30 Most Famous Violinists of Past and Present
Who is the most famous violinist in the world?
Top 30 greatest violinist of all time:
Paganini, Sarasate, Auer, Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, Hilary Hahn and more
Violins have been around for over three hundred years. Thousands of people have learned to play this beautiful instrument, but very few achieve lasting fame. Even the greatest are often forgotten. In this list of 30 of the greatest violinists past and present, you’ll see some familiar names while also discovering new incredible artists.
Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840)
After reading the title of this article, Paganini is probably the first name that came to your mind. This Italian violinist and composer set Europe on fire with his talent and dramatic personality. He wrote and performed many pieces for violin, including six concertos. His most famous pieces are the 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, particularly the 24th caprice. Few people know that Paganini was also a virtuoso guitarist. Through his guitar technique, he revolutionized violin technique and greatly expanded the possibilities of the instrument. Although his flamboyant personality and lifestyle were controversial, he inspired many other composers including Rachmaninov, Brahms, and Liszt.
Karol Lipinski (1790-1861)
Raised in Poland by a musical father, Lipinski also had the benefit of some generous patrons, and became proficient at both violin and cello. He accredited his deep, singing tone on violin to the techniques he learned from playing cello. A contemporary of Paganini, the two met and played together on more than one occasion. Their relationship was in fact friendly, but the over-dramatic press would argue over who was the greater violinist. The Stradivarius violin Lipinski played on is named after him and still used today. His compositions are not as widely known as Paganini’s, his concertos and a few of his solo caprices have been recorded.
Joseph Joachim (1831-1907)
Non-violinists, even if they are music lovers, rarely know the name of Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim. However, he moved in very famous musical circles (Brahms was one of his closest friends) and he was crucial to the reviving and developing some of the greatest violin repertoire. For example, he revived Beethoven’s violin concerto and Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas. He studied Mendelssohn’s violin concerto with the composer himself. Brahms, Bruch, and Dvořák wrote their concertos with him in mind. Joachim also wrote now-standard cadenzas for many concerots including Mozart’s, Brahms’s, and Beethoven’s. An accomplished teacher, he is part of the lineage of many of today’s greatest musicians.
Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880)
His music is timeless, but the story of Polish native Henryk Wieniawski is brief and tragic. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at only eight years old. He began touring after graduation and became internationally famous, performing his own extensive compositions. Audiences loved his brilliant performances, but the stress of constant travel and work eventually wore him down. He died of a heart attack while touring Russia in 1880.
Wieniawski wrote two violin concertos that are both standard repertoire. His Études-Caprices are incredibly difficult but still performed. Other famous works include Légende, Scherzo-Tarantelle, and Polonaise Brilliante. The Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition, held every five years, is one of the preeminent violin competitions in the world.
Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908)
You may be noticing a pattern by this point: the great violinists of the 19th century not only performed but also wrote their own music. Born in Spain just four years after Paganini’s death, Sarasate followed his legacy. He was a prolific composer, especially of flashy encore pieces. Spanish-flavored classical music was all the rage at the time, so Sarasate had no shortage of admirers and collaborators. Like Wieniawski, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire before launching on international tours. His charming spanish encore pieces became very popular, along with his more extensive works such as Zigeunerweisen and Carmen Fantasy. He wrote over fifty pieces in all, all for violin, many of which still have a high place in the repertoire.
Leopold Auer (1845-1930)
Leopold Auer is perhaps better remembered for his teaching than his performing, but in his day he excelled at both. According to the Leopold Auer Society, his talent from a young age earned him a scholarship to study in Vienna. When he was thirteen the money ran out, and he began giving concerts so that he and his father could survive off the proceeds. Eventually he was able to to spend a few years studying with Joseph Joachim, who he hailed as “an inspiration”. In 1868 he moved to St. Petersburg where he served as concertmaster of numerous orchestras. He also wrote his own ten-book pedagogical method, which progresses from open strings to Paganini caprices. A gifted teacher, his influence extends well into the modern players of today.
Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931)
The composer of some of the most difficult violin music, Ysaÿe’s peers called him the “king” of the violin. Born in Belgium, he learned a good foundation of violin from his father before studying with Désiré Heynberg, Henryk Wieniawski, and Henri Vieuxtemps. He became concertmaster of “Bilse’s Band”, which eventually developed into the Berlin Philharmonic. At only twenty-eight years old, he became a teacher at the Brussels Conservatoire. His students included Joseph Gingold, William Primrose, Nathan Milstein, and Louis Persinger, all of whom became incredibly influential teachers in their own rights. One of the most beloved violin sonatas, Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major, was written for Ysaÿe’s wedding. The solo violin sonatas Ysaÿe wrote are among the hardest pieces in the repertoire, and the Queen Elizabeth Violin Competition held in his honor is one of the most prestigious in the world.
