The violin has been one of the most respected instruments in classical styles of music for hundreds of years. Entire careers have been dedicated to composing pieces for the instrument, with some requiring incredible skill that most violin players simply can’t match up to.
In this article, we’ll discuss the 27 best violinists of all time and their contributions to the world of music.
1. David Oistrakh
Easily considered the preeminent violinist of the 20th century, David Oistrakh was a Soviet violinist and conductor who had numerous violin works dedicated to him. He spent time teaching at the Moscow Conservatory until after WWII when he was officially allowed to tour Europe. He would receive several awards, including the Grand Cross of the Order of the Lion of Finland and two Orders of Lenin.
2. Jascha Heifetz
Upon hearing Jascha Heifetz play the violin, Fritz Kreisler—another prominent violinist—stated that the rest of them should just take their fiddles and break them over their knees. A virtuoso from childhood, Heifetz had a long performing career before an arm injury caused him to switch to teaching. One fun fact about him was that he was active in championing social and political causes, including establishing “911” as the emergency phone number.
3. Yehudi Menuhin
Yehudi Menuhin had a long performing career, most of which was spent in Britain. He’s widely regarded as one of the best violinists of the 20th century and was noted for playing the Soil Stradivarius. During WWII, he would play for Allied soldiers and survivors from liberated concentration camps.
4. Niccolò Paganini
Niccolò Paganini was a virtuoso violinist and one of the most celebrated violinists of his era toward the end of the 1700s. He was also a prolific composer, with his 24 Caprices For Solo Violin Op. 1 being one of the best-known violin pieces in history. He was one of the first violinists to attempt the use of natural and artificial harmonics in concert with the violin.
5. Antonio Vivaldi
Widely hailed as one of the greatest Baroque composers in history, Antonio Vivaldi was also a virtuoso violinist and a pioneer of orchestration, violin technique, and programmatic music. He was one of the main figures in making the concerto into a respected genre. The Four Seasons is his most recognizable work, a series of violin concertos that are still performed today.
6. Joshua Bell
One of the younger people on the list, Joshua Bell is an American violinist born in 1967. He began playing at the age of four, and by 14, he appeared as a soloist alongside the Philadelphia Orchestra. By age 17, he made his Carnegie Hall debut and would go on to play many of the most high-profile venues in the world.
He’s one of the most celebrated and acclaimed violinists of the modern day. You might recognize him as the violinist who posed as a busker in a subway, playing there three days after a concert in the same city. Out of the thousands of people who passed, only seven stopped to listen, and of those, only one recognized him.
7. Sarah Chang
Sarah Chang graduated from Juilliard in 1999 and has since performed as a soloist with some of the biggest orchestras in the world. A widely recognized child prodigy, she has an immense repertoire that includes Johann Sebastian Bach and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Gramophone Magazine named her Young Artist of the Year in 1993, and in 1994, she won Newcomer of the Year at the International Classic Music Awards.
8. Janine Jansen
Janine Jensen is a prolific performer and recording artist, with a repertoire ranging from Bach to Ludwig van Beethoven and Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. One interesting thing to note is that she prefers recording with five solo strings instead of in a full orchestra. You can find her work in iTunes libraries, on YouTube, or watch a performance live in concert.
9. Nicola Benedetti
At the age of 16, Nicola Benedetti was awarded the BBC Young Musician of the Year due to her unbelievable skill on the violin. Most of her recordings since 2012 have been played on the Gariel Stradivarius violin. She was the first woman and first Scottish person to lead the Edinburgh International Festival in 2022 when she was named Festival Director.
10. Fritz Kreisler
Fritz Kreisler made a name for himself using excessive phrasing and playing in a sweet tone. He was widely known as one of the best violinists of the 20th century and played a distinctive style that was easily recognizable as his own. He wrote several violin pieces, mostly focusing on solo pieces for encores. He would even rescore some outstanding works and record them in his own style; Niccolò Paganini’s D Major Violin Concerto was one of the best examples.
11. Papa John Creach
Papa John Creach wasn’t your typical classical violinist. He was a blues musician who played the violin in jazz, acid rock, classical, R&B, and pop groups. His time in bands would see him play as a member of Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, Dinosaurs, and Zulu And The Midnight Sun. He went on to release several solo albums and make guest appearances alongside The Grateful Dead and Charlie Daniels.
12. George Bridgetower
George Bridgetower was a British musician of African descent whose ability with the violin impressed even the mighty Ludwig van Beethoven. The composer was so impressed that Bridgetower was the original dedicatee of his piece Kreutzer Sonata. The violinist would go on to perform with the Philharmonic Society and was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians in 1807.
