The discussion of old violins verses new violins, for enthusiasts, will continue to be intriguing, thought provoking, argument invoking, and passionate. Most experienced violinists are confident in their concepts of how a new or old violin sounds. Can any violinist state that a violin of a particular era will surely bear some specific characteristics? Did he/she play several examples from the same era, representing different makers, countries, different schools/styles, and a variety of woods, and still find a truly memorable similarity between them in order to say old violins sound old? If so, have they played enough good violins by more contemporary makers and been able to confirm an utter absence of that memorable “old violin characteristic” in every single one? How do modern violins sound? Can one describe what a new violin sounds like so that we can confirm that no old violins sound as such?
Throughout history, there have been countless schools, luthiers, and teachers, and a large range of different types of sound being attempted and achieved as the needs and preferences of violinists changed and evolved. One very easy way to lose a rigid idea of “old violin sound” is to play on a ton of them.
Is It Really About Age?
A common complement for a fine new violin is “It has that ‘old violin’ sound”. To be fair, a violinist may certainly find a quality in a new instrument to be reminiscent of an old violin previously experienced. However, if the new violin has that quality as well, why not instead confirm that we can no longer attribute that quality to the violin’s age? To flip the argument, what do old violin enthusiasts find lacking in new instruments? I have heard them described as less mature, less responsive, raw, brash, tinny, or harsh. Yet, I have never seen a violinist pick up an antique violin, find these characteristics, and comment that it sounds new. However, that comment would make no less sense than saying that a new violin sounds old. I have seen many old violins, by famous makers no less, sound plenty harsh, tinny, and immature. I’ve also seen new violins sound warm, smooth, and lacking brightness to a fault.
When we describe a violin as sounding old, do we assume that being old is the reason for that sound? Do we believe that the aged wood is responsible for a particular characteristic, and that the violin in question must have sounded completely different when it was first made? Perhaps when we say “old violin sound” we are not at all implying that the violin’s age is a factor, but rather that the workmanship and wood of a violin’s era typically yielded the quality we are hearing and most probably had such tonal qualities at birth. Science might be able to explain the changes in wood’s properties and the evolution in a violin’s dimensions, arching, or anything else to do with the aging process. As for what we hear now in comparison to what was heard hundreds of years ago, we don’t know!
Varieties of Preference
Old violins were made by Italian, German, French, Czech, Hungarian, American, and makers from many other countries. Many of us have relatively narrow experience with them given the broad range of styles, the continuous experimentation, and regions of different woods. Violins made within a narrow time span of the Seventeenth Century alone cover a wide spectrum of violin sound.
In the early 1600s Jacob Stainer inspired a model, characterized by high arching and a narrow figure which typically yielded a warm, mellow, deep, and sweet tone. In contrast, the wider and less arched range of models developed by Antonio Stradivarius, which aided in a brighter tone and more projection in a large space, became more important with time, but not to the exclusion of the Stainer model. The popularity of the Stainer model’s warmer, more intimate tone remained influential in Vienna, Austria, and parts of Italy. Violin enthusiasts of today may have encountered successful products of Stainer’s influence in violins from the Klotz family of Mittenwald, Germany, and frequently seen violins by the Thir family and school of Austria.
Meanwhile, violin making in Cremona and Turin as well as in Mirecourt, France reflects the influence of Stradivarius and Guarnieri, valuing a typically more powerful, projecting tone. Some examples of the great French violins are Nicolas Lupot, Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, Charles F. Gand, and Léon Bernardel, son of Ernest.
How to Choose
Most of us have conceptions of violin sound which are based on playing a little of this and that violin for a couple minutes here and there. How much of this variety do we get to own long term and discover both the weaknesses and possibilities? We don’t get to perform a concerto, chamber music, play a romantic era sonata with a thick piano texture, teach in a small room, or repeat a concert program in contrasting concert halls.
We don’t have substantial experience with a large range of violins, or a lot of experience hearing them back to back in different spaces. Experienced violin shoppers will also relate to the following scenario. You walk into a violin shop, you are lead to a long table full of violins in your price range, and you work your way through them until one in particular strikes you as the most exciting violin you’ve ever seen. You say “oooooohhh” and place it aside. Once finished with the row of instruments, you return to the distinguished one and find five more reasons to be excited about it. You are sure you’ve found Mr. /Ms. Right.
