Really a Strad? I think not!

February 9, 2010 at 05:38 AM ·

Hello: This is my first post of a thread so I thought I would start off with something probably discussed ad nauseum but with a twist. I submit that other than the possibility of a miniscule number if any original Strads exist that every extant Strad is in fact a mutation of a violin to such a degree that it should not be called a Strad. To take a delicate and subtle creation of a violin meant to play at a lower pitch and with minimal tension gut strings and cut off its head and armour it to suffer the tension of steel strings and the brutal playing, compared to baroque violin technique, that the instrument has had to endure makes it no longer a Strad but an entirely new beast and as such has only value in the name. Consequently, any master violin maker presently making violins should have equal value based purely upon the sound of their instrument. I don't believe that Stradivarius really made the nearly 700 instruments attributed to him and that it behooves those who profit financially to continue a myth that is as vaporous as the market and violininists are willing to accept. Cheers, Randy

Replies (24)

February 9, 2010 at 01:15 PM ·

While I agree that the majority of great instruments of the classic Italian period have been extensively adapted over the intervening centuries it seems a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater to dismiss them in the manner you've suggested.

On your other point, (that A. Stradivari couldn't have made so many instruments) I think the evidence points to the conclusion that he actually did so, admittedly with the assistance of two of his sons.  If you haven't already read it, the Hill brothers' biography of Stradivari makes for delightful reading and most of their insights remain valid.  Their claim to be able to detect the hand of the master in instruments he produced into his final years and the prodigious output of his workshop throughout his long career is well documented.

Doug

February 9, 2010 at 08:27 PM ·

Lower pitch–not necessarily true, and irrelevant in any case.  Pitch standards varied widely across Europe during the baroque period and a violin maker would not have assumed his instruments would be played only at one pitch.  Secondly, violins play a huge number of pitches across a wide range, there is no sense to the idea that instrument will only work well at a given pitch. 

Minimal tension gut–not true.  Recent research by multiple researchers has shown that it is most likely that baroque era violins were strung at tensions which overlap the modern range.

Ah but I see the rest of your post is just an arbitrary assertion without foundation, and an unfortunate assault on the ethics of an entire industry.

How many Stradivari instruments have you seen?  What is the basis of your expertise regarding Stradivari violins, and how many have you identified as being not what they claim?  What features of these instruments led you to this conclusion?

February 9, 2010 at 11:14 PM ·

Using your total number of instruments produced (which is a little off), and if Stradivari was working for 50 years, it comes out to a little more than 1 instrument per month.

The Mirecourt makers had quotas of around 1 to 3 instruments per week. Stradivari was slow by their standards, but I guess he was a little more careful too. ;)

February 9, 2010 at 11:31 PM ·

Posed:

While I agree that the majority of great instruments of the classic Italian period have been extensively adapted over the intervening centuries it seems a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater to dismiss them in the manner you've suggested.

My point is that having gone through the changes they are in fact not as the maker intended. Regardless of what you may assume an instrument maker constructs instruments for the music that will play it. With all that is technically known about the construction of Strads it is in fact possible for master builders to create instruments that are comparable to the "modified, or mutilated as some may feel" Strads in the manner they are played now.

Posed:

On your other point, (that A. Stradivari couldn't have made so many instruments) I think the evidence points to the conclusion that he actually did so, admittedly with the assistance of two of his sons.  If you haven't already read it, the Hill brothers' biography of Stradivari makes for delightful reading and most of their insights remain valid.  Their claim to be able to detect the hand of the master in instruments he produced into his final years and the prodigious output of his workshop throughout his long career is well documented.

It is to the advantage of those who own and sell Strads to maintain the status quo. Let us settle it and have each one's DNA, as it were, to varify their provenence.

Posed:

Lower pitch–not necessarily true, and irrelevant in any case.  Pitch standards varied widely across Europe during the baroque period and a violin maker would not have assumed his instruments would be played only at one pitch.  Secondly, violins play a huge number of pitches across a wide range, there is no sense to the idea that instrument will only work well at a given pitch. 
 

Again I state: Regardless of what you may assume an instrument maker constructs instruments for the music that will play it. As regarding pitch. Of course it varied across Europe from A392 to even A456. In each case the violinist would change the guage and tension of the strings to accomodate a given situation but not rip the neck off of it and rebuild the bass bar.

Posed:

Minimal tension gut–not true.  Recent research by multiple researchers has shown that it is most likely that baroque era violins were strung at tensions which overlap the modern range.
 

