Is The Reputed Hifg Quality of Stradivari Viulins a Myth?

Yeras ago, NOVA had a show on about the secrets (alleged) of the famous violins, made by Antonio Stradavari in the 17th century. Many theories have been advanced for why the violins have such a “golden” tone. However, I find it hard to believe that a 17th century craftsman, who knew nothing of the physics of sound, could have stumbled upon a magical formula for making superior violins.
Anyway, many of these instruments are close to 300 years old-can they be played today? And, do the insurance companies (that insure them) even ALLOW them to be played?
Any violinists here that have heard these Strads?
And, aren’t modern violins just as good?

I only have some general knowledge, with the proviso that a real expert may prove me wrong at points. So take it for what it is worth.

Violins have to be played regularly, otherwise their quality decays. I believe the violins in the Stradivarius museum are played at least once a year for this reason. Most owners actually lend them out to famous violinists for daily playing; the insurance companies apparently don’t mind.

If you’ve heard a famous violin player live or in a recording, chances are you’ve heard a Stradivarius being played. There are many others, though, of comparable quality (Amati etc.). Part of it is personal preference, part of it is luck in getting an offer from an owner (or having lots of money at the right time to be able to buy one at an auction).

The tone is in general very good, but as I said, some people prefer other kinds. Violin building is an art; no two violins will sound exactly the same. However, you can build a violin after another one in order to strive for a similar tone.

Modern violin builders can make very good violins as well. I wouldn’t dare to make comparisons myself. Hopefully someone else will be able to answer that last question.

It’s been hypothesized that the climate in the late 1700s was responsible for Stradivari’s violins sounding good. From here:

I know a professional cellist who plays a Guarneri dating from the late 1600s. She definitely feels that “they don’t make 'em like they used to.” I asked her why, and her reply was interesting.

Her view is that it has to do with the apprentice system that was widespread in the old days: to become a maker of stringed instruments, you began at age 7 or so, apprenticed to a master. By the time you were in your twenties and acutually responsible for building instruments, you had 15 years of experience (during a time in your life when you tend to learn quickly). No instruments have been built according to that scheme for a great many years, and in her opinion, the difference is apparent.

Yes, they really are that good. There’s other really good violins of a similar age, too, as Xema indicates. Those that are in museums are generally unplayable, due to deterioration over time. Those that can be played, are played. If you want, you can hear two Strad violins in the Lindsays, and Vengerov on another, just for starters.

As to why they’re so good, many theories abound - anything from the composition of the varnish, to the particular qualities of the wood growing at that period due to the weather conditions over those years. None are proved or really satisfactory - what we do know is that even with an understanding of physics, it’s not possible to build violins that well. Nobody does.

Insurance - sure, they’re insured. They’re actually considered by the companies to be a very safe item, because you know full well that it’s going to be looked after as well as could possibly be. (Well, I know one or two stories about the Lindsays that contradict this, but I’m not telling :wink: )

Aw, pretty please? :slight_smile:

It’s all a matter of personal preference. Please objectively describe the sound of superior violin? If I say the sound quality of Stradavari violins are inferior to modern ones, how could you disprove this statement?

I play since I was a child on a deep coloured warm sounding Guarnerius (Josephus Guarnerius) who is quite exceptional in a funny way because odly enough he is only a 3/4. I don’t know of his history before he came in my mother’s family. The only thing I received confirmation of years ago, is that he is indeed what he says to be. Since he is a 3/4 I had very, very much doubts on this. (I have no clue if he is worth something and no interest in knowing. I doubt a 3/4 would go much when sold, which I shall never even think about in any case.)

It is very true that a violin needs to breath and vibrate by playing it regularly, or its unique sound dies of abandonce and neglect.
Despite his not fullgrown size Joseph is my absolute favourite. Of course I’m not professional, only play for my own satisfaction and for my love of music. Hence it doesn’t matter that his size makes him not suitable to compete with full size modern orchestra in spacy concert halls, or that I am not a child anymore and have long ago obtained the age and stature to switch to 4/4 instruments.
His tone character is not something to be easily described. Like a warm touch of velvet that sings around the sound without demping them.

One of my EU relatives is a beginning professional and is specializing in baroque violin. When she plays him he sounds sensational. You forget that he is only a 3/4 and hence a teenager in comparison with full grown 4/4.
Everytime she has played him I am left with a feeling of guilt. She has an excellent, beautiful violin herself yet as an artist she is also fully in love with Joseph.
Upto now I didn’t (dare to) ask her if she thinks he is suitable to be played in professional setting of baroque chamber music. (maybe he can be used without much problem for recordings with all the technology available to manipulate the volume).
I need something to convince me to give him to her and see him abducted to where he came from; for me he is also connected with the memory of my mother. Maybe next time she is here and plays… (I always say that since she graduated).

