Thousands of people become professional violinists and even more play the instrument at some point in their life. So, who are the best violinists? Which performers should you listen to first? This list will help you get started on your listening journey.
As a professional violinist and teacher, I’ve looked up to these performers and gone back to their recordings and performances over and over again throughout my career. In their own unique ways, they all push the possibilities and technical mastery of the instrument to new extremes.
Table of Contents
- What Makes a Great Violin Player?
- 10 Best Violin Players
- Types of Violin Music
- Best Violin Songs
- In Conclusion
Naturally, the title of “best violinists of all time” is subjective. I’ve chosen the performers on this list for their significance in classical music and violin history as well as their creative and musical innovations. Also, I consider them significant to my own teaching and pedagogy practice.
What Makes a Great Violin Player?
There are thousands of exceptional professional violinists, students, and amateur musicians. So, what makes one “great”? There’s a long history of child prodigies and virtuoso soloists in violin history, musicians who reach heights of musicality and technical skill that most musicians can only ever dream of.
Whether because of ingrained talent, unwavering determination, a singular focus, never-ending hard work, or a combination of all of the above, these players are the exceptional standouts.
I’ve chosen the performers on this list based on their significance to classical music history, pedagogical importance, and innovative musicality and technical ability. I’ve also included recordings of their notable performances.
10 Best Violin Players
Here are 10 of the best violin players in the world. I’ve included Youtube links to some of my favorite recordings. Let’s start listening!
1. Niccolò Paganini
- Age/dates: 27 October 1782 – 27 May 1840
- Nationality: Italian
- Famous for: Most celebrated violin virtuoso in Europe during his lifetime, best known for his 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, Op. 1, which are still required repertoire for violinists today
- Notable performances: His big break, at La Scala in Milan in 1813
- Their instrument: Italian luthier Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri’s Il Cannone, now colloquially known as Il Cannone, ex Paganini
Niccolò Paganini was born in Genoa in the turbulent years at the end of the 18th century. When the Napoleonic Wars reached Genoa, the Paganini family escaped to Bolzaneto, and in 1801, the young violinist was appointed the first violinist of the Republic of Lucca.
For the next several years, he traveled the region as a freelance musician, but it wasn’t until his 1813 performance at La Scala, in Milan, that he skyrocketed to widespread fame. After his highly praised performance, he rose to prominence in European high society and cemented his place as one of the greatest violinists of all time.
Paganini was also a talented guitarist and composer. His 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, Op. 1 are still widely played today and are a common requirement for almost every violin student auditioning for conservatory or professional positions.
2. Joseph Joachim
- Age/dates: 28 June 1831 – 15 August 1907
- Nationality: Hungarian
- Famous for: Premiering both the Beethoven and Brahms violin concertos
- Notable performances: The premiers of the Beethoven and Brahms violin concertos
- Their instrument: The ex-Joachim Stradivarius
Joseph Joachim was a seminal member of 19th-century European artistic culture. He made his international debut in London at just shy of 13 years old with the premiere of Beethoven’s violin concerto, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn.
After establishing himself as a virtuoso musician, Joachim spent several years teaching, performing, and forming important artistic relationships with musicians including Franz Liszt, Clara and Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms. In 1879, Joachim premiered Brahms’ violin concerto with Brahms conducting.
3. Eugène Ysaÿe
- Age/dates: 16 July 1858 – 12 May 1931
- Nationality: Belgian
- Famous for: The 6 Sonatas for Solo Violin, Op. 27
- Notable performances: The Ysaÿe Quartet’s premiere of Debussy’s String Quartet
- Their instrument: The 1734 “Hercules” Stradivari
Eugène Ysaÿe is affectionately known as “The King Of the Violin.” A prodigy by any measure, Ysaÿe was a prominent member of European artistic society for almost his entire life, a famous teacher and performer, and a successful composer.
His mastery of the violin is evident in his most famous compositions, the 6 Sonatas for Solo Violin, Op. 27, which are masterful compositions that require immense skill and technical mastery to perform. Ysaÿe also dabbled in the viola and was the famous viola virtuoso William Primrose’s teacher.
4. Jascha Heifetz
- Age/dates: February 2, 1901 – December 10, 1987
- Nationality: Russian/American
- Famous for:
- Notable Performances:
- Their instrument:
Russian-born violin prodigy Jascha Heifetz made his professional debut at just 16 years old, in 1917 at Carnegie Hall. With his explosive performance, Heifetz’s significance as a performer and teacher was solidified, and he spent the rest of his life performing and teaching.
When an injury ended his performance career, he devoted himself in earnest to teaching and became active in political organizing around issues including clean air and pollution. In 1967, he converted his car into an electric vehicle.
5. Itzhak Perlman
- Age/dates: 31 August 1945 – present
- Nationality: Israeli/American
- Famous for: One of the most decorated living classical musicians, far-reaching teaching career
- Notable performances: Presidential Inauguration of President Barack Obama
- Their instrument: The 1714 “Soil” Stradivarius, formerly owned by Yehudi Menuhin, largely considered one of the best violins made during Stradivari’s “golden period”
Chances are, if you know of just one professional violinist, it’s Itzhak Perlman. The Israeli-born American virtuoso is one of the most decorated classical musicians of all time. He was the recipient of the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom, 16 Grammy Awards including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and four Emmy Awards.
Perlman is a celebrated pedagogue and the founder of the Perlman Music Program, one of the most elite and celebrated training schools for advanced young musicians in the world.