If so then why the need to modify Strads. They should have been sufficient to withstand modern strings based on your reasoning.

Posed:

Ah but I see the rest of your post is just an arbitrary assertion without foundation, and an unfortunate assault on the ethics of an entire industry.
 

The key word here being "industry". I question the ethics of anyone who stands to aquire vast amounts of money simply because a piece of wood has the name Stradivarius labeled on it.

Posed:

How many Stradivari instruments have you seen?  What is the basis of your expertise regarding Stradivari violins, and how many have you identified as being not what they claim?  What features of these instruments led you to this conclusion?

I am neither a virtuoso nor a wealthy collector/museum. I believe that if someone is truly confident in the validity of their Strad a simple test perfected by Botanical Anthropologists can very easily establish its authenticity. I cite an example of an Amati proven to have been built of wood that lived in the 18th century. Just last weekend I played on a violin made by a  maker from Toronto that was as gorgeous sounding as it was constructed. What is in a name other than everything. He lives and builds in obscurity as I imagine many great builders do who are not in vogue. If we are to have future Stradivari we must look to the present and the future and not put all our eggs in a basket of the past. Cheers, Randy

February 10, 2010 at 01:48 AM ·

"Botanical Anthropologists"   Are you referring to dendrochronology?  The test is more widely used these days.  At least half a dozen instruments that I've appraised in the last four or five months were accompanied by denro. reports.

I say this with all due respect; I'm really not sure why you've decided to argue these points without knowing more about the history of these instruments... and at least making yourself familiar with some of the objects you're referring to.  If you want to argue about the value of something someone else owns and/or appreciates (and you do not) the least you could do is make an effort to know your subject.

I agree that there are some wonderful contemporary makers out there.  Most make their instruments in the "altered" style, though.  :-)

February 10, 2010 at 04:05 AM ·

Greetings,

not many people know this, but actually old Antonio`s real name was Stradipooplebottom.  He had it changed by deed poll to Stradivarious.   The reason for this is that he knew that his instruments would be subjected to a variety of changes down the ages and wanted it to be understood they were still his offspring.

Hope this helps,

Barius

February 10, 2010 at 04:14 AM ·

 Randy,

Are there any specific instruments that you know are not genuine? Or are you just trashing the whole concept of a Stradivarius violin? Strads tend to have very clear provenance and a long paper trail--it's not simply a matter of some greedy dealer's opinion.

Just because a violin has been modified doesn't mean it's not also great as a modern instrument, and doesn't mean it's intrinsic value has been nullified. There were certainly violins that could not handle a modern setup, and those have been filtered out over the centuries. The point at which an object loses its identity and can be called something else is often impossible to identify, and one is left with a philosophical (or just purely academic) argument. When is a child an adult? On which day did homo sapiens become homo sapiens? And when is a Strad no longer a Strad? When the neck is changed? The scroll? The bass bar? A section of rib? The top? Who knows?

If Strads had no value (as you're implying), then no one, save for a few fools, would pay for them. But centuries of players have voted with their checkbooks.

 

Scott

February 10, 2010 at 04:21 AM ·

 Stephen,

Yes, I did know that. What you may not know is that before settling on a new name, he first chose for himself the moniker of "Mr. Fiddleypiddley." However, he soon realized that Dickens had already used the name in an unpublished manuscript about a Welsh coal miner who made violins on his one day off per year, and was forced to chose another name.

Scott

February 10, 2010 at 06:26 AM ·

Greetings,

`Cole` being the americanized version,   I dedect a fondly remembered ancestor.

Cheers,

Buri

February 11, 2010 at 11:53 PM ·

My purpose in this discourse was to test the waters. I turned from the modern violin to the Baroque violin when I developed tinnitus in my left ear. The whole side of my face and head would throb with pain after 20 minutes of playing. The Baroque violin was like a light in a dark miasma of machine like music production. I discovered what Early music had to offer.

Baroque music offers the freedom of enlightened creativity: the notes on a page of music are a guideline and not a page of scripture to be worshipped and executed within the prescribed confines of modern violin technique. I agree that during the early years of Baroque performance it lacked emotion but now Baroque musicians are feeling the freedom to explore all the posibilities that Baroque composers left to the imagination of the performers unlike the ever increasing straight jacket imposed upon musicians beginning in the 19th cent..