Maud Powell (1867-1920)
Maud Powell was not only one of the very first famous women violinists, but she was also the first internationally successful American violinist. She was born in tiny Peru, Illinois and started her musical study in the Chicago suburbs. Her parents eventually sold their home so she could continue her studies. This enabled her to go to Europe, where she studied with Joseph Joachim and performed the Bruch concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic. She gave the American premiers of the Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and Dvořák concertos, the latter with Dvořák present. She is partially responsible for making the Sibelius a valued part of the repertoire. In addition to promoting these major concertos, she also championed music by American composers. Her success is largely due to the advent of recording technology, as her records sold internationally. Sadly, she died of a heart attack while touring Pennsylvania in 1920. Many organizations since have sought to honor her valuable contributions to classical music, and she was posthumously given the GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.
Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962)
Maud Powell spread classical music across America, but Vienna was still its headquarters. Fritz Kreisler captured the spirit of Austria in his playing and compositions and carried that all across the world. He too greatly benefitted from recordings to the point that Fritz Kreisler was a household name. He studied at the Vienna Conservatory and the Paris Conservatoire. He toured extensively but settled permanently in the United States in the 1940s. He died of old age in New York City in 1962.
Kreisler is best-known for his delightful encore pieces. He is also known for writing pieces “in the style” of other composers and affirming that they were the ones who had actually written them. Some musicologists were actually fooled and became angry when they discovered that these pieces were Kreisler’s original works.
Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987)
Remember how we talked about Leopold Auer being an exceptional teacher? Jascha Heifetz was one of his students. Heifetz is known for setting the standard of 20th-century violin playing. He moved to America from Russia as a teenager and performed in Carnegie Hall to great enthusiasm. Fritz Kreisler apparently once said, “We might as well take our fiddles and break them across our knees.” He performances were rapturously received as being the best anyone had heard. Some critics certainly complained, claiming that his vibrato was too fast or his on-stage demeanor too reserved. However, his exceptionally clean technique and emotional sound never failed to wow audiences.
After having shoulder surgery, Heifetz focused on teaching. He taught at the University of California Los Angeles and the University of Southern California. His televised master classes are still available and provide great insight into his teaching style.
Erika Morini (1904-1995)
Born in Vienna, Erika Morini learned violin from her father and at the Vienna Conservatory. She debuted with the Berlin Philharmonic at age twelve and made her debut with the New York Philharmonic when she was seventeen. She was the first violinist and the first woman to record with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She had brilliant, clean technique and an incredibly successful career. She passed away at an old age in New York and her name is all but forgotten now, except for the tragic incident that occurred around her death. One of the violins she had owned, the Davidoff Strad, went missing from her apartment shortly after she had been taken to the hospital. The theft was discovered before her death, but she was never informed. An excellent 2021 documentary entitled “Stolen: The Unsolved Theft of a $3,000,000 Violin” seeks to shed light on the continued mystery.
David Oistrakh (1908-1974)
David Oistrakh was a violinist’s violinist who inspired many of the great soloists of the next generation. Shostakovich and Kachaturian dedicated their violin concertos to him. He was the preeminent violinist in Soviet Russia.The Soviet government closely supervised his entire career, so he was not allowed to star touring internationally until after WWII. He collaborated with other great violinists including Nathan Milstein and Yehudi Menuhin. Later in life he also became a conductor. A few fun facts about Oistrakh’s life: he apparently ate ice cream after every concert, he played a public chess match against Sergei Prokofiev, and he and his son have an asteroid named after them.
Yehudi Menhuin (1916-1999)
Menuhin spent most of his career in Britain, but he was actually from America. By age twelve he had soloed with the Berlin Philharmonic. While a teenager his family moved to Paris, and he was able to study with George Ensescu, the greatest Romanian violinist. During WWII he performed for Allied soldiers and concentration camp survivors. As an act of reconciliation, he was the first Jew to solo with the Berlin Philharmonic after the Holocaust.
Dedicated to teaching, he founded the Yehudi Menuhin School in England, which still thrives today. He also founded the Yehudi Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists. He received numerous honors for service and performance throughout his life, including twenty honorary doctorates.
Dorothy Delay (1917-2002)
Known as a pedagogue rather than as a performer, Dorothy Delay is perhaps the best-loved violin teacher of them all. A talented young woman from Kansas, she attended Juilliard as a grad student and founded a successful piano trio with her sister. However, she decided against a life-long performing career because she wanted to be present for her children. Instead, she began teaching beginners in New York and fell in love with it. Her ability grew rapidly, and she became Galamian’s assistant at Juilliard in 1948. This meant that she and Galamian shared the same students, but when the two had a disagreement and split studios in 1970, several students, including Itzhak Perlman, chose Delay. She continued to gain recognition and has the most star-studded roster of former students the violin world has ever seen. For an incredible glimpse into Delay’s daily life, studio, and personality, I highly recommend reading Teaching Genius: Dorothy Delay and the Making of a Musician.
