Old and New Violins, a New Perspective on an Old Dilemma

June 27, 2015, 7:43 AM ·

VSA violins

I am forever intrigued by the age-old (or should we say antiqued) argument about old instruments verses modern, and for that matter, Italian verses non-Italian. Have you ever watched two people argue, and been able to see that each side of the argument has both truth and shortsightedness, and both sides too stubborn to acknowledge merit in one another’s case? While I love the passion us violinists have for violins and the exuberance with which we share our experiences with different violins, it is maddening to me when such passion causes us to feel that others who have had different experiences are wrong. I have decided to share my own perspective on this exhilarating topic, and am hoping violinists will be encouraged to share their own experiences here so that we can learn from one another and be blessed by the endless possibilities of old and new violins.

I played on a fine example of a Eunenio Degani, Venicia 1879 for ten years, and currently play a violin by Joseph Curtin (a world renowned, prolific maker living in Ann Arbor, Michigan). I have performed on a Carlo Giuseppe Testore, and been handed here and there many violins by Stradivarius and Guarnieri, several Amatis, multiple examples of nearly every member of the Gagliano family, a fabulous Pressenda, an extraordinary Storioni, and many many others. I have also been a modern violin enthusiast for years and have picked up countless instruments by 20th century and current makers. I don’t know if there is ever fully wrong answer to the question of whether old or new is better. Ask twenty friends whether cilantro tastes good and decide who is right. But there is one thing I can promise. If you gather the countless characteristics I have liked in violins I’ve seen over the course of two decades (hundreds of them, I’m sure), I guarantee you will not find every one of those traits in one solitary violin. That truth alone should be sobering and disarming. Violins in general have far too many points of consideration to be compared in simple terms.
Additionally, violinists have wide ranging pallets and will enjoy a variety of qualities.

Old instrument lovers: I love them too! When you pick up a piece of history, admire craftsmanship exemplifying an era, school, personal style, etc. of an old maker, it is an experience in itself to hold it and look at every detail. In many cases, such a violin will have as unique and one-of-a-kind voice as a human being, and often that voice is enchanting. You cannot find that exact tone in any other violin, and you’d like to here it again, and again, and again! We violin lovers know one another’s passion for old gems and the romantic feelings we have towards them. We can sit around and bond for hours, describing the buzz we experience from them.

That said, would you tell me I am wrong when I express my enthusiasm for new violins, their own uniqueness, the incredible variety of options, their practical healthy condition, their level of quality at more affordable prices, their exceptional beauty and craftsmanship, and the possibilities they do in fact have in regards to tonal range? I didn’t say they are as good as old violins in every way, nor did I say that they would never be! I am not sure how many violins there are on this planet, but I am sure I cannot compare any of them unless you give me two specific violins to have for a few weeks each. Once I have had time to perform with them, and hear them in some familiar concert halls, I will give you a long, very long, list of characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, and trade-offs for each. Even after I do that, knowing a violin for a few weeks is like knowing a person for a few weeks. Since it is a complex ordeal to compare two instruments, how can we make any generalizations at all? We have not even talked about the difference an individual violinist makes with a violin, and it has already become complicated to compare them.

Modern violin advocates: I play on a violin that was finished in December, 2014.For my career of performing (which includes solo, chamber music, and orchestra), this violin is my choice. Master Luthier Curtin crafted a violin with specifications according to my requests. He has voiced it with my tonal preferences in mind and carved it with dimensions that feel comfortable for my bodily size and build. It is indeed more suited to my needs than most anything I might find in a reasonably long violin search. I am thrilled with it! As a violinist, I have a long list of needs from my instrument, and must choose the features that most prioritize my individual "must haves". For many of us, a modern violin might prove to be the best solution. However, if I pick up a great old Italian violin and say that there is some type of magic, life, vibrancy, and sweetness in its personality which I find reminiscent of many great old instruments, why do you begin calling me names, like brainwashed, naïve, foolish, or inexperienced? I have no bets riding on any theories, stereotypes, or folklore about them. I am extremely sensitive to touch and sound and am telling you what I feel and hear, and enjoy or don’t enjoy.

Do Modern Violins Project Better Than Old Ones?

Anybody who has worked his/her way through 20 or 30 violins of mixed eras while shopping for an instrument might get the impression that modern violins seem to make more of a “growl” under the ear, and conclude that they are simply louder. While this conclusion can seem reasonable, there is more to acoustics than what we perceive from 30 seconds with a violin under our ear. I have tried violins that seem thin and challenged compared to what I am used to playing on, and have been utterly shocked to hear those violins fill a large concert hall when played by violinist. Is it the person? The approach to bow technique? Or, is it a particular quality, frequency, or an unperceivable element of that violin’s resonance that makes the sound carry to the back of the hall? Maybe all of those things apply, or any combination of them.

