The real reason old instruments sound better.

April 8, 2008 at 04:40 AM · Isn't it true that old Italian instruments "sound better" than modern ones because only expert violinists get to play the old master instruments?

Replies (27)

April 8, 2008 at 09:42 PM · That's not necessarily the reason-- sure, professionals have more opportunities and sometimes better finances to allow them the chance(s) to play Strads, Guarneris, Vuillames, etc. But the tone of the violin comes from many different aspects; the wood, the strings, the height of the fingerboard, the adjustment of the soundpost; even the kind of chinrest you have affects the sound your violin makes (ie wood vs plastic). There is no arguement that Strads and Guarneris can not be beaten or replicated, but people have come relatively close. I know of some modern makers who make excellent violins with "Cremonese" methods like that of Strad and Guarneri. It all depends on the violin itself, of course age can generally play a beneficial role in the tone!

April 9, 2008 at 02:21 AM · Who can argue that Zukerman, Perlman or Hahn sound better on any instrument than, say, I do.

What really tells you there can be something special in a Strad is if you get a chance to try one.

There is also some disagreement among 'professionals' on whether old instruments actually do sound better than the best modern examples. I don't recall the book I read this in, but one luthier/researcher/PhD on the subject pointed out that a good many of the ancient instruments are no longer in genuinely playable condition, despite the fact they are used by a 'well known talent'. Some instruments look reasonable outside, but an inside view reveals cleats along cracks, mold, rebuilding - some have been re-varnished.

There are many Strads in excellent condition, though, so don't take my point as somehow universal.

I think the judgment can be too subjective. Why is an instrument better than another? The complex overtones of Pavoratti's voice were unique, and his expressiveness wonderful. How is it that we know his voice was comparatively better than most or any other? It might be that most found his voice more appealing, and such appeal is unaccountable. His voice under the control of a less skilled musician may have been mediocre, musically.

It is so, too, with the ancient instruments. We assume there was something different we can't duplicate. Perhaps some lost varnish or wood treatment - many theories have been proposed.

The fact is almost none of the instruments are in their original form. They are not what their luthier fashioned. The bass bar in all but a few preserved, unplayed examples have been changed. The neck and fingerboard adjusted; the angle changed. The bridge now in use hardly resembles what Strad put on his instruments. In some ways that deepens the mystery. Were they simply wonderful prior to their refit, made exemplary afterwards?

The particular overtones of a Strad project quite well. Most of them respond easily and effortlessly to the bow. I've never had the chance to try a Guarneri Del Gesu, but I'm told they're not quite so responsive at first, but once you get accustomed to what they require, they produce something even more intriguing than most Strads.

That last point hints at your assertion. If the player has to learn how to make the Guarneri work magic, whereas the Strad responds with less effort, how can these both be exemplary instruments. How could such differences command such superlatives for the Strad, and yet a general preference toward the Guarneri are known among the greatest violinists in the world who've had the chance to choose.

I'm not qualified to really tell with certainty. I compared a Strad from 1710, his golden period, to a few good modern instruments, all in one session in a medium sized auditorium, but not in a performance. It was just a private meeting and examination. The Strad was different, but then all violins are somewhat different. It did have more volume than most of the other instruments, but one other violin seemed to match it considering my limited skills at the time. The character of it's sound was lovely, perhaps the 'prettiest' sound of the instruments I've tried - but not worth the extra 2 million required to purchase it, for me - as I have no professional career, and no means to afford the price. To me, a nice $7,000 instrument is completely satisfactory, and I very rarely have ever needed to reach the last seat in the hall.

Perhaps it's that it takes a Perlman or Heifetz to draw from a Strad something we might recognize as a difference worthy of the expense.

Of course I'm not talking about the justification of the value of these instruments. They're priceless antiques of unique historical significance, and worth whatever the market of collectors is willing to bid against each other for them.

Is it REALLY a million dollars worth of sound compared to the best of the modern instruments at, say, 30 or 40 thousand? I can't say so, but then, too, I know it's that last, tiny extra bit of difference above 'excellent' that costs more than all that come before it.

