April 4, 2013 at 11:36 PMHi all,
"...I have heard people speak of the greatness of the old Italian violins as a myth, the implication (stated and unstated) that violinists are being taken in by the name, history and price tag..." and your answer that no, Itzhak Perlman and Anne-Sophie Mutter and Maxim Vengerov and for that matter, YOU, are not just enamored of a famous name or an "idea" of a violin.
With real relationships that have lasted years, even decades, with these instruments, the very finest violinists of our time know well which instruments help them to reach for and achieve that elusive last one percent of refinement that it takes to be a truly great player.
If you would be willing to be involved in the testing, or in setting up a testing or selection scenario which you feel would more accurately reflect the selection process of great players (but without knowing the identity of the fiddle), that would be wonderful.
There is a well-credentialed group of engineers and scientists who are seriously interested in knowing more about what constitutes a "good fiddle", and why, from a science perspective. Many of them will be present at the Oberlin (violin) Acoustics Workshop this summer, so that might be a neat time to be involved, should you be willing. It can be a fun time too, despite a small percentage of these scientists being a little geeky. :-)
An acquaintance of mine prepares and races cars on week ends (the rest of the time he's a rocket scientist - really) and I was overjoyed when he let me try his modified Porsche 944 S2. So I hit the gas, tried feeling for the car’s limits, enjoyed the power, and felt like Schumacher for a few minutes. I know something about cars, have driven over 150 mph in my younger years, so I had a good time. Then my friend took the driver’s place.
In his hands, the Porsche became a demon. At one point I literally had to hang on to the door as he took a freeway offramp marked 40MPH at an ungodly 110, wondering how the laws of physics could be cancelled out by simple steel and rubber, while feeling my teeth pulled by centrifugal force. I realized then that I had not even came close to reaching the limits of this car while I was driving.
My point: I learned that anyone can take a Chevy Malibu or a Chrysler Town-and-Country to its limits. But only a small few - and with considerable practise - can make a race-prepared Porsche 944 S2 really perform… and maybe the same holds for the greatest violins too.
Thanks for taking time to post here. Great article! It is nice to read the perspective on this topic of someone like you, who has been playing these instruments so wonderfully for a long time!
Thanks and Cheers!
Well said, James! Applies to both new and old, of course...
On his recent anthology can be heard a sampling of the approximately 40 Strads, 26 Del Gesus, and many other instruments. He's also owned contemporary instruments as well.
The 3rd of the comments after the Huffington article refers to a "placebo effect" but it wasn't entirely clear what the commenter meant. Personally, I'm pretty accurate in guessing whether a Strad is used on recordings. They simply cannot be mistaken for other instruments.
I am convinced of two flaws in the so-called "tests" that are carried out:
1. There is a bias that many, if not most listeners have. They tend to prefer the brightest and loudest instrument right away, without having to listen to an entire recital of varied works, during which time their ear may tire of the louder and brighter instrument.
2. The tests are played by people who have not spent the necessary time to be able to play the instruments to their potential. On some tests, you can hear the player drive the older instruments too hard, letting the sound crack in a way that wouldn't happen with a newer instrument.
Staryk didn't just pick up these instruments and go into the studio--he had to learn to play them.
It's possible that he's had more long-term concert experience with more instruments than anyone alive.
Anyway, look for the interview soon. I have no idea what he'll say, so I may be surprised at the answers myself.
Maybe so, but this thread suggests otherwise. Respondents seemed to prefer the darker violin.
"2. The tests are played by people who have not spent the necessary time to be able to play the instruments to their potential."
That can be true for any instrument, whether old or new, so it's hard to see how that would give either category an advantage.
