Many violin makers in the last century were said to have made violins as good as Stradivari's but proven to be a fake as time passes. Most people agree the following statement: "After a period of playing (maybe 50-150 years), new violins will become mature and produce warmer, more projective and beautiful clear tone". Does it mean a violin which has potential to become a Strad should't have a loud, clear sound? How can I predict the new violin I buy today will sound like a Strad after 100-200years?
Are you planning to be around in 100-200 years? No one knows the answer to your question. Perhaps someone has experience playing on one of the less-played ones, like the Messiah. However, Strads were expensive right from the beginning, so maybe we can assume they were valued for the same general qualities we like today: a clear, warm, even, responsive tone with few dead spots.
A few months ago I played a 1846 (or thereabouts) G. A. Chanot of Paris. It was pristine - no wear of any kind, and shiny. No antiquing, either. I would have believed it was made in1946, or even 2006.
Odd thing is, it sounded like a new fiddle. It sounded like violins that have just been made, by which I mean there were sticky-out overtones, a little roughness and hollowness to the sound if you listened hard, but that sound was strong and clear, and vibrant.
I should think that new strads sounded like top new fiddles do now. Good, clear, a little rough, but better than the other new fiddles around at the time.
Speculation, I know, but inspired by that unplayed 160 yr-old Chanot.
I had a similar experience with a Peter Beare that was so well antiqued I thought it really was 250 yrs old. Then I played it. New fiddle.
Bring it to someone who reads in the furtur! lol Does it really take up to 50 + years. It's hard to believe that after 30 years, the sound will not be at its fullest if used each day! But I am not a maker and don't know the answer to this one. Seems to me that if you buy a new violin now with excellent qualities, it should become a very good one! (if not damage, played often etc etc) I do think one thing though, one should buy an instrument which is special even new. If you buy a violin with a little narrow ugly sound and you expect it to become a strad later on, you are surly making a big mistake. I would not take a risk like this one, personnally! It's like men (or women if you are a men) if you take one full of problems and think he will become better later on, chances are very big he will never change and you will divorce if you were married!
Good instruments will sound good in the very same day they are strung for the fist time. They will get better in the next months, but they are good in their very first day.
The reason they are good in the very first day is that the requisites to produce good sound, such as good archings, good wood, good thicknesses, good set up, good model, good varnish, etc are already there in its first day. If these features are not there in its first day, the violin may be hundreds years old and it will sound bad, and we have many of such instruments in the market.
Stradivari made new instruments for Princes and Kings, and Princes and Kings are not willing to wait, they want good things from the very first day.
Here is an interesting take on considering a new instrument with a Strad history. First, you make the violin but with a baroque neck, fingerboard, bridge and setup. You use all gut strings, tuned to a lower A for about 100-150 years. So, you have a different tension ratio than a new violin. Then, you modernize the violin, with new neck, new neck angle, new fingerboard, newer bridge and start playing it with a modern bow. Again, you use all gut, with a lower A tuning. Starting from here on, it is only played by the finest players. Then 100 years later, you start using a steel E and tune at 440 regularly. Then 50 years later, wound strings, and finally in it's last 20 years, modern strings.
Food for thought...
I completely agree with Mr Manfo on this.
The notion of instruments becoming better with playing or age is basically a salesmans trick to make the gullible buy an instrument that does not sound as good as the buyer requires. Generally instruments don't get better... I can think of many great ones that get worse on a weekly basis....we get better at playing them. It is the player that gets played in. A player should never buy an instrument that does not already sound as great as they were hoping for.
The Hills perpetuated the myth that instruments need to age to become good. It was a myth that very much suited their business model.
Good new instruments sounded great in Strad's time and sound great now...they don't sound 'new' in the sense that 'new' is often used nowadays as a derogatory term.
Bad instruments both new and old are in the majority...they will not be redeemed even by centuries of playing.
I have had extensive discussions on this point with Geary Baese, who has taught many of the well known makers of our day. He believes strongly that great old instruments were good from the very beginning. He also believes that our concept of what sounds good has evolved as a result of the modifications that were made to the old Italian instruments by Vuillaume and others. The very best extant examples of the old Italian instruments sound different than many of the lessor instruments. He argues that the idea that an instrument gets better over time is completely false. He believes that the old makers had an acoustic system that produced the sound that was desirable in their time and very few of the instruments that survive sound much like their original concept.
