Stradivari not responsible for the tone???

March 13, 2013 at 07:10 PM · I was listening to Rachel Barton Pine's podcast, and she had luthier Jan van Rooyen on. He said something that got me to thinking. He said that basically we shouldn't be asking Stradivari what his secrets were.......we needed to ask the last guy that worked on one of his violins. All the Strads (and really, all the classic big names) have been modified from their original Baroque setup. I thought it was an interesting question: How much of the way they sound is creditable to Stradivari, and how much belongs to the luthiers that have made the changes through the centuries??

Replies (23)

March 13, 2013 at 11:08 PM · If you reverse-engineered a Strad violin to the condition it was in when it left his work-bench I think you would have a violin that looked and sounded remarkably like a Baroque violin.

Actually, Yo Yo Ma had something very similar done to his Strad cello some years ago when he and Ton Koopman were preparing a CD of Baroque music for cello and Baroque orchestra (Bach cantatas and Boccherini cello concerti in their original form). Permission was given for bridge, sound post, tailpiece and strings to be reverted to early 18th century versions, and for the tail peg to be dispensed with - all easily reversible procedures - but a firm line was drawn at reverting the bass bar, neck angle and fingerboard (all not so easily reversible, and it was a very expensive cello). Yo Yo Ma of course used a Baroque bow for the recording.

The result was a noticeably quieter instrument with a lighter tone. It also showed what had been done to that cello over a couple of centuries or so in order to enable it to sing out the Dvorak concerto above a full orchestra today to an audience of 2000 or more.

March 13, 2013 at 11:13 PM · I've heard many, many Strads, up-close and personal (and played some, too). The fact that their sound qualities are fairly consistent would lead me to believe that Strad should be credited.

March 14, 2013 at 12:20 AM · Good. All we need to do is start making mediocre Baroque violins and then find a genius to convert them into Stradivarius quality romantic violins!

Perhaps Mr. Jan van Rooyen will be first to volunteer?

March 14, 2013 at 01:33 AM · Lyndon, which best-sounding Strads are virtually untouched by repairmen?

The least worn, altered and repaired Strads are probably worth the most money, as with most antiques and collectibles, but it would be a mistake think that this value is tied to their performance qualities. The performance qualities of what is probably the most valuable Strad, the Messiah, are largely unknown.

Most Strads in the performance arena have had hundreds to thousands of hours invested by really talented restorers and adjusters to try to get them to live up to their reputation.

March 14, 2013 at 03:32 AM · Are there any Strads still in their original condition ? I did not think there were.

March 14, 2013 at 09:24 AM · When I used the term 'original', I meant that the instrument had the original unmodified neck built by the man himself.

March 14, 2013 at 09:36 AM · Most people who have never worked in a major shop have no clue how much has actually been done to these instruments over the years.

A "condition report" was available when the Lady Blunt was sold recently. Even though this is considered to be one of the best preserved Strads, and has never suffered the rigors of the concert circuit, the report shows numerous repairs, and the violin has had alterations.

A violin which is in regular use has a much harder life. What is a restorer to do when some of the wood is worn away to the point that if it isn't replaced, more serious and damaging wear will occur? Which is the lesser of two evils?

If all Strads were in museums, restorers wouldn't need to face so many tough decisions like this. They could basically leave them alone. But dang it, people seem to insist on using them, and the condition unquestionably goes downhill with use, so even ultra-conservative restorers face some tough choices.

I worked on one Strad which was little more than a outside veneer of the original wood, the rest having been replaced. And most of the varnish was non-original.

March 14, 2013 at 10:55 AM · I don't play on my Strad very much as it has been known to play wrong notes, especially in BaROCK musak.

March 14, 2013 at 11:05 AM · "I worked on one Strad which was little more than a outside veneer of the original wood, the rest having been replaced. And most of the varnish was non-original."

Violins remember the hand of their maker no matter how much dilution occurs afterward. Just like homeopathic remedies.

March 14, 2013 at 12:10 PM · "Violins remember the hand of their maker no matter how much dilution occurs afterward. Just like homeopathic remedies."