My intent was only to underline through exaggeration!
hi James ; thank you for the article. you say you "examine" what makes a violin great. if i understand it well, in it you express your doubts concerning the old-vs new trials and an assertion that there is a reason why good old violins are favoured by great players, namely that they afford an added dimension not measurable within the limited scope of such trial contests.
however, there is a bit of ambiguity.
in a way, given the context you situate your assertion, one is driven to read that either:
1- you are defending good old violins from being debased in any way by coming out as losers in the contest but you could essentially neutral about the question old vs new. a polite stance.
2- you are actively weighing on the side of the old violins since there you actively refrain from making any remark concerning modern violins and since you support the distinction of old from new. in other words, you pay compliments to one category and politely bypass the other (for your own purposes).
would it be brazen to make a clear jugement - for your own purposes as a player and based on your experience- on whether good modern violins can or cannot afford that added dimension and that you were able to perceive with good old violins?
David Burgess' invitation sounds alluring in the context of that question.
but David, i think your invitation does not confront James' primary criticism of the nature of the trials i.e. being limited in scope of time. (also, is there a scientificor objective basis for that criticism? can this extended period of discoveries that Mr Ehnes mentions be accounted for wthin an acoustically scientific rationale)
Mr Burgess, you would have to lend him many Strads, Guarneris, modern made violins over ...maybe a span of a few months at least? during which Mr Ehnes must remain oblivious to the brand and age of the violin. quite difficult that...
i think this subject invites more questions than answers...
if there is a placebo effect, then who suffers from it...
is the placebo effect incurred by the age and heritage of the old violin
or is the placebo effect incurred by financial limitation of performers buying a new violin
In one of the tests which Mr. Ehnes seems to be referring to, the researchers kind of sidestepped the difficult time issue, with a rather clever design element of the test. By posing the question, "Which violins would you want to take home with you (for further testing)", they get pretty close to the first step in a normal selection process. Instruments which don't pass that first stage are unlikely to be contenders in the more thorough trials that musicians typically follow up with, so they have basically become non-contenders. While that certainly doesn't tell one everything they need to know about an instrument, it still reveals a lot!
So no one is claiming that one can fully evaluate an instrument, either new or old, by playing it for a short time. But playing a variety of instruments for a short time IS a normal step in the typical selection process that musicians use, which bears heavily on the eventual outcome.
The placebo effect is already quite well known and validated from previous experiments, so that's one reason there is emphasis on these experiments being conducted double-blind. I don't happen to have any information on who is or isn't most susceptible, but I suspect that the researchers do.
You say we live in times of skepticism. We also live in times when every scientific claim (thank lord!) also has to be supported by scientific studies. I have personally not followed every study on violins, but my guess is that many of them are thought through.
Of course, the performer also has a natural bias to play better on a certain type of violins. But then, as the performer gets better, you will get another bias: a sociological one. The rumor says finer performers should have finer and more expensive instruments, and the reputation that the old Italian ones are "better" still joins today. Naturally, a larger fraction of performers at higher levels will have a greater chance to be exposed to Italian instruments, and be more used to them.
We recall again, that the main question is about what violins are better, modern violins or old Italian. The question by itself is about subjective matters, and is therefore a pain to disentangle by attempting an objective study. But the statement of this in the article, I don't think at all fits into the category of scientific. Pure science may not use reinforcement of opinions by authority instead of searching the truth:
"I would ask these people if they really think that Itzhak Perlman is not a better judge of a violin's capabilities than they are. Or Pinchas Zukerman. Or Anne-Sophie Mutter. Or Maxim Vengerov. I could go on and on."
...otherwise we would have lived on a flat Earth yet today! :)
While I can't rule out that a few contemporary makers may have tried to pull some promotional garbage like that (I might even be able to think of a couple of likely candidates (wink)), I've attended quite a few comparison events, and it would be highly atypical.
The most common comparison scenario is one which every musician is familiar with: Some musicians get together on their own to compare instruments, probably because someone wants to see how an instrument they are considering purchasing stacks up. They hear what they hear, and believe what they believe, and there's not much that even a pushy modern maker with an agenda can do about it. If a Strad or two are present, they may come out on top, or they may not. It's a learning experience for everyone involved, including a maker, if one happens to be involved.