The problem is that "strongly believing" doesn't equal proof. The only possible way to know is to be able to play an instrument that we know has NOT been played since the early 18th century. And even then we shouldn't extrapolate.
One aspect of instrument aging that is seldom mentioned is that the instruments of today age under a different set of circumstances: they are kept from day 1 in controlled surroundings, either in air conditioning or in central heat. The atmosphere in shops is well-controlled. In the 18th century, there was no air conditioning or central heat, and instruments were subject to wide fluctuations in heat, cold, and humidity. Summer in Italy is sweltering. Today's instruments are almost universally tuned and played at A=440. Over the centuries, tuning systems have varied from lower to higher. It's difficult to accept that the aging process of today's instruments is in any way equal to that of the 18th century.
"He believes strongly that great old instruments were good from the very beginning."
No doubt that Strads were top instruments and sounded good when they were made. But did they sound as good back then as we hear them today?
"The reason they are good in the very first day is that the requisites to produce good sound, such as good archings, good wood, good thicknesses, good set up, good model, good varnish, etc are already there in its first day."
I tend to agree, but can't help thinking that while good archings, wood, thickness, and setup will make new violins sound good, but as good as top violins that carry 200 years of aging in wood as a non-replicable factor? An often-heard argument is that makers may over-thin the plates to make new violins sound very good at the beginning, perhaps as good as Strads, but these over-thinned violins become lackluster later on. I am wondering what's your take on this view?
would they have sounded as good given that `in those days` the players were not so good ;)?
Hi Henry Wang!
Instruments with overthinned tops and backs will sound bad from the very beggining also.
In general they will have bad basses and will sound bad on the 7th position on the G string, for instance.
"Many violin makers in the last century were said to have made violins as good as Stradivari's but proven to be a fake as time passes."
"Many"??? is that right? :) in this modern day perhaps there is only one:)
some modern makers have made violins that have done very well in comparison tests. although the validity of such test settings is arguable, thus the reliability of the outcomes, it has been documented that a few noted players, with both strads and new replicas in possession, find them to be impressively similar or comparable.
not sure if this has been pointed out already, i think it is very difficult to put together a test to compare 2 "similar" violins from different periods because fundamentally they may be from different classes (level of expertise make) to start. i don't mind if someone tries to sell a comparision between a ferrari made in the 50's and a modern day super car to illustrate some points to the credit of each. however, it may be a stretch to compare the said ferrari with a souped up honda and then suggests accordingly.
i can imagine the dilemma looking at a violin from a prominent modern day maker. if the violin, while new, does not sound that stellar, it can be a precarious proposition on what will change with variables like
2. time plus playing
3. time plus lots of great playing.
4. 3 plus constant attention/ setup readjustment. or even hardware modification.
Another factor why most (not all) 200-year old violins are generally good instruments is that they have survived the test of time. They are the better ones which have been played and cared for. The bad ones have long perished.
What do you mean the bad ones perished? They got tossed into the trash? I don't find that likely.
Stephen, how do you know players were any worse then than they are now?
it would be so embaraasing if they weren`t. So many generations of Heifetz wannabes wasting all that time ;)
Wood changes over time, becoming lighter and stiffer. This has an effect on the sound of an instrument. Whether this change is an improvement or not depends on the starting point. In general instruments will tend to become somewhat brighter and more responsive.
one of my first violins was by the rgeat Englsih maker Thomas Earl Hesketh. He made a point of certifying that the wood was taken from abandoned Swiss chalets more than three hundred years old. I don`t know how stiff or dry it was but it was a rather quiet and sweet toned isntrument. In the old days (IE pre Guarneri) one might of daid it wa sa good violin for chamber music .
Hilary Hahn can make a Vaillaume sound as good as a Strad. Jack Benny could make a Strad sound as good as a Hoffman Etude.