13. Arcangelo Corelli
Another wonderful composer of the baroque period, Arcangelo Corelli was one of the musicians responsible for developing the sonata and concerto. His skill with the violin also helped push it into a prominent role in concerts, as he was among the first to experiment with modern tonality and functional harmonies. During his time, he earned a great number of nicknames including The New Orpheus and The Prince of Musicians.
14. Joseph Joachim
Joseph Joachim was a close collaborator with Johannes Brahms and one of the greatest violinists of the 19th century. A child prodigy, he began playing the violin at age five, and by 13, he was playing Ludwig van Beethoven’s violin concerto in London. He was the musician to debut Brahms’ Violin Concerto and toured extensively alongside the composer Brahms, and the Schumanns (both Clara and Robert).
15. Nathan Milstein
Considered to be one of the best violinists of the 20th century, Nathan Millstein may be best known for his interpretations of Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo violin pieces. He also performed for most of his life, only stopping in his 80s after he broke his hand and could no longer play the same way. Even at 82, he was giving recitals, with one particular recital in Stockholm being recorded in its entirety, though it would be one of his final public performances.
16. Hilary Hahn
Hillary Hahn is one of the biggest modern supporters of contemporary classical music, having several composers craft pieces for her to play or conduct. Her musical career has seen her travel the world alongside leading orchestras as a soloist and recitalist. Her recordings have also been used extensively in film, where you can hear her playing skills and commissioned works in movies like Deep Blue Sea, The Village, and The Sea.
17. Midori Gotō
Midori Gotō made her debut at the age of 11 alongside the New York Philharmonic as a surprise guest soloist. Today, she’s known as one of the world’s preeminent violinists and is an active educator. Her foundation Midori And Friends helps bring music education to underserved youth in New York and Japan.
18. Pablo de Sarasate
Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navascués was one of the finest violinists during the Romantic era. A violin virtuoso and composer, he’s best known for works like Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), The Spanish Dances, and The Carmen Fantasy. All of his compositions were for the violin, with opus numbers assigned to 54 of them.
19. George Enescu
Imagine being such an amazing musician that your country puts your face on its currency. That’s the reality for Romanian George Enescu, who’s featured on the Romania five lei banknote. He’s widely assumed to be one of, if not, the greatest Romanian musician in history, and well known as one of the greatest violinists of all time.
20. Maxim Vengerov
Named by Classic FM as the greatest violinist in the world, it’s not hard to see why Maxim Vengerov makes this list. A modern violin virtuoso, he began studying the violin at age five. When his teacher asked if his hands had strength, he punched her right in the gut to prove it. Thankfully, she still accepted him as a student. He wouldn’t play for her during lessons until he was almost dropped as a student, but when threatened, he played 17 of his assigned pieces straight from memory.
He has gone on to win numerous awards, including a Grammy Award in 2003 for Best Instrumental Soloist(s) Performance (with orchestra).
21. Viktoria Mullova
Viktoria Mullova is an exceptional modern violinist with a repertoire including violin concerti and Johann Sebastian Bach compositions. She’s perhaps best known for interpreting and recording her own versions of jazz and pop music by greats like Miles Davis, The Beatles, and Duke Ellington. She and her boyfriend defected from the Soviet Union while on a tour of Finland, ducking KGB agents until they made it safely to the west. She would go on to have an incredible career as an international soloist and play with some of the best orchestras in the world.
22. Itzhak Perlman
Itzhak Perlman is considered one of the greatest violinists in the world today and has toured extensively across Europe and the US. He’s played for some of the world’s elite, including at President Barack Obama’s inauguration and a State Dinner honoring Queen Elizabeth II. His prolific career as a violinist and conductor has netted him 16 Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, Four Emmy Awards, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
23. Gidon Kremer
Gidon Kremer is an outstanding violinist, but some of his best work came when he founded the Kremerata Baltica. It’s a group chamber orchestra made up of musicians from the Baltic countries and helps underserved musicians from the region.
24. Joseph Szigeti
Joseph Szigeti spent much of his early childhood in Transylvania, thankfully not running into any vampires. He had an extensive performing and recording career and taught at a conservatory in Geneva for much of his life.
25. Gil Shaham
Debuting as a soloist with the Jerusalem Symphony at the age of 10, Gil Shaham eventually played with the London Symphony Orchestra. His career would see him play alongside some of the best in the world, including the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Russian National Orchestra.
26. Eugène Ysaÿe
Nathan Millstein labeled Eugène Ysaÿe as the tsar of the violin. During his lifetime, he was one of the best virtuoso violinists and composers, receiving praise from numerous other violinists on our list.
27. Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the greatest composers of all time and a virtuoso instrumentalist in his own right. His compositions for the violin are what have earned him a spot on this list, with several of the video links we’ve put in being his pieces played by later violinists.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.