The more formal studies have a heavier data acquisition and research component. For instance, a question might be, "Makers keep trying to copy old Italian instruments, which are the traditional reference standard. Is that really what they should be doing? How successful is this? What is a "good fiddle" anyway, and what makes them different? Do opinions of players and listeners change when the identity of the violin is taken out of the picture?"
Oh boy. I was just about to post this, and I see there are more comments. OK:
Sverker: You make great points.
I think it’s safe to say that violin soloists have access to more great violins than others, and are quite regularly exposed to modern instruments (at least in my experience and that of many of my colleagues). They overwhelmingly choose Strads and Del Gesus as their primary concert instruments. You make an excellent point about opinions by authority not being scientific by nature, but I think it is fair to give great weight to the opinions of those who by the very nature of their careers are generally considered to have the best judgment of musical sound. I think this should carry at least as much authority as “scientific” tests that have many insurmountable and inherent flaws, as so many have pointed out. Which is not to question the noble intentions of these tests, or the value of the information they provide. I did not mean to imply that these studies were not “thought through”. But why is having 21 violinists of various backgrounds and abilities trying out 6 violins in a hotel room while wearing a welding mask considered compelling evidence of anything if the personal experiences of the popularly determined greatest violinists in the world is not?
As far as the sociological bias favoring old violins goes, I agree that that is a very interesting part of the equation. But I think there is much less to that today than there was years ago, and an argument can be made that it has swung at least somewhat in the other direction. Speaking very practically (and, again, from my own experience), there is a considerable amount of PR value today in playing on a modern instrument. Some of my colleagues joke about advertising playing on a modern instrument, even if they don’t, just for the sake of the media interest!
But I’m afraid that all of this has gotten away from the original point of the article. You write that the main point is about what violins are better, modern violins or old Italian ones. But that was not really the point of my article; my point was (and is) that the greatness of a violin is in the possibilities it affords to its player – and that has nothing to do with the instrument’s age or place of manufacture.
David: You’re absolutely right, I was being unfair in saying that “more often than not” the point of these tests is to see the old instruments fail. I was reacting rashly to a number of studies that I have seen, taken part in, or read about that seemed to be pushing a new instrument agenda, and the enormous amount of press that was generated by the Indianapolis test, which struck me as being significantly, if totally unintentionally, flawed. But I do believe that for a number of them, that is precisely the point. Of course, there are plenty of tests that have unfairly favored the older instruments as well. Where there’s money to be made, whether it is by makers or by dealers, people will push their agenda. There’s no getting around that!
The questions you pose in your final paragraph are the truly interesting ones. And ones that have no real answers, at least yet! But I greatly admire the efforts of those like yourself who are trying to get to the bottom of it all.
Thanks to all of you for weighing in on this.
thank you for your generous response (and your great music making). hopefully one day you will also tackle the issue of playing with or without shoulder rest, a rather more explosive subject ;o)
To help keep things balanced, here's a little about the, um, less kosher side of the maker trade (nothing James doesn't already know, but perhaps he was just too polite too say it):
A small number of makers enter into various types of promotional deals with players, so it can be hard to know what it really means if a performer owns or performs on a contemporary instrument. We all know that if a famous athlete uses a particular brand, at the very least, they probably didn't pay for it. They probably even get paid to use it. What might be less common knowledge is that a little of this type of thing has gone on with contemporary makers.
At the same time, it can be hard to know what it means when someone owns a Strad. Many are owned by amateur players, and sometimes by people who don't play at all. There is a historical, collectable, and investment value which has only a tentative connection to how a particular instrument performs as a music making tool. Consider that some paintings have fetched enormous prices, way higher than any violin, even though they just hang there on a wall, and don't even produce music.
Another thing which can take place anywhere in the contemporary arts and crafts community: Manipulating auction prices.