Luis: "In general they will have bad basses and will sound bad on the 7th position on the G string, for instance." Does it mean that a violin with plates too thin will manifest itself in wolf tone? What else can we look for?
Oded: "Wood changes over time, becoming lighter and stiffer. This has an effect on the sound of an instrument." "In general instruments will tend to become somewhat brighter and more responsive." If a new violin is made very responsive to begin with (say, rivals those good old ones which are supposedly "optimized" by craftsmanship and time ) by whatever methods the luthier chooses to use, then what would happen to the violin's sound 30 or 100 years later when the wood becomes lighter and stiffer? Hollow woodly sound?
Overthinned violins are more prone to wolf tones, in my opinion.
To find thin spots Pinchas Zukerman knocks new instruments heavily, according to him overthinned places produces a hollow sound He allways do that when he tests my instruments, but DON'T do that in old instruments or instruments that are not yours.
No one knows for sure how a Strad sounded when it was made, or exactly what the ideal sound was. Many people wonder about this, and we are able to make some good guesses about it, but without a time machine, how can anyone know for sure?
I don't know of any Stradivari violin that has not been altered from the original setup in some way that would change the way it sounds. Does anyone know of one? Even the most "pristine" examples I have seen have been altered in a way that makes it impossible to know for sure how it was done originally. Of course, we can use our minds and come up with a reasonable assumption, but then different people assume different things, so who is correct?
For myself, when I encounter an antique violin that I think sounds great, I try to learn from it the way it is - warts and all (patches, repairs,etc.). Of course, it is a lot of fun to speculate about what people were thinking when they were made. I waste, um, spend a lot of time thinking about that, but that only gets you part of the way toward getting a good sounding violin in 2009.
Another important thing that often gets left out when people talk about how Stradivari violins sound is the work of many unsung highly skilled workers who have massaged all the best instruments for a long, long time.
So how will your violin sound in 200 years? Who knows - but, in my opinion, it depends on what the setup is going to be 200 years from now (imagine the strings they will have!), what current taste in music is, and what other work is done to your violin in the future, by repairpeople who have not yet been born.
Of course, you could put it in a museum for 200 years, in which case, if I had to guess, (which I don't, but I will because it's fun) I suspect it will sound pretty much the way it does right now.
"I don't know of any Stradivari violin that has not been altered from the original setup in some way that would change the way it sounds. "
was anything done to messiah,,,i wonder? was it ever opened? still carry its original neck?
The Messiah has a modern bass bar, the neck was lengthened in its root and tilted back. The fittings are "modern" also. It seems Vuillaume made this job.
Most of the old concert violins have been restored many times; wood will change shape under string tension; the top plate has to be restored to its (imagined) original arch shape with heat and sand bag. Many del Gesu violins have been re-graduated and top plates thinned down and yet they still sound great.
As James Ehnes says in the newly released CD/DVD Homage: "Our finest instruments posses a perfect combination of tonal beauty, range of color, clarity, and projection. It is not uncommon to find an instrument with one or even two of these traits in abundance, but to find all of these elements in the same instrument is rare indeed."
We can duplicate the external arch shape and the thickness, but we cannot reproduce the sound. As a violin maker, I would think that there are two things we may not do it right: the modification of wood and the first coat of varnish ( the so called "ground").
no really stromng opinion on this but for what it`s worth , the head of the violin department at RCM (just establishing he is/was top of line solosit , teacher etc) did tell his studnets not to buy a violin younger than four years old as it wa difficult to tell exactly how they would turn out in the long run. This advice, it seems to me might be more or less relevant depending on the quality of the maker. About this time I bought a frshly made instrument from a young British maker who was just getting established. It was a well madee, attractive instrument that intiially sounded very resonant and powerful. Within a year it had become dull and unresponsive and couldn`t be restored to its initila promise in spite of a good deal of adjusment and experimenatation.
Scott wrote "What do you mean the bad ones perished? They got tossed into the trash? I don't find that likely."
The bad ones were less likely to be repaired when they broke. Over time, they became unplayable due to neglect and poor maintenance, so they were trashed, burned, rotting away in the basement, eaten by worms, etc.
