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View Full Version : Is a Stradivarius violin really the best?



Perikles
2012-Jan-03, 12:33 PM
Apparently not, according to this (http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/jan/02/how-many-notes-violinist-stradivarius)report.

What I find interesting is the laudable attempt at an objective experiment to establish whether old violins are actually better than modern ones. The violinists tended to opt for the modern violins, given that they did not know what kind of violin was being played. I liked the comment that the experiment was necessarily limited because
"Numbers of subjects and instruments were small because it is difficult to persuade the owners of fragile, enormously valuable old violins to release them for extended periods into the hands of blindfolded strangers."

swampyankee
2012-Jan-03, 05:00 PM
Given how important internal factors are to a good performance, the question as to whether Stradivarius', Guarneri's, and the other old violins are "better" can't really be answered without including the players' emotional feelings about the instrument.

So are they "better" in some physically quantifiable way? Does it really matter as long as the violinists think so, and will give a better performance with one?

Gillianren
2012-Jan-03, 07:24 PM
Good Lord, I shouldn't be allowed to test that! (No, I don't play violin, but he made violas, too.) Especially not blindfolded. I haven't practiced in far too long.

I will say that, when my mother bought my Big Girl Viola when she was reasonably sure I'd stopped growing, the store allowed her to bring home several on a trial basis and let me play each one before I made the decision. And that isn't just that violas are measured in inches whereas violins are "full size," "three-quarter size," and so forth. Every instrument has a very slightly different tone, and what one person likes isn't necessarily what another one does. My mother made the decision based on price range, not being a musician herself, and I made the final decision based on tone. And that was my Christmas and birthday present for the year, as one had been for my older sister three years earlier.

KaiYeves
2012-Jan-03, 07:37 PM
Given how important internal factors are to a good performance, the question as to whether Stradivarius', Guarneri's, and the other old violins are "better" can't really be answered without including the players' emotional feelings about the instrument.

So are they "better" in some physically quantifiable way? Does it really matter as long as the violinists think so, and will give a better performance with one?
Like the story about "magic" ballet slippers, then?

Hal37214
2012-Jan-03, 08:13 PM
Like the story about "magic" ballet slippers, then?

I've had a fair amount of experience with string instruments (primarily cello and guitar), and I'd simply say that the objective component of the selection process is probably limited to just a few parameters: a) how much does it cost b) does it "work" (i.e., is it playable), and c) if not (b), can it be repaired, without impacting (a) too severely.

Pretty much every other consideration is necessarily subjective. The most obvious consideration is the quality of the sound the instrument produces, but this in itself has a very complex relationship with the skill, style, and physical geometry of the player.

Oh - and violinists, violists, cellists, and double-bassists also have to consider the unique characteristics of the bow they use with the instrument.

Considering all these parameters, it's not surprising at all that many (if not most) musicians can assert that their "favorite" instrument is not necessarily their most expensive.

Fazor
2012-Jan-03, 09:49 PM
Could it also be that the musicians have more experience playing with (and thus, are more comfortable with) instruments made by modern methods to modern specifications?

You could hand me a vintage Les Paul SG and a modern Washburn, and blindfolded, I'd probably feel more comfortable with the later (since that's what I play.) That doesn't mean that's the "better" guitar.

If you unblindfolded me, I'd kick you in the knee so you couldn't run, and take off with the SG. :)

Hal37214
2012-Jan-03, 11:11 PM
Could it also be that the musicians have more experience playing with (and thus, are more comfortable with) instruments made by modern methods to modern specifications?

You could hand me a vintage Les Paul SG and a modern Washburn, and blindfolded, I'd probably feel more comfortable with the later (since that's what I play.) That doesn't mean that's the "better" guitar.

If you unblindfolded me, I'd kick you in the knee so you couldn't run, and take off with the SG. :)


The "better" guitar is the one you pick up and play the most. I got in trouble with my wife and daughter when I stopped playing my Martin in favor of my girl's $40 Samick discount-store guitar. Dang, I loved that little plastic thing! Perfectly intonated, and more fun to play than a ukulele.

swampyankee
2012-Jan-03, 11:48 PM
Like the story about "magic" ballet slippers, then?

Yes.

And, as I said, musicians are people, and, like all people, they will make some decisions based on non-logical factors.

Cougar
2012-Jan-04, 01:08 AM
Oh - and violinists, violists, cellists, and double-bassists also have to consider the unique characteristics of the bow they use with the instrument.