Let's say a painter wants to set a public and impressive price reference for his work. It's pretty simple. He has someone put one of the paintings the artist owns in a high-profile auction, has two accomplices bid the price up (acting like they are competing against each other), and one ends up purchasing it (on behalf the artist that painted it). The artist gets his painting back, along with most of the money he spent to buy his painting from himself (minus auction house fees), and now there's a searchable public record that his work is worth a lot of money.
Has this ever been done by a modern instrument maker? Probably.
I don't care for any kind of practices which intentionally deceive people, or carry a high probability that people will be deceived, but there you have it. Obviously, not everyone feels the same way I do.
It's unfortunate when the press portrays it that way. They seem to jump on anything mentioning Stradivari, when they have a slow news day, and sensationalize it to their own ends.
The issue of violin sound is complicated enough, that most good researchers take it on in small bites. It's even complicated enough, that many engineers and physicists get involved, just because they consider it a special challenge.
The Indianapolis test focused on the initial selection process, which typically doesn't take place in a hall. Two more tests have been done since then, one in a concert hall in Paris, and another in a hall in New York, but published scientific-type papers haven't emerged from these yet.
On whether modern violins used in comparison have been specially selected:
Sometimes they have, but the Strads they have been compared with are the outcome of a selection process spanning about 250 years. Hard to say how either selection process affects the testing.
What's really cool is that this thread has served as an example of how players, dealers, and makers can work together for mutual benefit. Not that some dealers and players haven't been been hugely supportive of contemporary maker's efforts and experiments for about 150 years now. We makers are in debt to them.
All the way through I'd been wondering this very thing, if players were approached with -ahem - sponsorship or promotional opportunities. ( its so difficult to splash 'carltons' across the frock of the concert violinist, perhaps a litle banner hanging off the scroll ).
I oft find myself wondering if Hilary Hahn gets approached to try out an alternative to her vuillaume - neither italian nor modern, it sits there in a no mans land, its greates value will come on her departure from the mortal coil and it can be come the hahn vuillaume. would she sound different on another instrument considering all of her adult years have been spent on this one?
On the one hand, as James has pointed out there's the issue of needing to be with the instruments for significant time to acclimate and optimize. That is a very measured and perfectly rational demand -- albeit one that is difficult to meet experimentally.
I personally find arguments like "how can so many of the best players be wrong" to be superficially compelling but scientifically very flawed because it is quite possible, perhaps even likely, that they are all subject to a common bias.
"I just tried a $75,000 instrument that was made five years ago and seriously I think it's the best violin I've ever heard .... but wait ... no, it can't be better than my Strad, I mean, that's just not possible, is it? Even if I really think so, none of my professional peers are likely to agree, none of them plays a modern fiddle (except for what's-his-name) and they'll all think I've lost my marbles. Better keep playing the Strad to be on the safe side. There's gotta be a reason it cost 100 times as much."
I read somewhere that even Hilary Hahn gets questions all the time about why she does not play a Strad but rather a mere Vuillaume.
Harold Schoenbaum's book on the social history of the violin indicates this sort of name-dropping promotional behavior isn't anything new, either.
This thread is fascinating. The variety of ideas and professions entering the discussion is very helpful.
At the end of the day we cannot expect a scientific study to answer a subjective question such as "which is best". Why are results of tests always over-interpreted?
A rich investor probably owns an expensive, well provenanced violin for (at least) some preservation of his/her wealth. Lending it to a famous or up and coming virtuoso adds value to this investment and is itself a form of branding.
I think everyone can be subject to the placebo effect (no value judgement) and even if there were no placebo effect on a player, there may be an expectation in many audiences regarding a violin to be played.
How does the violin played by a performer affect his/her prospects, quite apart from their ability?
I will also add that I have often had requests from violinists seeking to be testimonials in my printed ads. I think that's even worse, because most of the time they just want me to publicize them. Go figure!