I’ve also tried violins that sound explosive, brassy, piercing, brash, etc. which made me predict they will sound huge in a concert hall. It wasn’t always so! I was frequently shocked to back up 100 feet while a colleague ripped right in, and witness everything I believed proved false. I once was helping a friend shop for a high end violin. At one point during this incredible search, we were looking at a beautiful violin by Tomaso Carcassi. We found that it had a bright, singing, ringing sound, and we could not wait to hear it in a concert hall. Never had I had such a bubble burst as the moment my friend, a fantastic violinist, leaned into this fiddle on the stage. From a mere 10 rows back, the sound became tinny, wiry, thin, empty, squeezed, super challenged, and worst of all, ugly!

In another case, a different colleague handed me her violin, one by a living maker, to impress upon me how enormous a sound it had. I played on it some and found that it did indeed sound nice and open under the ear. I didn’t have the heart to tell her later when I heard her perform on it in a familiar hall, the tone that seemed round, rich, deep and full became tubby, nasal, boxy, winy, and lacking any real “human” qualities, in my opinion anyway!

As I briefly alluded to earlier, I believe there are also different types of acoustical properties that make a violin project, and violins project in different ways. Peabody Conservatory Professor Keng-Yuen Tseng, a silver medalist of the Queen Elizabeth Competition and protégé of the great Erick Friedman, explained to me that a Guarnieri del Gesu will often sound powerful in a concert hall, and that the sound will seem like an explosion taking place where the violinist stands. In contrast, a Stradivarious shines throughout the hall, carrying in all directions and sounds as though the tone is coming from all around. Different frequencies, different qualities, and different ways of projecting.

Suffice to say that whatever makes violins project in a concert hall belongs to a different set of acoustic properties than whatever makes us perceive volume under our ears. This is not cutting edge discussion at all. Many of today’s modern makers, including Joseph Curtin, can measure the various frequencies on all registers of the violin and tell you the way in which they will or won’t project. Science is way ahead of most of us violinists when it comes to certain aspects of acoustics. I don’t think science will ever equal human intuition with all aspects, unless of course a machine can perceive a crying voice or have any intuition at all in terms of an instrument’s sweetness.

The Louder, the Better

This statement is common, and is articulated with some merit. Have you ever taken a typical 18th century Mittenwald violin, the kind with a dark golden brown varnish, high arched belly, and dark, creamy, mellow sound, and tried to carry off Brahms Violin Concerto with orchestra? Or, have you ever tried playing chamber music with such a violin? Good luck! That fiddle that charmed the pants off of you won’t be heard very well in a large concert hall, and you will work so hard to be heard that you risk compromising your playing. You do need a violin that supports you.

I think we can agree that a violin needs enough projection. Does this mean that every violin needs to be the loudest a violin can be? Would we give up some intimacy, sweetness, range of color if it meant we could turn it up to full throttle? My friend Dr. Julian Ross, Professor of Violin at Baldwin Wallace University Conservatory of Music, often reminds violinists of what instrument we are playing. The violin!! We want certain qualities from it. We did not choose the trumpet or even the piano. Dr. Ross knows we need projection, but feels that when we push the agenda of loudness beyond what is natural for a high quality instrument, it is not different from simply putting a microphone pick-up on the violin. “Why don’t we do that if we need volume?” he always asks challengingly. “Because it wouldn’t sound like that violin anymore. Is that worth it just to make it loud?” I will add, why don’t all of us classical violinists just play an electric violin and turn the volume to maximum? We don’t, because we know that the quality of the sound matters.

The beautiful Qualities Under Our Ear Don’t get Heard in the Hall

Yes they do. I believe they do! One colleague of mine was trying out a violin by Carlo Tononi. He had owned a fine contemporary violin for more than 6 years. When he gave a recital on the Tononi, his colleagues in the audience commented that they had heard expressive qualities they’d not heard from his playing before (though they knew nothing about the violin switch). They called the sound sweet, colorful, and filled with flavors. His ten-year-old daughter said the violin sounded like a garden of many colors. Most of us felt that the projection was just as adequate as the powerful modern instrument he had been using, but seemed “loud” in a different way.

In addition to the projection of tone quality, we also play with more imagination when we are inspired by the sound under our ear. If I played the violin and the sound was shrill and abrasive, or nasal and muted, I would not be able to craft my performances with the violinistic attributes that violin music really needs. Therefore I would not be able to prepare music and perform it well. We need inspiration to do the art that is music. If I cannot make a beautiful tone with the violin, it certainly is not going to sound beautiful when it reaches my audience. Sound does matter, and the person choosing the violin is ultimately the one who must see and love the beauty in the violin he or she chooses. I will round off this piece by saying that I have heard violinists sound gorgeous on violins I had seen and not liked, but were likeable to their owners. The unique relationship between violin and owner was realized in the beautiful sound born in their hands. It sounds great! That’s good enough for me!"

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June 27, 2015 at 06:01 PM · What a fantastic blog! Bravo!

