Priceless violin or Outstanding violin - does it matter?

June 28, 2010 at 08:03 PM ·

I have to ask this (and I may be a heretic) - there is a lot of machinations about out-of-sight violin prices but does it really matter?  On one topic we talk of the $18 or $40meg violin and the (possible) tragedy of them being withdrawn from the concert hall.  On another we hear that a great violinist still sounds great on a mediocre violin.  Obviously, some instruments have the capacity to fill a hall with beautiful sounds and some do not - but I don't get the impression that these are all that rare.  Beyond a minimal standard, isn't it the violinist and not the Strad/del Gesu/etc that really makes the music?

Replies (31)

June 28, 2010 at 10:22 PM ·

This topic came up about a year or so ago. I remember contributing to it. Can anyone find it?

June 28, 2010 at 11:43 PM ·

"Beyond a minimal standard, isn't it the violinist and not the Strad/del Gesu/etc that really makes the music?"

Yes -- and my experience with my first 4/4-size violin bears this out.  Tone production was one of my strong areas early on -- based on comments from my teacher, orchestra director, family, friends, neighbors, and accompanist.  I was just a kid with a mass-produced student instrument.  But I must have been doing something right.

Then, too, the way you play on an instrument can, over time, affect its overall response for better or worse.  Kato Havas, in A New Approach to Violin Playing -- a book that Yehudi Menuhin commended, albeit with a few minor reservations -- reports that by picking up her students' violins and trying them out during lessons, she could tell what kind of practicing they had been doing during the preceding week -- whether good or not so good.

I forget the name of the violinist featured in Laurie's blog a few weekends ago -- he's Russian-born and 24 years old, as I recall.  He stated that a lot of Strads don't even sound good.  I'll take his word for it.  My three hand-made instruments are nowhere near the $18M or even $15K price range, but they suit me just fine -- no plans to trade them in.

June 29, 2010 at 12:55 AM ·

Thanks for the link - its before my time and did not come up in my search.  I hope we have more to say!  Past experience on other forums suggests that a slightly new angle generates a new set of ideas...

June 29, 2010 at 01:58 AM ·

Hi Elise, I'm not experienced but recently played a quite cheaper violin than mine almost as if it was my own.  We couldn't tell if it was cheaper although the sound was different.  Perhaps it was a very good "cheaper violin".   Before, I used to think that the difference was very obvious?

Ok...but I never tried Strads and Del Gesus ; )  But I don't know if I would be consider crazy to tell I find my own (when well played i. e. played by pros) sound just as good to my ears? 

Although a very very very cheap violin might sound "tin can" even with efforts...

I'm maybe very wrong but my guess is that pass a certain quality stage, a good violin in it's category will do the trick and sound just as nice as the old italians if well played. 

Anne-Marie

June 29, 2010 at 06:33 AM ·

I agree Ann-Marie, but would love to hear what the professional soloist and orchestra players think.  I suppose the question is to what exent does the violin allow you to shine above the competition.  If Joshua Bell was in a competition with, say, Itzak Perlman and one had a (top) del Gesu and the other a, say,(also top) Amati, would the del Gesu make the difference? 

Actually, this could be tested if they played blind and then traded instruments...  Wow wouldn't that be fun?

June 29, 2010 at 10:16 AM ·

I don't quite how the question is?

I mean, have you yourself tried different violins in different priceclasses? Can you hear the difference between a $100 violin and a $1500? Of course you can! Why wouldn't you be able to hear the difference between more expensive violins then?

And you couldn't have a violin competition where Bell played an del Gesu and Perlman an Amati an make a fair decision. Even if they just played open 'A' you could still hear who played what 'A' and it wouldn't be a fair testing of the violins. But try to put different violins in the same violinist hands. Like Ehnes, Ricci and Oliviera have been and you can easily hear that the violins sound totally different.

You can always hear who is playing but the sound costume is different. Som violins have a stronger G-string, a more brilliant high register, a sweeter middle or faster response. It can be harder to play harmonics on or be easier to change the dynamics and still carry the tone. But what violin is better and what violin deservs a higher price?

If you tried a superb newly built violin in a shop that you totally would buy, and you have the means to spare. The price is $15.000. Just when you are about to buy it the salesman says: Try this violin first.

You play it and it sounds exactly the same and without looking you think that it is the same instrument. But when you look at it... It got a depth in the varnice that is just amazing, you just fall in love... This is the violin you want! The pricetag is $17.500 and you grab your wallet to buy when the sales man says: just try this first...

  • Better carved - yes! + 10%
  • Richer G-string - yes! +10%
  • Smoother E but still brilliant - yes! +10%
  • More even over the strings - yes! +10%
  • Speaks more easily - yes! +10%
  • Carries the sound better - want it! +10%
  • etc etc....