No kidding there. A couple months ago I had the opportunity to (very carefully) handle a violin bow that was worth $10,000. It was quite sleek.

danscope
2012-Jan-04, 01:19 AM
There is a lot going on in a violin. A huge amount of the tonality is directly dependent on the precise position of the sound post. A great violin with a poorly set post vs an average instrument properly set-up is a surprising test.
And we are seeing the advent of the graphite/carbon fibre instrument which is truly a phenomena.
But we should remember that a genuine Stradivarius instrument has age on it's side. As wooden instruments age,
their tonal response and natural reverberation improve. Play a D-28 Martin brand new , and play one from 1965 and just listen. the sustain alone is worth the price of admission.
In my opinion, these exceptional instruments belong in the hands of the virtuosos who will perform for us with talent worthy of the wonderful instruments they possess. Such is our delight to hear Yo yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman
work their magic as they do. Surely Victor Borge deserved his Bosendorfer and the audiences who delighted in his
concert. And how great to hear The Chieftains . I could go on....
But you need to consider the influence of the musician. I'm not bad on guitar, and a few other things.
My violin playin' is closer to fiddlin . A most sensitive instrument. It'll do what you tell it to with your fingers.

The difference between a violin and a cello ? The cello burns longer. I wish I had a full upright bass. They start at $3000 and go into the stratosphere from there .
A strativarius? A real one? Beyond price. Like the geniuses that play them.

Best regards,
Dan

John Mendenhall
2012-Jan-04, 01:25 AM
I heard a Guarnerius viola played in a quartet of stringed instruments. I was less than four feet away from the group. The difference in volume and quality of sound was astonishing. All four performers were professional classicists, although they did not exchange instruments. Unscientific test? Yes. But - I did not know until afterwards, on asking, what the viola was. It stood out that much.

The wiki article on Strads is informative.

Ara Pacis
2012-Jan-04, 09:09 AM
I've read that it supposedly had to do with wood quality due to the little ice-age and denser tree rings. I'm surprised no one mentioned that yet. Maybe it's a myth.

Just don't try to buy one using PayPal, they may ask you to destroy it (http://www.regretsy.com/2012/01/03/from-the-mailbag-27/) (maybe NSFW due to angry language)

WaxRubiks
2012-Jan-04, 10:20 AM
Just don't try to buy one using PayPal, they may ask you to destroy it (http://www.regretsy.com/2012/01/03/from-the-mailbag-27/)

that's ridiculous!

captain swoop
2012-Jan-04, 01:09 PM
Any instrument is the same. I have a lot of experience with Guitars, not so muuch with a Violin.
But you can take 4 identical looking and specification Gibson Les Pauls and each one will feel and play slightly differently even when set up the same.
It's probably true of any musical instrument or any equipment or machine that relies on human interaction.
I know I have ridden what appeared to be identical Ducati bikes and they both felt different.

danscope
2012-Jan-04, 02:16 PM
Many years ago, I bought my D-28 Martin. I spent a couple hours playing 5 different instruments. The one stood out,
no question. They all featured Brazilian rosewood. I think the one I picked had a little tighter grain pattern on the top. There is a subtle collection of differences that contribute to an instrument's sparkle.
And there is the basic , fundamental construction integrity. If the glue separates and the instrument falls apart,
it will never live to see maturity. Many of us have seen pretty 12 string guitars that have the strings 3/8 ths of an inch off the fret board. Unplayable for anything but slide. How many mandolins do you see ....falling apart and good only as a wall hanger? Too bad.
Hopefully, great instruments receive the care and respect they deserve.

Best regards,
Dan

Daffy
2012-Jan-04, 03:29 PM
I have several Fender Stratocasters---one is a '59 which, as far as tone and playability---is head and shoulders above the others. There are several factors---hand wound coils, for example---but one of the main ones is that older wood resonates differently. I am not a violin player, but I have no trouble believing a player can distinguish between a Stradivarius and other violins. "Better" is a relative term---but different certainly applies, I should think.

Years and years ago I wanted to buy a Fender Acoustic 12 string---but they all sounded like crap (tinny). A fellow at the Fender factory (then still in Fullerton, btw) told me to play a lot of them, and eventually I would stumble across one that, mostly by accident, since they were all machine stamped in those days, would just sound amazing. Somehow, all the random factors (wood resonance, glue, etc) would just fall into place. He was right---I found one, bought it, and still use it to this day; and it just gets better with age. Same with a '67 Yamaha acoustic I have.