Itzhak Perlman (1945-)
Itzhak Perlman’s inspiring story is one of tenacity and determination. As a toddler, he contracted polio which left him crippled. His parents did not believe him capable of learning the violin due to weakness, but he was so determined that he played on a toy violin for a year until they agreed to have him taught. He became a child prodigy in Israel and started winning competitions. In 1958, American television host Ed Sullivan came to Israel to recruit for a program featuring Israeli entertainers. The young violinist fascinated him, and so Itzhak was able to move to New York to study with Dorothy Delay. At age eighteen he won the Levintritt Prize, and with that recognition and monetary support he was able to launch his career. His warmth, gentleness, humanity, and captivating stage presence has made him the best-loved violinist still living. After Delay’s death Perlman inherited her teaching position at Juilliard.
Pinchas Zukerman (1948-)
Pinchas Zukerman is another Isreali violinist only three years younger than Perlman. Similarly, to Perlman, the violinist Isaac Stern discovered his talent while in Israel and brought him back to the United States. Zukerman studied at Juilliard with Stern, Galamian and Delay. He won the Levintritt Prize in 1967 and collaborated with many great musicians including Leonard Bernstein. He now teaches at the Manhattan School of Music and gives in-person and online masterclasses around the world. He is known for his love of storytelling and his strong sense of humor.
Anne-Sophie Mutter (1963-)
German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter collaborated with John Williams to perform violin arrangements of some of his famous movie themes. She stopped attending school as a girl to focus on music, and her single-mindedness paid off when Herbert von Karajan, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, invited her to perform with the orchestra. In addition to collaborations with John Williams, she has also been awarded several Grammy’s. Mutter supports young musicians through her foundation and strives to remind them that they must be complete human beings in order to be complete musicians.
Joshua Bell (1967-)
Joshua Bell grew up in the small town of Bloomington, IN during a very eventful time. An exceptional violin teacher named Mimi Zweig had just opened a string academy for children as part of Indiana University’s music school, and little Joshua joined her first class. He learned quickly and eventually studied with Joseph Gingold, the famed violin professor there who had studied with Eugène Ysaÿe. He stayed at Indiana University to study violin and science. According to his website, he has now soloed with virtually every major orchestra in the world. He is known for his unique performance style of “dancing” with the flow of the music. This is particularly apparent when he is playing and conducting simultaneously.
Anne Akiko Meyers (1970-)
Anne Akiko Meyers is another shining example of the Dorothy Delay legacy. Anne grew up in southern California, where her mother would drive her 8 hours round trip to take lessons at the Colburn School. She then moved to Indiana to study with Joseph Gingold. At age 14 she was invited to join the Juilliard pre-college division to study with Delay. Today she is an active concert artist and collaborator. She has appeared on numerous television and news shows. Her warm, cheerful personality motivates young players to strive to be their best.
Gil Shaham (1971-)
Imagine you’re sitting in your high school classroom in New York, when suddenly someone comes in to tell you that you’ve been asked to fill in for an ailing Itzhak Perlman by playing the Bruch and Sibelius concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra. What would you say? Young Gil Shaham jumped at the chance, and it greatly furthered his career.
He was born in Illinois, but his parents moved back to their native Israel when he was two. He began violin lessons at age 7 (late compared to some musicians on this list!) and eventually won a scholarship to come to the Juilliard School. His connection with Dorothy Delay is what gave him the opportunity to fill in for Perlman and launched an international career that led to multiple awards. He still lives in New York with his wife and children.
Midori’s mother, a professional violinist in Osaka, would often take her along to rehearsals. At age three Midori received her own tiny violin for her third birthday, with her mother as her first teacher. When she was eleven she and her mother moved to New York to study with Delay.
Midori has given many legendary performances, but one in particular made her famous. In 1986, she appeared at the Tanglewood Music Festival playing Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade with Bernstein conducting. Her violin’s E string broke mid-performance, so she switched to the concertmaster’s violin. That E string promptly broke also, so she finished on the associate concertmaster’s violin. The crowd went wild, and the New York Times featured it as a front-page story.
Rachel Barton Pine (1974-)
Rachel grew up in Chicago, and by age five determined that she would be a professional violinist. She practiced so much that her schoolteacher told her parents they should homeschool her. She practiced 8 hours a day, but explains that being homeschooled allowed her to still have time for other activities. She studied with Chicago’s foremost teachers, Roland and Almita Vamos, and debuted with the Chicago Symphony at age 10. At 14 she became concertmaster of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, a premier pre-professional training orchestra usually only open to young adults.
