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Christopher Jacoby

The Myth of Antique Instruments

August 30, 2008 at 9:27 PM

I wanted to start a discussion about a certain well-held fallacy, albeit one that grounds firmly in players' experience. That's why I call it a fallacy- it is a belief held not through falsehood, but misinterpretation:
An Antique Instrument is Superior to a New Instrument.

I've been blessed. Attending the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City, we not only hosted professionals when they came through town to play, we traveled to the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress to view and play their priceless collections; we received private showings at the Shrine to Music. When Peter Prier and Sons got Stradivaris, a pair of Del Gesus at once, the Glennie, the Firebird, Gaglianos, etc, we, the students got to examine and play them.
Ridiculously enough, I have played more than 20 Strads in my life.
The first was a late model owned by the Baroque Violin Shop of Cincinnati's gracious owner, who handed his baby to a twelve year old kid and left the room. I was, of course, paralyzed. The last six years I've managed to dig into a few without sweating like a pig.
Beyond boasting of my good fortune, alongside these instruments, I have played a slew of new instruments. Instruments from this century- from this decade!- which knock socks off of an old Italian when it comes to the pitch.
Here it is: A well set-up new instrument can match or better the tone, response, and projection of a golden age violin.
Age does not lend superiority. Conscientious making and fine set-up do. WHAT A SHOCKER! The new Italian makers are building nasal, wooden fiddles and charging 20,000 for them for their 'fecit Cremonensis' labels.
The golden age instruments are marvels. But they are brand name marvels now, and their astronomical prices have carried them beyond the reach of most corporations, let alone a player with a taste for quality.
A Markneukirchen violin from 1950 may sound a mint better than that 1700s Testore that's going for dozens of thousands more. And the new makers here, in America!
The Strad magazine has rightly labeled this a new Golden Age for American Making. So when you visit your violin shop with Graduate School in mind, ask the headmaster about instruments he has that were made in the last twenty years. Not only do you stand to save 10,000- 20,000 on a midlevel professional instrument, you stand to be very, very surprised.

From Tess Z
Posted on August 30, 2008 at 11:18 PM
With all things in is in the eye of the beholder. Or the ear of the player.
From Bob Annis
Posted on August 30, 2008 at 11:11 PM
Save $20,000? I venture to suggest that a talented player can spend as little as 2-3000 and find an instrument that would get the job done. And if the job in question involves sitting in an orchestra with 50 other fiddlers, it's not likely that anyone in the audience would notice that the instrument in question cost less than my latest used car.

Of course the other members of the orch might suspect, unless the fiddle in question were properly antiqued.

I do think that age makes a difference, however, along with a certain level of use during that ageing process. But the major determinants would probably be the skill of the maker, the quality of the materials, and the quality of the setup.

The variables involved in concertising with a violin are myriad, and subjective factors deeply influence string players, who are perhaps the single most neurotic assemblage of instrumentalists on the planet. So your crusade to hype modern makers will have some effect, but will never manage to cut deeply into the antique fiddle fiddle. And of course there exist vested interests, with heavy sums invested, who will use all the tools available to see to it that his market will continue to flourish.

But have no fear. Some day the makers of today will be appreciated. But as with any group of artists, (and also saints and pigs), this appreciation will have to wait until they've passed on to the Great Beyond.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on August 31, 2008 at 3:46 AM
I'm afraid $2,000-3,000 is extremely low for a professional-grade instrument. And if you actually want to get to BE one of those fiddle players in the section, you'll need to do quite a bit better!
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on August 31, 2008 at 4:29 AM
It's possible I think, but the more you can spend, the more choices or something. Back in the 70s or 80s I used to get the B&F calendar because I bought strings there once or something. I was violin shopping, so I called them up and said what do you have for a thousand bucks :) The girl laughed and said "nothing." Then she said "oh wait, we have..." She sent me a fiddle that their student craftsmen had used to train on. It had had everything done to it at least once and it was smooth as gravy. It looked like it had been stomped on twice though. It was so ugly I passed on it, being young and stupit. I think the demand then was less than now though. Something like that would probably go to a friend now or something.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on August 31, 2008 at 5:15 AM
"A Markneukirchen violin from 1950 may sound a mint better than that 1700s Testore"

Also, the Markn... would be a couple of thousand around here now, I think. 500, if you found it in a pawn shop, which you can do! I saw one about 3 yrs ago actually, in a pawn shop near Cumberland Gap, Tn.

From Greg Crawford
Posted on August 31, 2008 at 8:30 AM
Hey Chris,

Posting on now? Very nice. We'll turn this forum into a circus whether Laurie Niles likes it or not. If I can make enough $ here, I should be headed back to SLC before I get a real job. Follow my blog and help me through the messes that I encounter. I'm sure that disaster lurks around the corner on this trip and advice is the only way that I'l be able to get through it, or hopefully, avoid it.

Hope all is well.

From Robert Uchida
Posted on August 31, 2008 at 8:47 AM
Greetings Christopher:

I too have played numerous Strads, del Gesus and other old Italian violins and I must say that I do not share your opinion regarding their sound. Naturally, it is true that not every Strad is superior to another maker’s work, however, there is a reason that they are so sought after. Additionally, my experience is that Strads from different eras can offer remarkably different tonal qualities so I find your general assessment of old instruments misleading. One of most incredible instruments I have had the pleasure of playing was the “Abergavanny” Strad (1724) and I am sorry to say that I haven’t played a modern American instrument that “matches or surpasses” that sound. This is not to say that there aren’t many excellent American violin makers but I find your comparison troubling.

One of my former teachers says that it takes 6 months to adjust to a Strad. The approach to sound production and intonation is different than most instruments. The overtones alone are something that take a lot of time to get used to. Additionally, old instruments have a tendency to “go to sleep” and sometimes it takes a bit of time to really find the sound and adjust your playing to the instrument.