- Age/dates: October 25, 1971 – present
- Nationality: Japanese-born American
- Famous for: One of the best-known child prodigies in classical music history
- Notable performances: 1982 Carnegie Hall debut, 1986 performance at Tanglewood under conductor Leonard Bernstein
- Their instrument: The 1734 Guarneri “ex-Huberman” violin
Midori’s mother, a professional violinist herself, gave her daughter a violin when she was just 2 years old, after noticing her uncanny ability to remember musical melodies with extreme accuracy. Midori quickly rocketed to international fame.
A child prodigy, she debuted with the New York Philharmonic at the age of 11 and has gone on to become one of the world’s most prolific and best-known violinists and pedagogues.
7. Hilary Hahn
- Age/dates: November 27, 1979 – present
- Nationality: American
- Famous for: Bach recordings, new music premiers
- Notable performances: World premiers of Jennifer Higdon’s violin concerto, among many other significant contemporary compositions, the #100daysofpractice Instagram hashtag
- Their instrument: The 1864 copy of Paganini’s Cannone, made by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume
Hilary Hahn followed in Midori’s footsteps, starting violin at just 4 years old. By the age of 10, she was already enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music, and by 17, she made her recording debut with an album of solo Bach. Hahn has since gone on to be a fierce advocate of contemporary music, a social media icon, and a beloved figure to young musicians everywhere.
In 2017, Hahn posted a video to her Instagram account with the hashtag #100daysofpractice and a description of her new project: She would post daily videos for 100 days to document the process of preparing for her rigorous concertizing schedule.
The videos, a far cry from the polished, perfect performances Hahn is known for, inspired a global movement of documenting slow, methodical work on the social media app.
8. Sarah Chang
- Age/dates: December 10, 1980 – present
- Nationality: Korean American
- Famous for: One of a very small group of child prodigies
- Notable performances: Debuts with the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra at the age of 9
- Their instrument: The 1717 Guarneri “del Gesu”
Sarah Chang, born to musician parents, first picked up a violin at the age of four. In just a year, she had been accepted to study at the Juilliard School with the most prominent violin teachers of the 20th century, including Isaac Stern and Dorothy Delay.
Chang made her debut at the age of nine with the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and she recorded her first album at the age of 10. She has gone on to have a prolific recording and performance career.
9. James Ehnes
- Age/dates: January 27, 1976 – present
- Nationality: Canadian
- Famous for: His recording of the Beethoven Sonatas with pianist Andrew Armstrong
- Notable performances: Ehnes is most recently famous for his popular “recitals from home” series, which he started during the COVID19 pandemic and which have brought in thousands of listeners worldwide
- Their instrument: The 1715 “ex-Marsick” Stradivarius
At first impression, Canadian violinist James Ehnes seems much more like a kind and thoughtful professor than a world-famous soloist. Known for his engaging and often hilarious mid-recital talks, Ehnes doesn’t fit the mold of a cutthroat solo violinist. He’s also known for his sensitive and elegant recordings of the Beethoven sonatas and other chamber music.
Nevertheless, he has become one of the most sought-after performers and has traveled worldwide performing with orchestras and giving recitals. In March, when the COVID19 pandemic hit, Ehnes started the “recitals from home” virtual concert series, which drew a worldwide audience of thousands.
10. Julia Fischer
- Age/dates: 15 June 1983 – present
- Nationality: German
- Famous for: First prize at the 1995 Menuhin competition, founding the Julia Fischer Quartet
- Notable performances: 2003 Carnegie Hall Debut, 2014 BBC Proms performance
- Their instrument: The 1716 “Booth” Stradivarius
Julia Fischer is a staggeringly talented musician who began performing as a solo violinist when she was just 10 years old. She’s also a prolific pianist and has performed piano concerts with major orchestras in recent years. In 2011, she founded the Julia Fischer Quartet, which performs worldwide to great acclaim.
Types of Violin Music
Throughout history, violinists have become famous for a variety of different musical performances. While this list has only addressed violinists who are famous for their classical music performances, the violin is a prominent instrument in almost every genre of music. There are extraordinary musicians from every genre.
Within classical music, there are three main types of music that these soloists perform:
Solo works for the violin are often virtuosic, flashy pieces that showcase the full technical and musical range of the instrument and performer. Two of the violinists included on the list above are notable composers in this category: Paganini and Ysaÿe.
Sonatas and Chamber Music
Sonatas and other forms of chamber music showcase the violin in different but no less significant ways. Many musicians love this genre because of its collaborative nature and expansive musical range.
See also: Best Violin Sonatas Buyer’s Guide
While all of the violinists on this list are famous largely because of their concerto performances, only the most elite subset of performing violinists ever receives recognition, or even the opportunity to perform, these works on a large scale. They’re thus indicative of the most elite levels of classical music virtuosity.
See also: Best Violin Concertos Buyer’s Guide
Best Violin Songs
There is simply an enormous number of pieces written for the violin. If you’re looking for a few places to start your listening journey, however, here are three works I recommend.
The Beethoven Violin Sonatas
These pieces are expansive, emotional, exquisitely written, and a wonderful place to start.
Ysaÿe’s 6 Sonatas for Solo Violin
If you want to hear what a violin can really do, this is the starting point for you!
Jennifer Higdon Violin Concerto
If you want to get a gage of where classical music is headed in the next century, this concerto is a great place to start.
There are thousands of incredible violinists performing today, and it would be impossible to truly encapsulate the range and depth of this talent in a single list.
We must start somewhere, however. In this list I’ve tried to give you an idea of the central pillars of violin dignitaries along with a starting point for discovering your own favorite musicians, pieces of music, and performances across classical music history.
While this list only addresses classical musicians, I urge you to also branch out towards other genres, from folk to rock to music from all over the world. There are incredible violinists playing in nearly every genre, and this music should never be overlooked.