Strad DID find something significant - his instruments are better (as in louder, more robust sound) than most Amati's (though I've heard there are a couple of exceptions). Strad made instruments of various designs for, what, 60 years? At least 3 or 4 design 'phases' are represented in his work alone. They are not all comparable to each other; that is, there are a few Strads that aren't so 'great' - just why, I don't know if anyone has answered.

Of course, for that last part I'm reduced to essentially a book report. I've only tried one Strad, and a Magini. There is some difference, and you can sense it if you try one yourself.

April 9, 2008 at 10:46 PM · Hmmm . . . wow. I've only played two Del Gesus before. The first thing I noticed was I didn't have to shake the heck out of them to get the vibrato to warm up (they liked it when I relaxed). The second thing I noticed were the overtones. For me, it was a truly humbling experience to play them. I love old fiddles. I'd rather work around the eccentricities of an instrument that has warmth and color to offer than deal with a perfect instrument with nothing deeper. Of course, if you can have perfect AND deeper, I guess you've got it made.

Heifetz was going to sound great no matter what he played on, but only to the level the instrument would allow--you can only work with what you have, right? I've played on instruments that made me think, "well, that's it then, it doesn't have any more to give." I read in a Strad article a year or two ago that Itzhak tries not to play his Strad to demonstrate for his students because "it wouldn't be fair."

April 9, 2008 at 06:40 AM · Greetings,

a notable soloist who once haunted this list suggested that great players cna produce results more or less the same on young or old but the latter make you work harder for it.

Reminds me of something else...

Cheers,

Buri

April 9, 2008 at 10:05 AM · If the question is whether the expensive old instruments sound better because a good-playing owner has left some kind of "imprint", I'll say probably not.

One of the best sounding Strads I've played has been owned and played for some years by an amateur.

April 9, 2008 at 10:29 AM · "One of the best sounding Strads I've played has been owned and played for some years by an amateur."

but imagine how that strad might have sounded had the amateur not messed with it:)

April 9, 2008 at 11:02 AM · This would be a pertinent topic for Steven Staryk since he's owned many Strads and Del Gesus but currently plays on a modern instrument.

He's in the process of getting a computer and wants to check out this web site.

April 9, 2008 at 12:00 PM · Hi,

Mr. Staryk wants to look at this site?!?!?!?! Oh my god!! He's virtually a bible of the violin. I sincerely hope that people on this site will have grasped the concept and treat him with the respect that someone of his stature and contributions to the world of music and the violin deserves, should he decide to join...

Cheers!

P.S. On a side note, great instruments, whether young or old demand good playing and do not respond as well to no so great playing. They force you in essence to play better and more effeciently. I found that Del G├ęsus were more forgiving than Strads (particularly in terms of pressure), and drawing the sound out of the two is completely different. The great players know how to get the sound out of the instrument. That's why the pairing of a great instrument and a great player produces such fantastic results.

April 9, 2008 at 06:14 PM · I went to camp this summer and got to play a concert violin. I actually sounded really. I could play well a song that I couldn't on my beginner violin. I think there's something about expensive violins that make one sounds better. This is my theory. But I have no way of proving it.

April 9, 2008 at 06:42 PM · Oh, there's no question having a finer instrument improves tone. The difference between a 30,000$ instrument and a 2,000$ instrument is pretty jarringly audible even to non-violinists. I've been playing tons and tons of violins lately in my search for a new instrument, and in the 10,000-40,000$ price range, I haven't seen an old instrument that compares well against the great moderns.

One modern instrument in particular I wish I had enough money to purchase. I highly prefer it to the Vuillaume, Testore, and Sgarabotto I recently try ... so really, I think it's silly to say old instruments are better.

Now, since I can't afford a 40,000$ violin, are there any wealthy patrons out there who would take my soul in exchange for this violin?

April 9, 2008 at 06:49 PM · The best old Italian makers' violins sound better because they were constructed better. Besides, there are plenty of dogs from that period as well--including Strads and other big-name instruments.