My instrument is an old Italian violin and the first few years I felt like I was learning something from it every day. My playing developed because it offered so many colours and overtones (along with many other things). My point being that sometimes one can not give a fair assessment to an old instrument by playing it for 10 minutes. That is why dealers allow you to borrow an instrument for a week or two – you have to try the instrument in various environments and hear what the instrument has to offer.

Your comment about contemporary Italian violin makers is also rather bothersome. I have visited Cremona and there are over 160 violin makers working there so to say that they are making “nasal, wooden fiddles…and charging for the Cremona label” is unfair. Naturally there is a spectrum of quality but I have played some outstanding contemporary instruments. One example was by Andrea Castellani. It had a terrific sound (for the back, he had used an old piece of Italian maple which he had taken from his parents’ house outside of Cremona - beautiful) and the price was 5,000 euros. Often times the prices of contemporary Italian violins are inflated in the US because they are purchased by dealers for the maker’s price and the dealer needs to recover expenses and, of course, make a profit.

My point in all of this is not that American violin makers aren’t excellent but that ones’ assessment of violins should be a bit more nuanced.

All the best,

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on August 31, 2008 at 9:06 AM
Robert, how do you explain the listening tests, including one your former teacher participated in? The tests fail, and out come religious arguments to shore up belief in Stadivari. It's demon-haunted :)

My opinions come mostly from judging the debate. I don't have a stake; it's just interesting.

There are people who'll shell out for certain brands and insist they're worth every penny. It would be interesting to know a marketing psychologist's take on this phenomenon. The good ones are busy until after the election though.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on August 31, 2008 at 10:54 PM
I'm with Robert on this one. But I'll say, I spent nearly 30 years arguing that it's the player, not the instrument, that the new violins are just as good as the old. I didn't understand about the old Italian violins until I got my Gagliano 2 years ago, and it's been such an amazing experience. I do own a 20th century violin, and I'm sure there are great 20th century fiddles.

In "The Violin Maker" the author John Marchese puts forth a strong argument, that the modern violins sound just the same to audience members, it's just the crazy player who needs a Strad or other fancy instrument as a crutch; it's all a mental thing. I admit I'm paraphrasing here ;)

Marchese doesn't play the fiddle, nor does he understand what this mental thing is about.

Sure, if you had a Strad to teach you how to play for a period of years, you can at least for a time, reproduce that sound on a lesser instrument. Thus in a sound test, Eugene Drucker playing a Strad sounds a lot like Eugene Drucker playing a modern instrument.

But the subtlety that you can play around with, in the older and finer instruments, is not something you can find as easily in the modern instruments. It's very hard to describe, but it is valid. There is a reason why the more seasoned players (and I'll say, more seasoned than me) seek out these instruments.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on September 1, 2008 at 1:05 AM
Laurie, plenty of players more seasoned than you, to use your words, would prefer their own modern violin to your old one. So, if you look around enough, you might find a new violin that speaks to as much the old one you have.

You've (violinists) already concocted a scenario where you can't be as good as the best old players were. You shouldn't concoct a scenario where you'll never have a really good instrument in addition. No wonder you wear black.

This is the short version, that somebody might acutally read. Everything else I was going bring up's been said, can be looked up and put together or not.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on September 1, 2008 at 2:57 AM
"speaks to as much the old one you have" means "speaks to you as much as the old one you have." My sponsor in your country told me it. My English, she not so good.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on September 1, 2008 at 3:56 AM
Well, I don't have a Strad, I have a Gagliano, and I prefer it to all others I've tried. Mine would be in the range of an upper-level modern violin. I'm assuming my colleagues have bought violins they prefer, or could afford, and it's definitely a major mix of new and old.

As for soloists, certainly a large number of them like those Strads and the high-end, old, Italian instruments. Actually, the luthiers themselves do, too: it tends to be their life's obsession, to duplicate them. There's a reason, and a great many artists of the highest caliber tend to agree on this score. We'll put it down that you disagree, though, Jim.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on September 1, 2008 at 4:29 AM
Laurie, it's fine if you think my opinion doesn't mean anything, but it isn't my opinion. I think there are more "artists of the highest caliber" than you ever dreamed of producing thier "highest caliber art" without an old Italian violin.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on September 1, 2008 at 5:17 AM
Yes, their life's obsession (or maybe job o' work, if the look at it that way) is to duplicate them. But the question here is are they successful?
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on September 1, 2008 at 6:29 AM
This won't mean anything either, with me not being an artist of the highest caliber and stuff, but where the term "high-caliber" comes from, it's synonymous with "big bore."
From Laurie Niles
Posted on September 1, 2008 at 8:44 PM
Jim, ye got me all stirred up, meant to, didn't ye? ;)

Omar Oliveira would be one artist who champions modern instruments, and that's wonderful. I've heard some very fine modern instruments, and I have no doubt there is a renaissance going on currently when it comes to creating fine instruments. They are a different animal, though, you really don't know what will happen to a new instrument's voice after several years. But my students have bought some very nice moderns, as have a lot of my colleagues.

I guess I would resist the idea of trying to convince young artists that there's nothing very special to explore about certain old Italian instruments, because there really is. They should look at everything in their price range to find the voice that suits them, that would be my recommendation. I do think it's nice when students can borrow a fine instrument from their school (some schools loan out Strad, etc.), so they at least get a taste for what they are like before they go buy their own.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on September 2, 2008 at 12:25 AM
A great many artists of the highest caliber take a different position. We'll put it down that you disagree, though, Laurie.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on September 2, 2008 at 1:53 AM
Disagree with what?
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on September 2, 2008 at 2:46 AM
That's better.

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