And when you are just about to pay for this newly built instrument to play at concerts the salesman says to you: You know, you are about to pay $30.000 for an instrument that you will tour around the world with in all kinds of climates. It is newly built so you have no ide what so ever what it will sound a year from now in that ever place you will play it in. Wouldn't you rather have this instrument that a violinist in Vienna Phil. used for five years and toured all around the globe with before he got his strad? It looks the same as the instrument you are going to buy, it sounds the same, but you'll know that it will work - it is proven!

Just +10%.... Or this violin that have the the same background but was Perlmans favorite instrument? +X%

An instrument is worth exactly what you would pay for it. Not a penny more or less.

June 29, 2010 at 11:59 AM ·

"An instrument is worth exactly what you would pay for it. Not a penny more or less."

 

I'm not sure about that at all!  I bought an instrument cheaply recently and I think it could be worth more than I paid for it.

Also, people do buy instruments that when they come to sell them, will not fetch the same price. Sometimes even after a few years.

June 29, 2010 at 12:13 PM ·

"I'm not sure about that at all!  I bought an instrument cheaply recently and I think it could be worth more than I paid for it."

 I didn't say "What you pay it is worth", I said what you would pay.

"Also, people do buy instruments that when they come to sell them, will not fetch the same price. Sometimes even after a few years."

And price can change over time or from person to person.

June 29, 2010 at 12:41 PM ·

"An instrument is worth exactly what you would pay for it. Not a penny more or less."

In one sense that argument can not be defeated since by handing over the dollars you have set the value.  In my case it is a real 'value' since my dealer guarantees the trade in (though almost certainly he will depreciate for any wear).

However, that is surely a superficial assessment of value since it would be very very different if I went alone (with my limited knowledge) or I brought in a team of players, luthiers, auctioneers, collectors and dealers and took the (weighted?) average of each of their assessments.  I think when we use the term 'worth' we are referring more to the latter 'value' than the former.

 

June 29, 2010 at 12:55 PM ·

"I'm not sure about that at all!  I bought an instrument cheaply recently and I think it could be worth more than I paid for it. "

that goes to show that violin trade can be an interesting one.  often, the transaction may be one to one, not subject to open market scrutiny.  for the most part, auction houses with violins to sell will be evaluated by a variety of buyers, thus the final price is close to market value (assuming no shill bidding which may be too much to assume:). 

the 18 m violin on the block is also open to the market evaluation.

however, at times the market is inefficient:  unknowing seller sells at a deep discount to a knowing buyer or someone who dares to gamble and later finds out the true value. 

if some of you question whether the 18 m violin seller should donate to charity with the proceed, should we ask good deal pickers also follow suit and that if you have bought too high, then the govt should step in with a subsidy?  :)

ha, too much to ask.

on the subject of violin vs player...my amateurish opinion is that thinking back of all the playing i have heard and seen, i would have to say that if a player is to improve through a better violin or a better tech, i would say it is the latter,,,by far.  playing a strad or alikes is clearly a luxury, perhaps even an honor, but certainly not a necessity.  you people are very very vain and you tend to drive yourselves crazy :)

i am waiting for that one brand name violinist coming out with a CD featuring some of the best modern makers, instead of the usual pink cadillacs, the strad this and guarneri that, to set this field into a new direction.

 

 

 

 

June 29, 2010 at 03:48 PM ·

Al: I'm working on it... the plan is Carnegie Hall with a 8K workshop french violin... :D

June 29, 2010 at 04:23 PM ·

While it almost seems like heresy to say, I think that the instrument is less important than is commonly believed.  I own one of the famous instruments and have had several old Italian instruments from well known makers.  I also have a lesser known old Italian.  My experience is that each one has a special character but finally a player is going to sound very similar on each instrument.  I think that it is easy for a player to believe that they can buy the magic that makes the truly great artist.  Even with new instruments there is a great deal of hype that accompanies the most well known of makers.  Teachers also fall into this trap.  A great violin is not the solution for every problem.  There are wonderful modern instruments that can fill a hall and travel well without the issues that are part and parcel of the old Italian masters.  I am quite sure that the "old Italian sound" is really related to the endless repairs that most old instruments have experienced over time.  A new healthy instrument by a reputable maker will probably provide as much tonal quality and projection as any fine violinist needs.

June 29, 2010 at 11:38 PM ·

Elise, I also said what I have often hear from very good professionnal violinists talking about this. Far far from pretending to be one myself ; )  (just in my dreams...)