Many have already seen this, but if you are interested in background on that Indianapolis experiment, here is an article I wrote about it, having been one of the guinea pigs in it. And yes I have a degree in music! ;)
As a professional violinist who loves violins - old and new, with 10 violins and 17 bows, this discussion is right up my alley. I've personally tried about 6 Strads, 2 del Gesus, a number of Guadagninis and Amatis, several Vuliaumes, etc. I love great classic violins and am also a great believer in contemporary violins with 6 that were custom-made for me. I will soon have a new blog of my own here focusing on two of my favorites.
I don't think that it's as simple as old vs new. It depends a lot on the individual instrument the particular player - and even the listener. As an example of the latter, in "Homage" I consistently liked the Peter Guarneri. If another great violinist and done the same demonstrations I might have felt differently.
Among the violins I've personally tried, a particular Amati was possibly the most beautiful for me. But I will say this: you certainly get the most bang for your buck with a modern fiddle. The top classic instruments have a complex pallette of colors that is no myth. However, many violins by Strad, et al are just ho-hum. Part of it may be condition or set-up. And part of it may be that even Strad could not bat 1,000, given all the variables that go into a fiddle. But I do believe that it is understandably in the interest of major dealers and auction houses to promote a special mystique around all classic fiddles that tonally, a great many do not live up to. And some players feel that it's important to their prestige and status to say that they play on a Strad or del Gesu. Some, like Tetzlaff indeed proudly extoll the virtues of their contemporary instruments, as do I in my more minor league (me, more minor, not my fiddles!) way. Interesting - it's usually one end or another. Few players proudly tell everyone about their unusually good Plattner, say! I am really open to possibilities and not bowled over by names. Once at an auction showing I far preferred a Carlo Biziach to a Strad. Just the other day, rumaging at Tarisio, my favorite violin, tonally was the Storioni (though it was riddled with cracks), and I also liked one of the Beckers a lot. I thought the Guadagnini was just OK. Of course that's just me, my taste and playing style. Which brings me back to my earlier point. It all depends upon the particular instrument, the individual player, and whatever chemistry results from that interaction. The bow is very important, too.
PS So James, tell us. We won't tell anybody...which was really your favorite in the Fulton collection? ;-)
From personal experience, it is easy to fool the listener in a blind test by playing, every time in a soloistic manner, the same instrument in four different ways.
The optimal sound in an instrument comes with optimal playing conditions. If the only contact with the instrument is your collarbone, chinrest and left hand, no additional damping of the back will affect the sound (mechanic dynamic). In most cases, back squeezing performed by the tension in the shoulder rest will affect the sound.
In the mid 70s, Ruggiero Ricci showed me his solution for a “not-squeezing-the-back” shoulder rest.
The lower part of the back (of his shoulder rest) was on the outside doubled with an arched maple plate matching the wood of his Guarneri del Gesù. The plate did not touch anything. It only rested on the lower edge of the back, allowing the vibrations of the back while holding the instrument, to be freed from his damping shoulder support.
The only thing that matters for me is that my violin inspires me with mutiple colours, and a quick response to my musical intensions in as effortless a way as possible. The more you have to deal with controlling the sound, the less capacity you have left for extraordinary performing.
The personal customizing of your equipment - set up, bows, strings, chinrest etc. is individual and key for the performer. You grow and develop with a great instrument. In general, I have only found these qualities in great Cremonese violins, in particular the instruments made by Antonio Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesù.
When my dear colleague in Cremona, Dimitri Musafia, in a way compares rare violin’s performance in the hands of great players with the performance of great sport car drivers, it reminds me of the Formula One race when Michael Schumacher won the Monaco Grand Prix in 2001. I was standing with a nice view over the Circuit around the harbour closely monitoring Michael’s mastery. Well, needless to say, the Ferrari performed wonderfully in Michael’s hands. Would he have been able to achieve the same magnificence in a less capable car?