The original assertion puts the cart before the horse: better violininsts play them because they sound better, not the other way around.

April 9, 2008 at 11:00 PM · :) Never mind . . . said my peace already.

April 10, 2008 at 12:00 PM · Yes, this may be an instance of an irrelevant criterion. Age does not necessarily equal beauty (which I can validate every time I look in the mirror).

This reminds me of the story about Randolph Churchill (Winston's son), who was once sitting alone, smoking a cigar and nursing a drink, in a corner of a room at a big cocktail party in which everyone was talking about the latest theater season. A group of people noticed that Churchill was being ignored, went over to him, and, in an attempt to make conversation, naively asked, "Mr. Churchill, tell me, do you like the theater?"

"No," said Churchill glumly.

"Oh, why is that?"

"Because you can't smoke in the theater."

Sandy

April 10, 2008 at 09:29 PM · I'm mostly a viola maker now. I visited NY last November and all top players I met there were playing contemporary instruments, even those who owed old Italian violas.

April 11, 2008 at 01:06 AM · So what about the changes in the wood itself as it ages? Doesn't that make a big differance in the sound? That, plus a history of forty plus years of good use should add signifigantly to the original voice of any violin. Soloists and performers live in rareified air. The rest of us, who play for fun and the love of it, looking for all the beauty we can afford and not wanting to pawn our mothers, nor wait forty years (if we live that long) to finally get it, continue to take long careful looks at every old fiddle that comes our way. Or shamelessly seek them out;>)

Pass the paper, I need to check out the estate sales for this weekend....

April 11, 2008 at 03:15 AM · I believe that the truely great sounding instruments are a combination of the craftsmanship and perhaps more importantly, the person or persons who play or have played it. Instrument sound does change for the better or worse depending upon how the instrument is played.

There are limitations, though, in relation to the model, arching, and set up on the instrument that give its own particular sound. Age will not heal a poor choice of wood or pattern. But I have seen and heard instruments that I would have thought should not sound well that sound amazingly well, having been played by an accomplished player.

Adolfo Odopossof, a successor to Casals in Puerto Rico, had a composite cello, a Ruggeri back/ribs/scroll and a German top. He told me that when he purchased the cello in the 1950's, the instrument sounded awful. Yet he felt that he could release it's sound. When I heard that cello in the late 1980s, it was one of the finest sounding cellos I have ever heard. And the astounding thing about it is that it should not have sounded so good. The length of the instrument was only 28", the top was narrow grained and 6mm thick, the rib height was 110mm and the instrument had been cut down from its original size. Here is proof that the musician can make the instrument, not necessarily the instrument the muscian.

Steven Cundall

April 11, 2008 at 04:18 AM · "Instrument sound does change for the better or worse depending upon how the instrument is played."

I believe this is a myth and I'd like to back this up with a quote by David Burgess (further up in this same thread) ...

"If the question is whether the expensive old instruments sound better because a good-playing owner has left some kind of "imprint", I'll say probably not."

April 11, 2008 at 04:41 AM · I believe this is a myth and I'd like to back this up with a quote by David Burgess (further up in this same thread) ...

"If the question is whether the expensive old instruments sound better because a good-playing owner has left some kind of "imprint", I'll say probably not."

You may believe it is a myth, but I have personally heard changes in sound of an instrument as a result of the player.

On one occasion, I had a cello that the A string was softer than the D G and C strings. I played the instrument and Aldofo played it. We adjusted it, changing strings, post placement, etc. The A string continued to be soft. Odopossof said he would take it home and play it a while and see what happens. He brought it back two weeks later and the A string was BRIGHTER and STRONGER than the other strings. I played it myself, so it was not just hearing him play. The instrument sound actually changed. I asked him what he did to achieve this change and all he said was,"I just played it."

To me it is not a myth that a player can change the sound of an instrument; I have heard and experienced it myself and not just this one time.