In 1995, she suffered a traumatic train accident and did not perform for two years. Remarkably, she recovered and continued her dedication to the violin, and today is still one of Chicago’s most beloved native musicians. Her unconquerable cheerfulness shows that optimism is possible in the face of everything.
Janine Jansen (1978-)
Janine Jansen is a Dutch violinist from a family of musicians. She competed in the Menuhin Junior Violin Competition and in 2005 had the honor of opening the BBC Proms. Cherished by audiences, her performances are frequently sold out. She starred in the 2021 documentary Falling for Stradivari, where she goes on a quest to record an album on twelve different Stradivari violins. If you would like to sample her recordings, I recommend checking out the Ravel sonata she recorded with pianist Itamar Golan.
Hilary Hahn (1979-)
Hilary Hahn is one of the most remarkable and sought-after soloists currently performing. She began her violin studies in the Suzuki program at the Peabody Conservatory. At ten years old she enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music to study with Jascha Brodsky. By age fifteen she was already performing the most difficult violin repertoire, including Beethoven’s violin concerto. She says she has played Bach more than any other composer, playing his solo sonatas and partitas since she was eight. She has recorded the sonatas and partitas in two separate albums. Several of today’s most prominent composers wrote pieces for her, including Jennifer Higdon whose concerto won the Pulitzer Prize in Music. She commissioned 26 living composers to write short encores for her, which she performed and recorded. Her presence on stage is fiery and intensely focused, but her demeanor in person is gentle, supportive and humorous.
Sarah Chang (1980-)
Sarah Chang is a rare example of a blazing child prodigy who through careful mentoring managed to sustain her natural gifts through a professional career. Her parents, originally from Korea, moved to New Jersey so her father Min-Soo Chang, also an accomplished violinist, could study at Temple University. Min-Soo taught violin to his young daughter, but brought her to Juilliard when she was five to study with Hyo Kang and Delay. Both worked tirelessly with Sarah to make sure she learned what she needed but that she also had room to be a child. In 1988, Riccardo Muti and Zubin Mehta (the conductors of the Chicago Symphony and New York Philharmonic respectively) immediately offered her performances when they heard her play. This launched a meteoic rise to success, playing up to 150 concerts per year. Remarkably, she did not become exhausted and has maintained a steady solo presence ever since.
Augustin Hadelich (1984-)
Augustin grew up on a farm in Italy, where he and his brothers took music lessons from their father, an amateur cellist. His career as a violinist and pianist had already begun to take shape when, in 1999, a fire on his family’s farm left him severely injured. He did not play violin for a over a year, and credits the experience with helping him realize his true love for music. Augustin later earned a Graduate Diploma and an Artist’s Diploma from Juilliard. He won the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis in 2006 and since has appeared with many major orchestras.
Ray Chen (1989-)
If you’re into following classical violinists on social media, then you’ve heard of Ray Chen. He has a wonderful ability to relate to his audience and make jokes about the soloist life. During lockdowns, he created an online Discord community where thousands of music nerds shared stories, practice clips, and inspiration. He recorded his 2020 album Solace from his apartment. In 2019, he initiated the “Play with Ray” project, where he encouraged amateur violinists from around the world to submit videos of themselves playing Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins. The winner performed the piece with Ray and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.
Raised in Australia, Ray Chen moved to Philadelphia in 2005 to study at the Curtis Institute. He won the Menuhin Competition and the Queen Elizabeth Competition. Today he continues to solo around the world while also making vlogs and comedic videos about his travels.
Roman Kim (1991-)
We have a new nationality on the list: Kazakhstan. Roman Kim began winning International Competitions after only two years of violin studies. He studied at the Central Music School in Moscow and the Cologne University of Music. He is best known for his incredible solo transcriptions of works for full orchestra including Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and Air on the G String. His complex transcriptions involve using the thumb to stop the G string. He also plays his own original violin compositions.
Chloe Chua (2007-)
The young Singaporean violinist wins audiences with her talent and her charm. She came to international prominence after winning first prize in the 2018 Menuhin’s junior division. Her technique is fully fledged, and her extensive repertoire includes the most difficult pieces. She collaborates regularly with her native Singapore Symphony and ensembles around the world, performing classical and baroque concerts. She is also a regular guest on Two Set Violin’s channel. They filmed a video of her teaching them how to play Paganiniana. Her 2022-23 season features her playing Mozart and Bruch in Singapore.
Christian Li (2007-)
Just nine months younger than Chloe, Christian Li shared the 2018 Menuhin first prize with her, becoming the competition’s youngest ever first-prize winner. The young Australian violinist already has an impressive international following. Although still a student, he is the youngest artist ever on the roster of Decca Classics. He recently recorded Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. According to his website, he enjoys swimming, reading, and biking in his free time.
Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list of history’s greatest violinists. If your favorite artist is not on the list, mention who it is in the comments!