A luthier told me years ago that"age is a phenomenon,not a miracle". I owned a Johannes Cuypers made in 1798.I played it constantly for over ten years but it never really improved.The violin I play now is only 84 years old but after a short breaking in period it has twice the depth,richness and "sizzle" of the Dutch fiddle.
Understanding 250 year old Cremona techniques has been a quest of many a good maker in violins, these days. Certainly the little ice age wood of 1700 had a lot to do with the prized sound everyone hopes to achieve in a new violin. Often over looked and not quite exactly known is the secrets of the varnish. After extensive reading on the subject, it has been assumed that three coats of clear oil varnish , were covered with three coats of reddish brown spirit varnish. making this varnish today with old time methods is a challenge and a reward, if you figure it out. More than likely few violin makers want to give their much struggled for reciepe, out. If you want to know how great a violin will age & sound, ask the maker what varnish techniques they used, what materials formed the base coat and upper coats. it's an aging process of 250 year old materials. Modern violinist are great players, but they dont understand how too make varnish the old; old way. Unfortunately too many varnishes have too many poly-urethanes added these days.
Those of you reading this that have tried, know what I am talking about here. The secret is in the varnish. regards, Don
I do agree with Mr. Manfio that a fine violin is obvious from the beginning. A mediocre instrument will remain mediocre as it ages and a bad one will remain consistently bad. The good ones will perform at a clearly different level from the beginning and many of them will improve with age because continued use is definitely a contributing factor. Playing will open up the violin and provide more potential in sound. Like a fine wine that ages well, only a few fine wines will be entitled to such a privilege. Aging is irrelevant to the vast majority.
Whether all of Stradivari's known violins have improved with age would be a real stretch since there are Strads that are simply ok but not mindblowing. Howver, I do beleive that there is merit to the Hill's theory but with some limitations.
>>>If you want to know how great a violin will age & sound, ask the maker what varnish techniques they used, what materials formed the base coat and upper coats. it's an aging process of 250 year old materials. Modern violinist are great players, but they dont understand how too make varnish the old; old way. Unfortunately too many varnishes have too many poly-urethanes added these days.<<<
I'm wondering what data you base your opinions on. Can you name any maker of performance grade violins that you know use polyurethane varnish? I certainly don't know of any. In general they seem to prefer very thin, flexible coatings.
The result of fifteen years of near constant experimentation lead me to believe that the ground has a substantial effect on shaping the final sound of a violin, but not unless the arching, wood selection, and thicknesses are outstanding to begin with. Other very good makers will disagree with my opinion about ground, but probably not about the rest.
The varnish itself does have some effect, but there isn't much original varnish left on a lot of old Italian violins that still sound great. Also, you might make note of the fact that a lot of blind tests have been done comparing old Italian violins against good modern makers over the last 100 years, and the results are generally inconclusive. Leaving out the very few really great violins, I think it is safe to say that the playing qualities of better modern violins are easily on a par with 18th C. Cremonese. I can give you quotes from a number of top modern players who think the same way.
I'm sure there are plenty of makers who can tell you about how their instrument was chosen over this or that high-dollar Italian instrument, as well.
Old myths die hard.
the secret of a good Strad cannot be in the varnish, because most of the Strads haven´t anymore today.
The question, how the Strads and del Gesu sounded in the early 18th century, is difficult to answer because of the fact, that many of them have been made thinner. ("Cannone" with original thicknesses: 3.4 mm (table), and 6.5 mm (back)(!!).
Please apologize my bad English,
"After extensive reading on the subject, it has been assumed that three coats of clear oil varnish, were covered with three coats of reddish brown spirit varnish. ....... If you want to know how great a violin will age & sound, ask the maker what varnish techniques they used, what materials formed the base coat and upper coats."
Gosh, I don't know of any good evidence for three coats of clear oil varnish, covered by three coats of spirit varnish, nor do I know of any of the better known makers who use this.
Research more strongly suggests that it's entirely an oil varnish, with the possible exception of a thin protein layer near the wood.
"The little ice age"? How would wood from this period have been any different from non-ice age wood harvested a little farther up the mountain where it's cooler? The choice of growing environment has always been available.