Anne-Marie

June 30, 2010 at 02:20 AM ·

All the hype about the priceless old Italian fiddles is blown way out of proportion.  Some of them  are indeed very nice instruments, even fabulous, but there are many, many very affordable violins that are fabulous too.  The old Italian instruments are expensive because of the name and the limited supply.  Even the "not so nice" Strads, command huge prices in the market place, not because of their superior qualities, but simply because of supply and demand.  And the fact that the instruments have appreciated so much in recent years has spawned a feeding frenzy of sorts, driving the prices yet higher.  But just because the price is high does not make the instrument any better.  This IMO is a common misconception of many people.  If the Vieuxtemps Del Gesu were run over by a bus (God forbid), the wood scraps would still be worth more than my contemporary Italian.  My point is, supply and demand play the biggest role in setting the price of instruments.  Sound and playability do impact the value, but the impact is relatively small compared to other factors (e.g., condition, brand recognition, pedigree, history, etc). 

July 1, 2010 at 03:05 PM ·

What is that Heifetz anecdote....a woman tells Mr. Heifetz after a performance how beautiful his Violin sounded...Heifetz' then puts his ear to the Violin and says to her, "I don't hear anything". 

 

July 1, 2010 at 04:38 PM ·

..to which she should have put her ear to Heifetz and said the same thing...

come to think of it, it would have been fun to put your ear to Heifetz....

July 2, 2010 at 12:04 AM ·

Wish I could find that old thread. Don't want to repeat too much. But basically. speaking as a professional violinist, collector, one who has tried a number of great and far-from-great classic and modern instruments and bows, I will say this: the violin and bow are quite important. And the better the player, the more important, as the better player can get more out of the instrument.

But far more important is the player. A great player can do adequately, if far from ideally, on a mediocre instrument. A really poor player will sound really poor on anything. In fact it takes more subtle skill to get the most out of a complex and sophisticated instrument and bow.

Yes, one theoretically could have turned Heifetz' retort on him - if one had dared! The player can't make sounds w.o. an instrument, just as the instrument is mute w.o. a player (unless they both fall down in a forest with no one to hear them - then I don't know!) But seriously, does it make more sense to compliment say, the Williams sisters on their tennis skill, or to compliment their  raquets? I think I remember Rosand telling a story of an incident similar to the Heifetz one, on himself. He said to the fan of his violin "here, you try it!"

July 2, 2010 at 05:02 AM ·

 Inexpensive is not the same as mediocre.

July 2, 2010 at 06:11 AM ·

the debate will rage forever.   imho to answer the question: I think it matters not between a priceless and outstanding violin.  

case1 in point: Ms Hahn.  before she chose it, her JBV was affordable yet outstanding (since, not affordable).  would anyone argue her abilities, performances, sound when using the JBV?  could she borrow/acquire a Strad? likely. but has she?  no.  why? 

case2.  the infamous French video on youtube,  in a double blind test, all listeners chose a modern as having the best sound; not the Strad.

 

July 2, 2010 at 07:22 AM ·

Car analogy coming up.

Old wreck - no brakes, crunchy gears, engine prone to stalling. Beginner would struggle to get anywhere, keep it running or stop. Expert could use variety of techniques, double de-clutching, heel to toe, engine braking and get from A to B.

Ordinary car. Beginner would still be  beginner and make beginners' mistakes. However progress would (might) be smoother than in Old Wreck. Expert would be doing well.

Fantastic car. Beginner would still be  beginner and make beginners' mistakes. Expert...

July 2, 2010 at 08:12 AM ·

Yes but I think the real question is what about two formula one champion drivers competing in a mazarati vs a ferrari?  I mean thats what its like at the top and if the mazarati is an iota better than the ferrari does that give that pro sufficient edge to win?  I think it does - which is where the performer's opinion comes in: to what extent does the violin give you that hairs-breadth advantage?

July 2, 2010 at 08:55 AM ·

About 2 years ago I was practicing a cadenza from a Mozart Violin Conerto and I tried a passage using ricochet bowing. It was simply too difficult for me so I omited it from the cadenza.

Just last month I picked up an old bow which had been lying in my basement for years, rosined it a lot, and tried the same cadenza. Lo and behold, the ricochet passage came out beautifully and with almost no effort, so I put it back into my cadenza. I have gotten familiar with this old bow and intend to use it in my next playing of this Mozart concerto. Its better than my array of much more expensive violin bows.

Ted Kruzich 

July 2, 2010 at 11:50 AM ·

'...where the performer's opinion comes in: to what extent does the violin give you that hairs-breadth advantage?'

Yes, that little bit can count for a lot. Maybe it's increased articularion or response with one violin - classic, modern, or anything inbetween - compared to another. Maybe it's feeling power under the ear as well as establishing through tests that the violin also carries at a distance, so you feel more security and don't have to push. Maybe it's a little more core so you can dig in with confidence. Maybe it's more ease and opennes that encourages the same in a performance. Or maybe it's just a little bit more quality, complexity and sophistication in one violin compared to another that makes you go "AH..." 