Salaam. A

“It is very true that a violin needs to breath and vibrate by playing it regularly, or its unique sound dies of abandonce and neglect”

This thread is too full of opinions and anthropomorphising. The violin needs to “breathe” or it “dies”? Could someone explain why the wood must be treated in this matter to maintain optimum conditions? For that matter, what exactly are these optimum qualities?

I read an article a while ago in which researchers conducted a blind test against Stradivari violins and the top modern violins. Master violinists played the same piece on each one and violin experts rated the sound quality. Stradivari violins did no better than top modern violins and even performed somewhat worse on some measures.

I will try to find the study.

Everything to do with music is subjective.

It’s not about wood, it’s about tone quality, and also about the physical response the instrument gives you as you play it. The latter in particular is impossible to quantify or describe, but any good violinist can identify with it.

I’d be very interested to read this. Several things come to mind: the sound quality isn’t the only aspect - the response I mention above will enable a top violinist to play differently, more sensitively. And I’d be interested which Strads were used for the test, because there are actually a few less-than-perfect ones around. Finally, another reason even the best modern violins aren’t as sought-after is because they may sound good now, but it’s impossible to know how they will age, and what they will be like in 10, 50 or 200 years time. With a 300-year-old fiddle, we can be confident that it’s stable.

Lets just say that you should always close the case properly :wink:

And if I may add: it really does not only count for violins.

Me too. Not in the least because I heard last year myself a Stradivarius who didn’t give all you expect from it. It was not the fault of the one who was playing him.

That is indeed a very personal aspect and also very much connected with personal preference and empathy with the work that was chosen.
Comes to this the choice of the strings, of their quality and the quality of the bow.

I have heard one myself and it seems there are a few more who don’t seem to live up their maker’s reputation. That can be caused by several factors, including their long life in different environments while cared for by different owners.

However, as is noticed earlier, the reputation of the Stradivarius is overcalled when comparing them with the others, like for example the Amati and the Guarnerius. Or even the copies. I gave my relative after she became certain that music would be her profession my Amati copy. (I’m still recovering from that attack of foolishness, but I have a life-long free tickets deal when she plays him. Problem is that I must hire a detective to follow my ex-violon-on-tour.)
Anecdote: This instrument was at a certain moment mistaken for a genuine Amati. By an expert. Again a proof that it finally comes down to subjectivness when you have such a good copy and in depth expertise is not done properly (and by preference relying on more then one independent expertise).
This Amati copy has a genuine label and a few other pieces that are said to be genuine about it. When I heard that, I had dreams of being a detective living a few centuries ago to find out who stole all of that and why this was done. Then I pictured a broken Amati and the copyist taking its label and other pieces for upgrading one of his own beautiful creations. The crime was not such a crime anymore. The loss is of course in the violin’s value, but which builder could imagine that centuries later people would be so foolish to buy instruments for foolish prices. I was very young and completely innocent when I made my uncle buy it. It wasn’t even the time of E-bay selling.

That is a good point. Never thought about it that way. I don’t have personal experience with modern violins. (If my violonist relative comes along again to claim that her Amati copy needs adult company, I might consider to forsake my preference for “old wood”).
I expect more or less that a modern violin build by a dedicated professional has the top quality you expect of it. It would be sad if there weren’t any among them who are really very good because that would deprive a lot of very talented musicians from having an excellent instrument.

Maybe, when taking your argument about modern violins in reverse, there can also be a good reason to invest in modern violins of top quality: Maybe they are in the end more stable and gain more quality while gaining age.
The Super Strads for the Super Man/ Woman… Or something…

Opening tab to E-bay…

Salaam. A

The human ear is extremely good at discerning subtle differences in sound. You don’t have to know anything about physics to know what sounds good. It’s completely subjective; a piece of electronic equipment doesn’t know what a “good” sound is. Violins aren’t built by physicists.

My sister has played violin all her life, and has had a number of occasions to hear the instruments of the old masters. She maintains there is a difference in tone.

Lack of modern understanding of physics has nothing to do with it. I have made a personal study of the current understanding of acoustics, and, for the most part, it amounts to squat. Our understanding of what makes a room or an instrument resonant to a particular set of freequencies is still quite elusive.

As for what more “modern” instruments sound like, it depens on what you mean by modern. I myself saw a NOVA special on violins taht revealed some very basic design practices of the old masters that were simply not being followed anymore at the time, such as adjusting the thickness of the back to compensate for the off-center placement of the soundpost. It created quite a stir at the time, and since then I suspect many manufacturers have revived these practices.