Hornblower
2012-Jan-04, 04:11 PM
Excerpt from Charles O’Connell (1900-1962), The Victor Book of Symphonies:


Any one of these names authentically appearing in a violin makes it exceedingly valuable. That is not to say that modern instruments are necessarily inferior, or that ancient ones are invariably fit for use. It is highly questionable that anyone, unless an impossible combination of musician, antiquarian, and student, could distinguish by the ear alone a Stradivarius from the finest of modern instruments. The value of a Cremona violin is often factitious, or fictitious. There is no miracle, especially and exclusively available to the viol family, which excepts them from the deterioration of age and use; and there is no reason why duplicates of them, executed by a first-class modern violin maker, should not have an equally beautiful quality of tone. This is a statement that will shock many violinists and merchants; the fact remains. The superiority of the Cremona instruments is probably due, not to the ridiculous supposition that a secretly formulated varnish gives them their tone, but to the fact that they were made with endless patience and loving care. Intelligent and persistent manipulation of the sound post of a string instrument will have more effect on the tone than any rare wood, any secret varnish in the world. Furthermore, while a Heifetz can make any violin give out beautiful sound, an amateur fiddler can make a “Strad” sound like a leopard cat in agony. It would seem, therefore, that the player has a considerable influence on the tone of even a famous instrument.Copyright 1934, 1941, 1948 by Charles O’Connell. Published by Simon and Schuster, Inc.

Mr. O’Connell was a distinguished musician, recording company executive, and writer about music in the pioneering days of electrically recorded phonograph records. As such he was acquainted professionally with many world class musicians.

About 15 years ago I saw a TV special featuring a violin maker who had meticulously analyzed the structural and acoustic characteristics of violins made by Stradivari and his competitors in Cremona, and was successfully making violins that compared very favorably with them in the opinions of top violinists in some of our major orchestras. One customer tried out a newly finished violin and reported that the tone was somewhat darker and more subdued than she wished. The maker replied that the varnish was still soft, and that it would gradually harden over the next year or so and make the tone brighter. He said that modern chemical testing revealed nothing remarkable about Stradivari’s varnish, which consisted of rather ordinary oil based resins. Of course the varnish affects the sound by altering the elasticity of the wood, and the maker knows from experience how to take it into account when making the parts. A bad varnish job could impair an otherwise fine instrument, but the best varnish in the world will not save a bad one.

The great masters of Cremona had a supply of uncommonly fine wood, and they used their phenomenal skill to craft instruments that had superior tone quality over the full tonal range and over a wider dynamic range than is possible with lesser instruments. This modern maker, with his own fine skills and some astute reverse engineering, is emulating them successfully. His experience appears to be in good agreement with Mr. O’Connell’s opinions.

ToSeek
2012-Jan-04, 04:34 PM
Given how important internal factors are to a good performance, the question as to whether Stradivarius', Guarneri's, and the other old violins are "better" can't really be answered without including the players' emotional feelings about the instrument.

So are they "better" in some physically quantifiable way? Does it really matter as long as the violinists think so, and will give a better performance with one?

Studies have shown that superstitions help athletes perform better just due to the state of mind it puts them in. Perhaps this is similar.

Hal37214
2012-Jan-04, 05:46 PM
Studies have shown that superstitions help athletes perform better just due to the state of mind it puts them in. Perhaps this is similar.

I wouldn't object to that, but I tend to think that, for musicians, it has more to do with the way they physically interact with their instrument. "This violin has a nice tone, but the corner of the lower bout pokes me, which I find distracting." If he likes the instrument well enough, he might just get used to it. Or, he might become more generally dissatisfied with it, even if he isn't conscious of the specific reasons why.

Hal37214
2012-Jan-04, 05:54 PM
And further to the point re athletes and superstitions - I wonder if that's not just another way of saying that the athlete wants to be mentally focused on her performance, with no distractions from that. It's not that her "lucky shoes" specifically make her run faster, but if she doesn't wear them, there's going to be some part of her brain making a nuisance of itself by reminding her of that fact while she's trying to concentrate on the race.

Or maybe that's just how the buzzing bees in my brain work.

danscope
2012-Jan-05, 03:40 AM
Hi Daffy, I too have a Fender 12 string. Fine machine, and the Neck, the real foundation of a 12 is still great after all these years. Good news in a twelve string guitar :)

Dan