Upon returning home with your trial instrument, you haul it out of the case and start playing again in your familiar space. Instantly you stumble across nuances in the sound you hadn’t noticed in the “ringy” showroom. The open A sounds like a foghorn, or the middle register sounds thinner than you’d thought, or the upper register suddenly doesn’t seem like it would project enough, or the F naturals in every register sound fuzzy. Or, you run off to your string quartet rehearsal, and as you play you hear your tone alongside the other string players and feel like it is hard to blend, or like your exciting new violin is suddenly edgy, unclear, or lacking a singing quality or warmth. Mysteriously, all of the qualities you had liked about the violin initially are not pertinent in the present moment. You feel confused as you’ve gone from thinking this violin was “the one” and now you can’t stand it for another moment. You glance at your schedule to see when you’ll be able to take the darn thing back.
When we play a violin, our body becomes part of the instrument, and we might also sound differently on a violin than somebody else would. Every person who plays a violin turns it into a unique example of that violin, and brings to it an element of personality as well as physique. As I mentioned in my 2015 blog entry, I have heard violins I disliked sound wonderful in the hands of violinists who felt differently about them. The violins in those instances sounded much different from how I perceived them while playing them myself. The more violins I see, the more confused I feel and the less I think I know.
So Then, Does Age Make a Difference?
I never played a 300 year old violin when it was fresh off the bench or even 20 years old. If I could testify to such, I’m sure I wouldn’t be looking so good at this point. However, I have been teaching violin for 25+ years and have experienced well over a hundred instances of violin acquisitions by students. I hear these violins week after week for sometimes several years. What I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt, and be annoyed with me if you like, is that violins, old or new, do change and usually improve when they are played.
Regardless of age, I find a very similar set of behavioral nuances in all violins that have not been recently played. Among them are slower general response, resistance or less clarity and refinement when playing softly, a thinness (not lack of power) in the timbre of the sound, and a slightly brash edge to the tone. After even a couple of hours of playing and even more so after weeks and months, the tone becomes smoother, new overtones emerge, the general sound becomes more mature in a manner that is difficult to describe, and the response becomes easier. Some nuances develop which only the most sensitive ears will perceive, or which a player feels and hears under the ears, and are not necessarily evident in a concert hall. When a violin is played in tune and with resonance, it rings more over time as well.
A violin’s individual characteristics are of course evident from the beginning, and neither age or activity can make a poor instrument excellent. By the same token, a completely new instrument can sound exquisite and encompass all qualities we look for in violins, including depth, warmth, power, sweetness, responsiveness, and most any quality we might associate with old violins.
I’m uncomfortable calling my sensibilities about tone, or my cumulative perception of characteristics in violins, an opinion. I really don’t know whether age has any bearing on a violin’s sound. I’ve had some experiences with a range of violins I can share. Historical violins I have experienced include several violins by Stradivarius and Guarnieri (oh my!!), a Pressenda (that was my favorite!), a couple Roccas, a Storiani, Testori, most members of the Gagliano family, Johannes Tononi, and others. I’ve also enjoyed some examples of Stainer’s influence by Klotz and Thir, which I found remarkably similar in concept to one another and ohhh so different from the aforementioned Cremonese masters. All of these are examples of old violins. I’ve been astounded by many great contemporary violins by globally known makers, and have owned two excellent violins by Joseph Curtin. I have been stunned by English copies of Strads and Guarnieris, such as violins by John Lott, the Voller Brothers, Georges Chanot, and Paulus Pilat.
Now that I have challenged the notion that age could mean anything at all, I admit that I will always romanticize the great old Cremonese violins. Some would say I am brainwashed to think that the mesmerizing magic coming from a Stradivarius violin, which rocks the door to my heart, is anything more than a figment of my imagination. Perhaps the aura created around these old gems gives them the placebo effect after all. If I am brainwashed, then by definition of the word I wouldn’t realize it. Therefore, I might be, but I know I’m not alone. But to argue my side, I have seen violins by Stradivarius and other great makers which I did not think were equal to others, which suggests that I am able to think and hear beyond my presuppositions of an instrument.
If there is one most important point to this blog, it is that the world and history of violin making is so much bigger than most of our experiences than we sometimes give credit. It is important to respect one another in this conversation, to value contrasting experiences, and to credit others for what they hear, feel, and perceive. There is room for science in the discussion, and there is a need for the perspectives of soloists, chamber musicians, teachers, and amateurs. No perspectives are mutually exclusive, and in my opinion, no opinions based on one’s experience are wrong.
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