Some still contend a brighter tone to the old instruments, and a current hypothesis relates to the use of diamond dust in the shellac used as a wood varnish. Not too far-fetched actually. Sober physics text will tell you that the reason for the rather inexplicable resonance of the Mormon Tabernacle Hall is the use of horse-hair in the ceiling paint.

This is very true. But it should also be noted that Strads also display an exquisite quality of craftsmanship in the non-essential elements of the violin, i.e. the decorative woodwork. This is not quite as true with Amatis or Guaneris.

Yes, some are quite elegant, both in the additional little details and general outlook. Yet I would say that the colour, (a warm red tone that makes it look like as if the varnish has some special brightness from within) of “Joseph” (I call him “Jozefke” = “little Joseph” in Flemish and how he was called by my mother) makes him quite special and attractive. He is build by Joseph Guarnerius (del Gesu) in 1743 and I was told that this reddish colour is something considered normal but not all that common.
In contrast: The Stradivarius I heard and saw last year was apart from his disappointing quality also not all that special when it comes to such details. You really must have luck in such little things and it has no influence on the quality of the violins in question, or better said: your personal attraction to and appreciation of its tone colour.

Maybe if you had heard the Stradivarius, you would have liked him and maybe you would not like Jozefke at all (maybe not, when you hear me play him).Hearing the Amati copy on the other hand is as if you listen to his adult brother. The Stradivarius I speak of did not come even close.
It is also an elegant looking violin and since some of his vital elements are taken from a genuine, the confusion about his real origin is maybe understandable. It is amazing and at some point very amusing to follow discussions among experts when you deliver your violin to the mercy of their expertise.
Frankly, I find their theorising the proof that they don’t know how to solve this puzzle and that nobody shall ever know. You can keep guessing and testing until you drop dead, or you can simply say: a “copy” or “restored” Amati with genuinity in it. It doesn’t change the fact that it is an extraordinary quality instrument and that is all what counts in the end.
For my part he could have the label of a swinestable, his tone remains the same. Well… Maybe that would make me shiver a bit by the thought “swine” whenever I touch him. No big deal however for my relative who has him now. She is Catholic :slight_smile:

Much of the fame of these great names is not attached to their artistic value for a real musician, be it a professional or amateur. Their price tag is very much the result of antiquity and absolute quality meeting the international Capital Market, like always is the case.
I would be in favour of an international trust who has the monopoly on buying and taking care of such instruments, and to decide about which musicians have shown to have the competence and dedication to be worth playing them.

Salaam. A

I recently read a report about a study done on this issue. The outcome gave that you could make the “old” varnish with elements you still can find easily in todays pharmacies. Apart of the accidental addition of local insects falling into and decomposing in the varnish and other accidental natural “additions” to the varnish used by the old masters, there would be no difference with what you can make now by use of the same “modern” elements.
I never heard this theory about “diamant dust” you speak off. I find it rather far sought, the more since as far as I know there was no such a thing as a real diamond industry in Italy, where violin buiiders could get 'dust" to use it as a byproduct in their varnish. I also don’t see how diamond “dust” could do anything else but ruining the brilliance of a varnish.

Salaam. A

Don’t know nothing about any Lindsays, but Yo Yo Ma left his $2.5 MM Montagnana cello and Lynn Harrell left his $4 MM Strad in the back of separate cabs in NYC within days of each other in 1999. In slightly lower-end news, A violinist from Harrisburg left a $100,000 Calvaros along with a less-worthy viola in a dive bar on the Upper West Side earlier this year.

All the instruments were recovered unharmed.

Just want to boast that, 10 years ago, I held Vengerov’s Strad. It was at the time owned by Louis Vuitton, and worth $10 million. I met him in the lobby of a Louis Vuitton anniversary party, and he let me hold the violin. [Dr Evil] Ten million dollars. [/DE] In my hand. I handed it back to him reverentially, and he laughed and spun it up in the air like I used to with my crappy fiddle when I played.

Then he went on stage and played, and oh my God I have never heard anything like it. What a tone, and what a player. I have never in my life been moved to tears, and made to laugh, just by someone playing a single instrument. The single most incredible musical experience of my life, and the only time where I’ve seen a genuine jump-to-your-feet ovation. He tried to leave the stage, and there was nearly a riot as the crowd physically forced him back on stage for yet another encore. I had never understood before what it’s like to be in the presence of genius.

There seems to be something about the east coast that causes people to do this - Gidon Kremer left his Guaneri to the mercy of Amtrak earlier this year.