Steven Cundall

April 11, 2008 at 07:32 AM · How do you know it was improving because of this player and his play alone, not any other way of playing? How do you know that a lesser player's lower quality play would have made the same sound worse?

The instrument (or strings) will quite possibly "break in" as a result of being in use, but belief that a gifted player makes an instrument better and a lesser mortal player makes it worse, that should be filed under fairy tales.

April 11, 2008 at 10:12 AM · I'll add one caveat to what I said earlier.

It seems that some instruments won't develop unless they are played loudly, soloist style. If an owner doesn't do much more than "tickle" the instrument, it may indeed benefit from a harder workout.

I haven't yet seen evidence of a violin reverting to a lesser sound with no playing or bad playing. It's a murky subject though, clouded by anecdotes, wishful thinking and beliefs, the likelihood that players adapting to instruments produce at least part of the change, and difficulty remembering sound accurately over long periods of time.

Right now, I'm trying to re-evaluate everything I "think I know" about changes in sound by recording changes, before and after, under identical recording conditions.

Despite exposure to thousands of instruments over my career, I'm not willing to dig my heels in very far on anything I "think I know". Knowing all the answers is too much of an impediment to further learning.

April 11, 2008 at 01:08 PM · i think a player's playing style may also play a part. Davydov comes to mind where yo yo ma seems to be comfortable with it whereas du Pre apparently was not.

April 13, 2008 at 08:38 PM · I think we strayed a little bit from David's original posting question, and I think he is really on to something. Of course the famous old instruments have intrinsic integrity, but the fact that top players play them gives incredible publicity. Imagine if soloists walked around playing Poggis, Fagnolas, Gemunders (Maud Powell's main 'Guadagnini' was a Gemunder), etc. We would get a chance to see a lot more of these instruments' potential, even if they cannot truly rival Strads and the like. Take Hilary Hahn for instance. Vuillaumes have certainly always been respectable instruments, but I don't think that they've gotten recognition that they perhaps deserve until she became their cover girl, as it were.

April 13, 2008 at 10:49 PM · "I'm mostly a viola maker now. I visited NY last November and all top players I met there were playing contemporary instruments, even those who owed old Italian violas."

Luis, do you remember who was playing what?

April 14, 2008 at 06:23 AM · Mr. Burgess stated:

Despite exposure to thousands of instruments over my career, I'm not willing to dig my heels in very far on anything I "think I know". Knowing all the answers is too much of an impediment to further learning.

I think this is a fair evaluation of the question concerning sound, players and instruments. Though one may have personal experience and base his beliefs and opinions on those experiences, there remains further experience to broaden the knowledge. But just because I have not been to Haiti does not mean it does not exist. Judgements in sound and playability are VERY complex.

Perhaps my conclusions concerning Mr. Odnopossof's cello were drawn from merely a change in humidity. Who knows? But that does not negate the experience. Now as to the WHY of the experience, I really have no answer. Why does one instrument sound better than another? What changes the sound? And who or what determines that the sound is better? And as to an instrumet "not sounding as it used to", most all have experienced this, therefore the need for adjustment.

Is there really a true objective opinion? Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder? Is sound really in the ear of the listener? Then how can one form a scientific way to evaluate subjectivity? Do old instruments REALLY sound better? Or is this just a subjective opinion by many people's experience and so because the majority rules, old instrumets sound better? Or does the player make them sound better? Interesting questions.

Steven Cundall

April 14, 2008 at 12:07 PM · "Sound is heard with the eyes", Charles Reade.

What I can say is that there is just a small percentage of professional musicians that are able to judge instruments by sound, style and construction. But I may be wrong.

April 16, 2008 at 04:03 AM · Thanks to all for the interesting responses!

April 17, 2008 at 01:37 AM · Is it possible that the soundboard of any instrument, old or new, becomes more flexible as it is played properly (i.e., fully, as it were) and that this flexibility has a certain amount of staying power, but will eventually vanish if it is not properly played for a while (and the soundboard stiffens again)? If so, could this could explain the phenomenon discussed above?

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