You've probably seen or heard some mainstream media headlines in the last few days about a favorite topic: the sound of Stradivari violins vs. the sound of modern violins.
Here are a few extreme examples: "Science proves Stradivarius violins just aren’t that great" from Cosmos Magazine, and "So much for Stradivarius: People think cheap new violins sound better than expensive models" from the Daily Mail -- and there are plenty more.
So Stradivarius violins just aren't that great? And "research...might have finally consigned that pre-eminence to the realm of myth"? "Cheap violins" are better than Strads? Let's just say there is some hyperbole going around.
The headlines refer to an article published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. (PNAS). The new analysis draws on data from a 2014 experiment by violin maker Joseph Curtin, D'Addario researcher Fan Tao and scientist Claudia Fritz, also known as the "Paris Experiment." For background: In that experiment, 10 soloists evaluated 12 violins, in order to come up with their preferences. (The soloists were Olivier Charlier, Pierre Fouchenneret, Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, Ilya Kaler, Elmar Oliveira, Tatsuki Narita, Solenne Païdassi, Annick Roussin, Giora Schmidt, and Stéphane Tran Ngoc.) When it came to preference, six violinists preferred new violins and four preferred old ones. The players did not do better than the roll of dice during a seven-minute guessing test at the end, in determining which violins were old and which were new. This experiment followed a 2012 experiment, which took place at that year's International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.
The the new conclusions published Monday are based on a comparison of a total of five Stradivari violins to five modern-made violins, over two separate sound tests, one in Paris and one in New York. The conclusion: the moderns were louder, and both audience and players liked louder better in these circumstances. Violins were compared in pairs (always paired old-modern), with two soloists playing 10- to 20-second excerpts. Audience members were asked to rate the projection of each pair, and they tended to rate the modern violins as being louder. Additionally, in the Paris test, which had 55 listeners, audience members were also asked to determine if violins were old or new, and they guessed mostly inaccurately -- 122 of the 273 guesses were correct -- about 45 percent. In the New York test, which had 82 listeners, preference was asked, and both players and audience said they preferred the sound of the moderns. The louder the violin, the more people liked it. The violin determined by consensus and scientific measurement to be the loudest was a modern violin, which was also deemed loudest under the ear, by players. Find the full study here..
The violins for the Paris test were selected from a pool of nine old Italian and 15 modern violins provided by dealers, collectors, players and makers. Only two of the violins from the Paris Experiment, one Strad and one modern, were still available for the second sound test in New York, which took place in 2013 during Mondomusica. So for the NY experiment, the two additional modern violins were chosen by a preselection process from 15 violins submitted by makers; while the two additional Strads were "the only ones made available to us at the time," according to the study.
The study did not list which specific violins were tested, which, I'd argue, is relevant. About 500 Stradivari violins remain in existence, and they vary greatly in quality. Which five were used? Also, which modern makers were represented? Top makers include Curtin himself. Did he have a fiddle in the study? (BTW the last Curtin I saw, just a few weeks ago, was priced at $48,000 -- not exactly cheap!)
I've written many times about the fact that violin-making is in a new Golden Age, and at Violinist.com we are engaged in an ongoing effort to familiarize readers with today's finest luthiers, posting demonstrations of modern violins and of modern violas, as well as linked lists of award-winning luthiers and love stories involving players and their modern instruments.
I am ready to conclude that modern violins are very worthy of consideration by the finest violinists -- I have seen, heard and played them firsthand. Nonetheless, I'm not ready to conclude that "Stradivarius violins just aren't that great" or that "their pre-eminence is myth," based on this research. I'd wager a guess that most violinists -- and violin makers -- aren't, either. While these experiments have given modern makers some much-needed credit where credit is due, they do not merit a wholesale dismissal of the art and effect of Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù, whose fiddles remain (often quite literally) the models from which most violins are crafted.
The PNAS article begins, "Old Italian violins are routinely credited with playing qualities supposedly unobtainable in new instruments. These qualities include the ability to project their sound more effectively in a concert hall -- despite seeming relatively quiet under the ear of the player -- compared with new violins."