"paging Dr. Nagyvary... "
What's puzzling to me is that the Hill's, in their book on Strads, place varnish above construction and the other materials. They based it on the premise that they had seen great violins ruined by bad varnish. But, it doesn't necessarily follow that the still-great ones had near-magical varnish.
Deleted because of irrelevance. :-)
I personally prefer a violin with not only a detail, quality tone but also its ability to project. My violin maker friend once introduced me a restored Italian violin (made by a famous luthier) by him. After I played it on the spot for little while, I feel its sound is a bit close in despite having a great sensitive tone. I think I was having doubt in the sound of this violin will eventually "open up" and becoming a capable concert violin. At least from my limited experience, I have never seen a violin changed so much from having a somewhat muted to well projected sound.
Something that no one has addressed on this topic: violins are like people and wine: each one has a different capacity to age. A beaujolais will be great for 5 years, but don't try putting it in the cellar for 20 years. And don't expect a cabernet to be ready immediately. Likewise, some people look great at 80, and some are a physical train wreck in their 60s.
Just take my violin for example. It's been a dull sounding violin with quite of a raw kind of tone quality. Nobody will actually appreciate it, including me, until one fine day my friend was testing it in a wedding gig. Surprisingly, even the environment was noisy, and the keyboardist was warming up (with the onboard speakers), I still can hear my violin from a small distance, not a tiny sound, but quite of a full body sound.
And now, it eventually got more powerful and brighter, but still retained the projection quality and gotten even better due to the more matured and solid tone.
So I guess, aging won't do magic, but it'll certainly improve to a certain point, depends on the instrument itself. Mind you, almost 100% of the time when an instrument age, you won't going to get rid of regular soundpost adjustment (or even replacement), bridge tweaks etc, so they're going to affect the sound too. A new instrument (especially a fine one) is going to change a lot in the wood properties, so new adjustments are needed from time to time.
Can anyone describe how a new unfinished violin sounds like before, and after finishing with varnish? How much does the tone change and which way, brighter/darker/louder /softer?
When people talk about good and bad varnishes, are they talking about cosmetics or one that kills the tone.
I like to work with wood and made some nice mahogany furniture using steelwool to smooth the fine wood, handrubbing stain and polyurathane to a fine satin finish like you can't imagine, bringing out the textures/flame in the wood. Why will this not work on violins?
Hi Jerry! A fine instrument in the white sounds wonderfull. A good luthier will try to varnish it in a way to preserve it.
Good instruments are finished and refinished with scrapers. I use strong tea to enhance the flames, and an oil varnish I cook myself for the ground, as here:
The Messiah Stradivarius is mentioned in this correspondence. Some years ago, before the sad demise of Hills, I contacted them with questions about the Messiah which they had examined very thoroughly and knew well.. Their authoritive reply was that ,although the instrument was in pristine condition, it was absolutely unplayable with a very poor sound. They believed that the extensive use of decoration impaired the tonal qualities and it was likely that this instrument had a very poor sound from the time of its creation. It now rests in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford as a tribute to the craft of the violin maker but is by no means the finest example of a Stradivarius violin.
"They believed that the extensive use of decoration impaired the tonal qualities and it was likely that this instrument had a very poor sound from the time of its creation."
Perhaps there was some confusion about which violin was being discussed? The Messiah Strad isn't decorated.
Luis, that is a beautiful finish and wood pattern on that violin. On my chinese violin, I accidently hit the spruce top with my sharp fingernail and it looked like the varnish did not penetrate the wood, and was hard and chipped out leaving a small white line, about the thickness of my fingernail. I have never worked with varnish and do not know the consistency of the liquid or how much it penetrates. I guess the idea is to not saturate the wood, but put a thin shell of varnish for beauty and protection.
Alexander Welch recounted Hills' comments on the Messiah Strad: "... it was absolutely unplayable with a very poor sound ...the extensive use of decoration impaired the tonal qualities and it was likely that this instrument had a very poor sound from the time of its creation..."