It can be any combination of all the above and more that make one violin/bow/player combo work better than another. Like with human realtionships, there can be a subtle and hard to predict or define chemistry involved. I have about a dozen violins and bows. I keep most of them active in a rotation system. I've found that certain violins and bows go better together. There are no bad combos, but some are more ideal than others. With all the combos I always feel like a profeesional. With my favorite one, I most readily feel like an artist.

July 2, 2010 at 12:11 PM ·

i think what each pro desires also plays a major factor or two.

for instance, comparing 2 similar great sounding violins, one plays easier, the other one requires more effort.  if a pro is to pick one over the other, for the span of his/her career, how much is that superior playability worth?   i suppose to some it can be a deal maker/breaker and to a few it doesn't matter that much?

or, 2 other similar great sounding violins...with a different tech/approach one violin can sound more astounding, so more effort, better outcome, what price to put on that?

the other thing is that everything is in evolution, including a pro's perpectives and experiences through time, perhaps like collecting antiques or part time hobbies where with time and involvement,  more substantial pieces are desired to satisfy the want.

 

July 2, 2010 at 02:54 PM ·

I see my instrument/bow as my music making partner. A better instrument/bow is the one that'll inspire you, and open up more possibilities for you to grow, which is priceless if you ask me!

Price is merely just a "problem" you need to overcome before you meet your true music partner.

If your partner has a price tag in 8 figures, too bad...

July 2, 2010 at 07:17 PM ·

I wonder if the instrument matters less than its predictability.  Putting even a fantastic instrument in the hands of someone who hasn't ever played on it before five seconds before they are about to go on stage will probably result in a less than ideal performance (even if the performer is the only one who detects it).

Beyond a certain standard -- good quality, nice sound, no wolf notes -- it probably matters more that the musician knows the instrument in question intimately.  Every mechanical device has its quirks, and after years on the same instrument, a good player will know them very well and how to work with them.  But even if you put an instrument with fewer quirks in the hands of a great player, the quirks will still be unfamiliar ones, and the person playing will be more likely to stub their toes on them.

July 2, 2010 at 11:50 PM ·

Elise, I like the idea, as a joke, about listening to Heifetz and say that you don't hear anything after he had told "between the line" that he's the one who made the music more than the violin. 

option 1: everyone laughs

option 2: well...you'd better to run away... and immidiately! ; )

Anne-Marie  

July 3, 2010 at 01:15 AM ·

 Janis Cortese makes a great point in the quote below......we should all keep this in mind.

 

 

'I wonder if the instrument matters less than its predictability.  Putting even a fantastic instrument in the hands of someone who hasn't ever played on it before five seconds before they are about to go on stage will probably result in a less than ideal performance (even if the performer is the only one who detects it).

Beyond a certain standard -- good quality, nice sound, no wolf notes -- it probably matters more that the musician knows the instrument in question intimately.  Every mechanical device has its quirks, and after years on the same instrument, a good player will know them very well and how to work with them.  But even if you put an instrument with fewer quirks in the hands of a great player, the quirks will still be unfamiliar ones, and the person playing will be more likely to stub their toes on them.'

 

 

The above reminds me of a friend who always had cheap diesel cars. For him accelerating or breaking involved pressing the relevent foot pedal as hard as possible and waiting for something to happen...one day he bought a performance car and drove it in the same way...The ensuing effects terrified him and he soon sold the perfectly excellent  car at a loss. 

 

 

July 3, 2010 at 05:49 AM ·

"The above reminds me of a friend who always had cheap diesel cars. For him accelerating or breaking involved pressing the relevent foot pedal as hard as possible and waiting for something to happen...one day he bought a performance car and drove it in the same way...The ensuing effects terrified him and he soon sold the perfectly excellent  car at a loss."

Thats a good morality story!  But of course the new car wasn't 'perfectly excellent' to him.  His idea of 'car ' was a vehicle with a sluggish response. 

I know a cellist who owns a Stradivarius and a more modern Italian - he plays on the latter almost exclusively because the strad 'is harder to get the sound out'.  Perhaps it would suit your friend :)  So maybe the original question (as raised above several times) should be more about  fit and less about expense. 

July 3, 2010 at 07:26 AM ·

A well known cello soloist once told me that he sold his Strad cello because it was unreiable when he changed continents and climates.

I think he bought a Grancino instead.

 

July 3, 2010 at 10:39 AM ·

Understandable: I hear they only realy play well in countries such as Russia that Straddle two continents.....

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