I can understand why Pinchas Zuckerman is so opposed to music before the 18th cent. being performed on period instuments. In my experience once people hear it done on period instruments they realize how heavy handed and oppresive the moderns have reduced early music to sounding. They get the pleasure of Mozart with a small intimate orchestra, Bach done with an even simpler and pleasing chamber ensemble. The wall of sound that has been the modern Philharmonic will start to crumble. Playing Bach on a modern violin is like playing the music of Fernando Sor on a Gibson Les Paul through a Marshall Amp on 11. I think that falling attendence that most city Symphonies are feeling is as much the economy as it is the fact that it really does not appeal to people anymore. A Mahler Symphony is now to be endured whereas a Vivaldi Concerto done on period instruments is a flower to be appreciated.

I realize that I am not a Strad expert but for me the revaillement of Baroque Strads to the modern mutation has deprived the world of some glorious instruments to play the music they were constructed for. Just my opinion. Cheers, Randy

February 12, 2010 at 04:11 PM ·

@ Randy- You live where my favorite musician of all times grew up!

     Do you think that you may also be feeling anger & depression due to the recent loss of playing what you once could and now cannot?  Are you angry for the instruments because like you something / someone was altered unfairly?

Royce

February 12, 2010 at 09:40 PM ·

 I question the ethics of anyone who stands to aquire vast amounts of money simply because a piece of wood has the name Stradivarius labeled on it.

I shudder to think of how you feel the sale of a Picasso.

February 13, 2010 at 02:40 AM ·

I bet Pablo painted by numbers!!!!

February 13, 2010 at 03:17 AM ·

 yep. But he was no good at math...

February 13, 2010 at 04:34 AM ·

Eric you can still edit that, might want to put it in quotes so no one thinks you said it.  ;-)

February 13, 2010 at 01:34 PM ·

Randy, apparently you did enjoy music made on the modern violin at one time .  It is interesting an affliction with tinnitus opened up a new world of music and  appreciation.  I don't understand why now seem so dismissive of music written and performed past the 18th century.   The development of modern instruments came about because musicians sought greater dynamics and  a richer and cleaner sound with more complex overtones.   These advances gave musicians greater range and flexibility of expression.  How musicians choose to use all the instruments that are presently available to perform  the music of the ages is a matter of personal creative expression and individual taste. It is tragic that your physical pain has been so limiting to your musical pallette.

February 13, 2010 at 08:56 PM ·

Actually I never really much cared for music after the 18th cent. My experiences at University in music were horrendous. The man I wanted to study with, who was one of the first people in my area who loved early music and taught it, had a conflict with the heads of the deparment so he left to go to a school that wanted an early music department which he developed there. I was stuck in a music department that was not only obsessed with contemporary music but heavy on the romantics. The profs were so biased against early music that one prof apologised to the class because he was going to make us sit through a complete Couperin suite performed on a harpsichord. I have never been very involved in music after the 18th cent even after graduating University. I began research and building harpsichords and playing with various non classical groups to make some extra money until I fell into the study and playing of traditional Celtic music. I spent about ten years playing in a Celtic music group when the tinnutus started I had to stop. The other thing I started years ago was playing the Traverso which I played and still do in a small local Baroque group. So I have never had to suffer the slings and arrows of playing post 18th cent. music other than traditional Celtic music which is really 18th cent. music continued as the people's music. Ciao, Randy

February 13, 2010 at 09:34 PM ·

So how did we get to period performance practice from railing against Stradivari not being Stradivari?

As someone who works with several areas of classical music -- quartet playing, performing with a baroque ensemble, playing in and conducting a full symphony orchestra -- I have to say that it seems narrow-minded to me to dismiss music of any era. I've long felt that early music gets short shrift on modern concert stages, because it doesn't fit the mold of a 70-piece orchestra, and we could probably do better in getting early music heard with the range of expression that it deserves. But to dismiss Mahler, Brahms, Debussy, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Copland, et al., as being tired out or not what audiences want is shortsighted. In terms of simple mass appeal, I would daresay it's easier to sell out a Verdi Requiem than it is a Bach Magnificat.

 There's a treasure trove of good music out there from prior to 1800 -- an orchestra I work with regularly recently did a performance of a Alessanrdo Scarlatti oratorio that hadn't been heard in its complete form in almost 300 years, and it's a beautiful work. But don't belittle the Romantics or the modern orchestra simply because it happens to be dominant.

 And modifications aside, I'm sure Stradivari would recognize his instruments immediately if he could see them today -- and he might be shocked to know that we're still using his model!

February 13, 2010 at 10:20 PM ·

 Greetings,

just my personal opinion, but once we strat practicing historicism and deciding what musicians of a previous era wanted the whole ball game becomes one of individual specualtion and academic credentials to a large extent. to a large extent.