This seems to be the major "myth" that the new conclusions were meant to debunk: the idea that a violin could be literally quiet under the ear but loud in the hall. But is it actually something players are seeking in an instrument? Or is it more a description of the way that regular players of Strad violins have to approach their instruments, which are typically 300+ years old? The study quotes Frank Almond saying, "a peculiar (and sublime) aspect of great old Italians is that the sounds somehow expands and gains more complexity from a distance, especially in the concert hall." He also is quoted saying that moderns can sound loud under the ear, but not in the hall.
The implication is that, since the study concluded that the violin that was loudest under the ear was loudest in the hall, Frank is simply wrong. Are we really ready to conclude that this kind of study -- which gauges an audience's impressions of 20-second excerpts on a shifting display of anonymous pairs of violins -- overrules the conclusions that an artist like Frank Almond has made over some 20 years of playing several specific Stradivari violins?
I think this misses the mark. There certainly are violins -- old Italians as well as moderns -- that don't project as well as the player perceives them to "under the ear." Conversely, there is support for the idea that something can seem "soft" under the ear but still be projecting, but that concept has some complexity. Violinists who play Strads report that if you play them aggressively they don't respond with more volume; instead they simply shut down, sound-wise. If you play them gently, then they project. I've experienced it personally when testing Strads: it feels like you are playing "soft," and yet, playing "soft" gets the better projection from the instrument. You can play a lot rougher ("louder") with a typical modern violin, and it will still respond with volume. With a Strad, you are not literally playing quieter, but that approach gives you that kind of subjective feeling, that you are playing "soft" to play loud.
To that end, this quality of needing to play "soft" to elicit the best (and biggest) sound is present in some moderns as well; it is something that violist Richard O'Neill mentioned during a long test of 33 modern violas that I recently document. Certain of them responded to soft but swift bowing, rather than pressure, he explained.
Are players looking for the loudest-possible violin? And is "louder than other violins" a big advantage in situations other than a speed-dating comparison study? As with anything, it depends on the situation.
Stradivari's instruments historically were louder than their Baroque predecessors, but I have not actually encountered a lot of modern players who have told me that the reason they seek play a Strad is that it's simply louder than a modern violin. In fact, players are more likely to say that the Strad is a little finicky, prone to changing with the weather, difficult to play. What the best Strads do have is beautiful sound, with fully realized overtones. They have a way of teaching and connecting with the player, for the very same reason that they are difficult: they take more coaxing to hone in on that high-quality sound. But when it comes to the finest sound they produce -- the voice of the instrument -- it's amazing.
Which might be why the study's conclusion includes verbiage such as, "A belief in the near-miraculous qualities of Old Italian violins has preoccupied the violin world for centuries...."
It's no wonder that violin makers (and a violin maker is at the helm of this study) would like to set all that "near-miraculous" stuff aside. You really can't quantify amazing and miraculous, and yet those pesky concepts seem to always come up when it comes to Strads and del Gesus. Why do players insist such qualities exist in the old instruments?
Why indeed? Why don't they pick violins based on blind, 20-second tests?
Ultimately, players make subjective judgments about these instruments, based on everything about them: their tonal qualities, projection, visual appeal, feel in the hand, probably even their smell. They also make those judgments based on everything they've learned in a lifetime of playing.
I've played hundreds of violins in my life, and I can't ever remember two of them sounding "alike," just like I can't think of two human beings whose voices are identical to me. In playing hundreds of violins, I only ever identified one that felt like "my voice." I bought it 10 years ago, and since then, many fine instruments have passed through my hands -- new and old, many of objectively "better quality" than mine. I have not wanted another.
For hundreds of years, many the best players among us have been drawn to the voice of Stradivari and Guarneri violins, and they still are. Not quantifiable, but it's a fact that remains enormously significant. Read Maxim Vengerov's comments in this article on Slipped Disc.
Yes, modern makers keep making strides and producing wonderful-sounding violins. This is also significant, and it's good news for violinists who can't afford antique instruments. In fact, it's simply good news for the art of violin. But does a test of five moderns vs. five Strads justify the sweeping conclusions that are floating around in the Internet? In a word: No!
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