The modern violin arrived in Romania in the 18th century and is known by a variety of names; cetera – Transylvania, scripcar – Moldavia, lăuta – Banat and Hunedoara. In Oltenia and Muntenia many different tuning systems were originally used for certain dance tunes, but these have mostly now been abandoned.
Adaptations to the standard violin can be found in several areas:
- In Oas the bridge is moved up to the fingerboard to give a shrill penetrating sound.
- In Vrancea resonance strings are strung under the main strings. This adaptation is possibly based on the Viola d’amore or Kerman which was played in the courts during Ottoman rule. The Csango of Gyimes insert a single “echo” string into their violins.
Contră – second harmony violin
In a few areas of west Transylvania a second standard violin is used in rhythmic harmonic accompaniment. This is considered the “old style” compared with later developments in central Transylvania. The second violin in the Transylvanian counties of Mureș, Bistrița, and Cluj has only three strings (two G strings and one D string), strung across a flat bridge, tuned to G-D1-A so that chords can be played. Known as contră or braci, this was found by Bela Bartok (1914) and was included in his written works in 1934. It is most probable that this development came about through the gypsy musicians of the central Transylvania taraf.
Typically, two consecutive chords are played from a single stroke of the bow by using a slight movement of the wrist to pulse the note, this style is known as “românesc”. The style of playing just the off-beat chords is known as “nemțesc” (German).
The gyspy taraf play for both the Hungarian and Romanian communities in these regions. Many of the villages also have mixed population hence this style of string ensemble with the contră is equally representative of both the Romanian and Hungarian tradition in this region.
Vioară cu goarnă – Stroh violin
The Stroh violin, invented in England by Augustus Stroh, was used in the recording industry from the late 19th century until the introduction of electronic amplification. A standard violin was not powerful enough to record on the wax cylinders whereas the Stroh violin uses a mica resonator and a horn to amplify the sound much like the gramophones of that time. These instruments are still played by the Romanians of Bihor who continue to make them in the villages and call them vioară cu goarnă (violin with horn). Other names are vioară cu pilnie (funnel violin), vioară-corn (horn violin).
The D, A, E strings the same as a standard violin, but the G sting (lowest pitch on a standard violin) is replaced by a thinner string just for the mechanical stability of the instrument. The musicians only use three upper strings.
Cello and bass have been added to the lăutari bands since the 19th century. For easier transportation in the rural areas they are somewhat smaller than the classical instrument, having only three strings. They are known as cel or gordon. In some areas the strings were hit with a stick to give a more percussive sound for fast dances. This technique has mostly been abandoned except by the Csángós of Gyimes and musicians around Bicaz, both these regions being high in the eastern Carpathians. In these areas they have developed the technique to give a totally percussive instrument. The left hand, instead of stopping the string against the fingerboard, lifts it so that it slaps back down on the fingerboard and then the right hand uses a stick to strike the thick strings.