Mr. Welch, are you sure the Hills were talking about the Messiah Strad (also known as Le Messie, the Salabue)? It is unforntunate that it has not been played recently, but as I recall, its tonal qualities were lavishly praised by J.B. Vuillaume and Joseph Joachim.
Mr. Burgess has already pointed out that the Messiah is not decorated.
Listen to Burgess. He's an experienced and very respected modern maker. My personal two cents worth is that fine, new instruments sometimes have a slightly "raw" sound that disappears with time and playing, but the basic quality is in there from the beginning. Age and playing don't add much of anything to a violin that wasn't there from the first. There's a story that Louis Spohr played several hardly used Strad's in the early 1800's and called them "new and woody." I think that sums it up.
In response the questions raised I was simply quoting from Hill's reply. Having seen the instrument in the Ashmolean Museum I was aware that it was not overtly decorated and was slightly puzzled at the reply. Whether or not they were referring to the overall use of varnish etc. I am not sure. They seemed very assured about the tonal qualities! Sadly, Hills no longer exist.
ps.The Ashmolean does also have on display the Cipriani-Potter Stradivarius which is a highly decorated instrument and is a work of art just to look at.
In addition to what my colleagues have said previously in this thread, as a violin maker I can say that we make new instruments for today and for our generation of musicians.
Our instruments have to sound good from the beginning, otherwise we would not sell them and would be out of work soon.
I suspect this was valid for all the violin makers of the past as well, and applies to Strad and del Gesu and all the others too.
Of course we will never know how Strads sounded on day one.
But there are many approaches to violin making:
One is to study sources well and learn about the strings, the set up and other technical aspects as they were used in the golden age of violin making and replicate them and build instruments in the 'period' or 'baroque' style and we might get quite close to what the new instruments must have sounded in the 17 and 18 hundreds.
Another is to study the good old instruments as they are today, with the modern strings, the graduations and archings and today's neck angle and bass bars and so on and try and learn from them and intergrate all these factors in one's own new work. (That is my personal approach currently.)
A third one is to just develop your own style and strategies to make good sounding instruments on your own. I have a colleague for example, who makes outstanding violas of his own models. (www.yannbesson.com)
In any case it is worth noting that the adjustment of violins is so delicate that every factor in the construction has an effect and that we makers have to be aware of that. This is why it is so important to be in close touch with musicians to make sure what we do, works well for you guys! On the other hand it is important for players of modern violins to be sensitive to small changes in your new instruments. As the varnish hardens or the plates stiffen, as you change fittings such as tailpiece, pegs and chinrests and strings, the original balance of a new instrument can be disturbed a little.
But to answer the original question regarding the future of new instruments, I think that a new good one will never go bad but that one has to monitor changes that occur naturally and act in accordance to them. It is also a fact that the player shapes their instrument a lot. Just recently Mr. Smietana, a violin professor at London's Guildhall told me to choose the players well to play in the instruments. Good players make violins sound better. But if you always play with a dull sound, your originally open and brilliant sounding violin will soon take on your way of playing. That does not mean the instrument will be spoilt because you can always change your style of playing and the violin will react to that.
Hope this answers your question a little bit more in detail.
Best regards, Hans
I think Mr Manfio states the point best. If the violin is not good from day one, it will not improve with age. A dud is a dud, now or centuries from now.
But, to my mind, this is not to say a good violin will remain constant over time. Climate changes alone are cause for setup changes. Routine maintenance is needed for optimum sound.
For a brand new violin, I do wonder how the maturing of the varnish can affect sound. I think most experts would agree a proper oil varnish can take many years to mature fully. This ageing may likely have an effect upon sound, though I have yet to see any conclusive research on this. For my own, new violin, the varnish is now about 3.5 yrs old, and the violin seems to be developing a more mellow tone: but this easily could be my ear wanting to hear this. My litmus is the audience, which seem generally impressed by the tone from a distance (not by my abilites, but I'm trying), so maybe the ageing is improving the sound.
So be sensible. Find a new violin new you like now, and hope for improvement as it ages, but do not be dissapointed if ageing produces no improvements.
This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.
Violinist.com is made possible by...
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins
Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine
March 1, 2009 at 08:26 PM ·
Will you be alive in 50-100 years?