There are numerous examples of great soloists who, during their career, had to change instruments with, at times, disastrous consequences. There have also been many times that a string was broken during a concert and a quick exchange with the leader’s violin was necessary. The matchmaking process between soloist and instrument is like creating a wonderful lifelong marriage.
David Oistrakh told me at his last performance in Stockholm, shortly before he died on October 24th, 1974, “You should have the capacity to give the impression of playing with 110%, but only use 85% of what you have to offer; this creates a safety net for you”.
David often borrowed my orchestra colleague, Mircea Saulesco’s Goffredo Cappa violin for the dress rehearsals with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. It is a great violin but it did not match David’s Strad.
David Oistrakh played the ex-Marsick Stradivari of 1705. When Igor Oistrakh inherited the ex-Marsick, it sounded, due to Igor’s personal sound, completely different. (James Ehnes plays the the ex-Marsick Stradivarius of 1715).
I am told that Christian Tetzlaff had the Baron Rothschild, ex-Kux Stradivari of 1713 on loan for some time. This instrument is only 13 inches (345mm). I know this instrument particularly well. It belonged to a friend of mine and I played it every time we met. The sound is wonderful and penetrating, but not powerful. On the other hand, it is the conductor’s obligation to balance the volume of the orchestra in regard to the soloist.
There are very few rare “virgin” instruments left. According to the late Jacques Francais, Nicolas Lupot regraded the plates on approximately 50 del Gesù violins. I have since then tried to get this statement confirmed, so far without success. Jacques once showed me a wonderful-looking Guarneri del Gesù and I played it, it sounded like a Suzuki violin.
When I looked inside, it was easy to understand why. The violin was only roughly finished and had deep tool marks everywhere.
On the same occasion, I had the pleasure of playing 6 Strads, 4 del Gesùs, the ex- Stern Bergonzi of 1733 and some very nice Amatis. They were all great violins in different ways. Suddenly Jacques showed me another del Gesù, the ex-Antonio Bazzini Guarneri del Gesù of 1742. This violin have 3 wolf tones, but is, in my opinion, one of the top del Gesùs. It totally blew my mind and, with a broad margin, outcompeted all the other instruments I tried that day.
Regarding regrading of instruments:
Within the last 10 years, I have seen three important instruments being reshaped dramatically in the back (considered being too thick) by well-renowned restorers.
In Switzerland - a Francesco Rugeri, in UK - a Giovanni Grancino and in the US - a Voller brothers.
I consider this to be acts of ignorance and stupidity. It is such a relief to see the great-sounding Antonio Gagliano of 1831, with a back of 6 mm, played by my friend Misha Keylin.
Understanding the mechanics and physics of stringed instruments is key to being able to create the optimal acoustic result.
Some of you writing on this member’s blog are aware of my being the promoter of the "’Stradivari’ Master in Science and Technology of String Instrument” and the open-source International Research and Development Centre in Cremona. The results we are achieving are shared with the international violinmaking community. Please Google "Stradivari" Master in Science and Technology of String Instruments. If you would like to contribute funding for this project, please Google the non-profit organisation Fondazione Maestro Cremona. Look for the Stradivari Master’s Degree in the menu bar.
The Master’s Degree at the Politecnico Di Milano’s Cremona Campus, was last year postponed one year. The prior educational levels of the students are demanding. A Master of Science in Engineering, Computer Science, Mathematics or Physics is required.
Most of the applicants did not want to give up good jobs only because of the Italian Academic Senate’s strict rules in regard to not accepting many candidates’ suggested alternative procedures of participating in the coursework.
I am very optimistic that one day, in the near future, we will be able to - from a sound and playability point of view - make the most wonderful instruments. However, the mentality of the Renaissance artists is dead. The divine mastery to be found everywhere displayed in the work created for churches, royalties and noble families will not easily come true again.
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