June 28, 2015 at 11:22 AM · Seems to me the blind auditions in Indianapolis and the double-blind auditions in Paris pretty well demolished any notion that age has anything to do with what makes a violin special. The Cremona workshops 300 years ago knew no more than is known today about violinmaking -- and in fact knew a lot less.

But I'd go further than that. The incredible development of information technology in our time means that, with a few Google searches, anybody in the world has access to detailed design plans for great violins as well as recipes for plate tuning that is the most likely explanation of why Strads and Del Gesus sound like Strads and Del Gesus. Good wood grows in lots of places, and anyone willing to commit 10,000 hours can become an excellent carver of maple and spruce.

That means that a humble workshop in China can make violins that sound pretty darned amazing, and, if set up properly, might compete pretty well in blind auditions with the work of the most prestigious violinmakers in the world. I would love to see that experiment tried in Indianapolis some time.

I am informed by my own experience. I recently bought a violin from a good workshop in Shanghai to be a spare -- at an embarrassingly low price. I was shocked when I set it up and put on some decent strings. It's not just good, it's wonderful. The Shanghai workshop violin is certainly comparable, and in some ways superior, to my expensive violin made 30 years ago by a well regarded American master.

I'm sure there will always be a market for exquisitely carved high-end violins. And professional players will continue to mortgage themselves for aesthetic and psychological value. But it's not going to be necessary to spend thousands of dollars for a high-performance fiddle. Great sounding fiddles are going to be available to any budget -- in fact I think they already are.

June 28, 2015 at 01:50 PM · "But I'd go further than that. The incredible development of information technology in our time means that, with a few Google searches, anybody in the world has access to detailed design plans for great violins as well as recipes for plate tuning that is the most likely explanation of why Strads and Del Gesus sound like Strads and Del Gesus. Good wood grows in lots of places, and anyone willing to commit 10,000 hours can become an excellent carver of maple and spruce."

You have a great faith in technology. However, I doubt ( and I think most luthiers will agree), that access to plans or wood or some popoluarized notion of the time it takes to become and "expert" are guarantees of nothing. If this simple recipe were true, then the Germans, obsessed with numbers and measurements,would have made the most desirable vioilins in the 19 century. But they didn't. One has to react to the violin in order to coax the best acoustics. The standards for craftsmanship are now exceedingly high, including China, but I have not, in many

decades of looking, found many inspiring modern fiddles. To me they generally (not all) sound sterile, lifeless, colorless. In spite of being loud.

Projection, I think, is very overrated for most musicians. Violins don't have to project "to the back of the hall" for every musician-- they have to project well enough. And yet practically every violinist is obssessed with projection. It would be like making horsepower the dominant criteria for a car. And I think that these so-called "blind tests" are biased towards the loudest and brightest violins. This is what most people react to at first. It does NOT mean they wouldn prefer to hear an entire recital or concerto or Bach sonata on such a vioilin, and that aspect--longer term tonal preference--has yet to be tested.

Simply comparing new modern violins to old is so fraught with bias and lack of objectivity that it's hard to know where to begin. Though I would begin by asking who chose the instruments. It's like comparing a new Cabernet to the nouveau Beaujolais. Is this a valid comparison? What about after 10 years of age? Are the two wines now comparable? And which labels of wine were chosen and by whom?

June 28, 2015 at 10:11 PM · Responding to Scott Cole:

Re the German workshops, that is an interesting question. One theory would be that the Germans, as good as they are at precision manufacturing, can be hidebound. There are German factories making the same models, even the same model numbers, as they were 50 and 60 years ago before knowledge of plate tuning was spread by Carleen Hutchins and others. My backup theory is that European factories don't make better low-cost instruments because they don't want to. They want model 101 to be kind of bad because they and their dealers want to sell you model 201 in a couple of years, and model 301 after that.

Maybe projection is overrated, and certainly the goal should not be to play loudly per se, but a violin that is open and responsive at lower bow pressures is quite preferred (at least by me) to a violin that is reticent and has to be forced, no matter how rich the overtones. A responsive violin lets me use a French bow the way it was designed to be used -- i.e. not overtightened and strained.

That said, I don't think projection explains the Indianapolis/Paris results. The audiences (and in Paris, the blindfolded players) were doubtless listening for a lot of things -- including overtones, subtlety, sweetness, dynamic and emotional range. Whatever they were listening for, they couldn't tell the difference between new fiddles and 300 year old ones. I just don't think those results can be dismissed. If you believe violins get better with age like wine, the burden should be on you to prove it. I am not going to take it on faith any more.

With Cabernet and Beaujolais, there really is scientific proof that the wine changes over time due to bacterial activity. No such proof of chemical or cellular change exists for violins. Even the concept of break-in period is pretty squishy. Some people believe it's years, some people believe it's days, but everyone has a different idea. And that is a sign of something that may in fact be more legend than fact.

June 28, 2015 at 11:49 PM · I agree with Thomas Boyer. What he wrote just rings true to me.

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