I can`t dig out the exact book right now but I know Harnoncourt was very dismissive of the idea of music becoming progreesively louder and more expletive ridden as the centuries passed.  He wrote that smaller groups were more often than not a result of financial consideratiosna nd avaiolbility of musicians and quotes an example from Mozarts writing in which a massive orchestra wa sused (comparable with toda) and how Mozart wished he could have this reosurce at his diposal.

Cheers,

Buri

February 13, 2010 at 10:44 PM ·

Although I very much regret Randy's unhelpful bald chauvenism on the issue, there's more to the baroque approach to music than a question of small ensembles or a mere matter of opinion.

There is plenty of objective evidence that musical expression was approached differently in the baroque than it is now.  The modern players who imagine that the modern approach absorbs and betters what was done in the past are simply not paying attention.  Both approaches have something to offer and should have a "live and let live" approach.  When EITHER side fails to have that attitude they are confusing personal preference with objective value.

February 13, 2010 at 11:30 PM ·

All my life I have been involved in music in some way shape or form. My view of music is that it should be inclusive and not exclusive. Music like literature is availlable to everyone but unlike literature over the years it has become more and more exclusive. I am well aware of the reality of the upper class and music during the period before the 19th cent. yet there was a thrivng musical upper class that participated and enjoyed music in their homes. People who were taught by professionals to play the music that was written for both peofessional and amateurs to play. Walsh and Sons in London made a fortune selling music to the gentry in London because they wanted to play Handel Sonatas at home themselves. Boismortier became an extremely wealthy man in France but was denegrated by some because he wrote music for the gentry to play in their homes. Granted there were many pieces written that were exclusively written to be performed by professionals but the people with moderate financial means were still in the loop. The age of the professional musician and of composers reducing the public to only the position of spectator would begin with Mozart and over the course of the next 200 years would become more and more intensified. Music became so complex and "art" oriented that it has slowly lost sight of its purpose to please in both playing it and listening to it.

This whole pattern over the last 200 years has slowly painted "Classical" music into a corner. Music has gone down a cul de sac which is Modern music or Contemporary or what ever you want to call it. I could drag a Steinway on to a concert stage infront of contemporary music " afficianados" and jump on the keyboard for 20 minutes and be hailed a great genius of a composer. What went wrong. Probably there are many reasons and probably many would say it hasn't gone wrong. I thought it garbage when I had to study it at University and I still think it is garbage. I feel that the disconnect between music and people is at the heart of it. You should not need an advanced degree to understand and appreciate music. I am stuck in the past musically with Baroque as much as the rest of you are stuck in your particular ruts because we are at a musical impass: what is to come next? Do you honestly think Olivier Messien will be as loved some day as Mozart is now? Will John Cage's music bring tears to the eyes of listeners like Bach's St. Matthew Passion? When was the last time you caught yourself humming a catchy liitle tune by Karlheiz Stockhausen?

To me the destruction of Strads is the very essence of what I am trying to say. Must we always have growth? Especially growth and change that destroys the values of the past. CPE Bach along with his brother JC did not like to talk of their father's music: Oh, it is old fashioned music we are much more musically enlightened now. If it wasn't for the early music movement many students of music would be lost now because my attitude towards the music that came later is not unique and I am not in such a minority as you may think. If given the chance to be honest and not thought gauche many "Classical" music lovers would probably say "I am sick to death of Beethoven!!!!!" I really believe that less is more. Cheers, Randy

February 13, 2010 at 11:45 PM ·

Oh, one quick addenda to my sermon. What do you think is one of the fastest growing interests in music? Early music instruments. Check out the Viola da Gamba Society of America. How about a little bit of info released by the Flute Association of America: at their recent congress in New York, I believe, there were so many people that wanted to attend the beginner class on Baroque flute they were lined up out the door to get in. The average person is not only interested in pop music. Many would like to make music at home and you don't need 20 years of practice to play a Handel Flute Sonata on a Baroque Flute!

February 14, 2010 at 01:59 AM ·

I was 1st exposed to viols, and viola da gambas when I was a music major and I love early periods of music. And I like what Andres states.

February 14, 2010 at 12:58 PM ·

Randy, I don't think you always believe less is more.  I doubt you are a fan of minimalism.  Bach's music could be quite complex.  You might find it  interesting  that it seems that Bach was in favor of greater dynamic range in the new pianos and organs that were being produced during his time.  Hi liked an organ with good lungs.

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