That is, not.

A discussion that includes magic, quackery and pseudoscience is pointless.

The mentioned "remedies" are clearly rejected by almost 2 centuries of scientific research. You use saws and planes to make violins, no magic wand.

March 14, 2013 at 08:11 PM · Really?

You can't tell sarcasm? I've made my point then.

March 14, 2013 at 10:28 PM · Sorry, I didn't notice it was sarcasm. The problem is, you can't spoof the talk of beliefers of quackery, because what they normally say is already nonsense at the max.

(difficult to express in english, I hope you get the point)

March 14, 2013 at 11:35 PM · I agree Tobias but I had to try. I couldn't resist.

The funny thing is you are so used to hearing such nonsense that you took me seriously. Ha ha!

March 15, 2013 at 12:34 AM · I have an idea for a business model. The catch is you need a real Strad, but only for a few minutes.

1. Take the Strad and place it in a violin case. Allow it to rest there for a few seconds to absorb the essential Strad energy. Remove and discard the Strad.

2. Offer, for a large fee, to your clients that they place their violin in the case to absorb some of the Strad energy.

Cheers Carlo

March 15, 2013 at 12:59 AM · Carlo, that business model is already in use but with a twist.

Here is a violin. It has been played by great virtuosi so and so and so and so and so and so. The violin "learns" to play better and better with each iteration.

Now give me $10,000,000.

March 15, 2013 at 03:24 AM · Eric, If one had an ex-Heifitz case that would be a triple whammy. Strad and Guarnieri del Gesu tone, and it would play itself.

Cheers Carlo

March 15, 2013 at 08:14 AM · There's the myth that an instrument adapts the players personality and tone.

There was a story in a guitar mag about a guitar that had the personality and sound of the famous former owner and gradually lost it over a few years in the hands of the new owner. It wasn't meant as a joke.

March 15, 2013 at 10:22 AM · "The same expert repairman who worked on Strads have worked on violins by lesser makers in the same way, and they rarely get the "strad" tone out of those instruments."


How do you know? Do you believe you can pick the Strads out of a lineup of high-value violins by sound, when most violinists and experts can not?

On the remote chance that you could, why would you assume that violins by lesser makers would be worked on in the same way? I've spent tons of time trying get some Strads to sound their best, amounts of time which wouldn't be economically feasible on lower-value violins.

Extreme example: I'm not going to spend $10,000 worth of time trying to get a $500 violin to sound good, because even if it ends up sounding stellar, the money can't be recovered.

March 15, 2013 at 10:43 AM · David - you really must stop talking so much good sense!!

March 16, 2013 at 02:07 PM · Basically I'm with Scott Cole, and perhaps the best part of the Strad is a place the restorers mostly don't touch.

As for the rest, I agree that a long series of great shop attention can have a huge effect on any instrument in one direction . . . or the other, too. If great violins are magical, they're also mechanical, too.

March 17, 2013 at 03:58 PM · I think we might be talking about two different things here. One is the quality, real or perceived, of master Cremonese instruments, and the other is whether extensive work demanded by wear and misfortune places the restorer in the chain.

At one point, I considered doing restorations exclusively and not making new instruments. I chose not to restore, but in the process of fact-finding I saw the work of a few restorers that took my breath away. These restorations often left no trace of the restorer's hand visible except to their most knowledgeable peers. I think that was the way they wanted it, and that invisibility was the goal of their profession.

Not all instruments have had the good fortune to rest on the benches of these unheralded workers, and yet the great instruments continued to sound great. My own two cents' worth in this matter is that the greatest instruments are in the hands of the greatest players, players who can make any instrument sound amazing. The thought that it was the violin and not the violinist famously irked Jascha Heifetz. I'm sure other virtuosi must have felt the same, although Heifetz was the most outspoken about it.

March 17, 2013 at 11:22 PM · A violin makes no sound at all so the violinist is responsible for the tone. I would rather listen to Perlman on a VSO than a beginner on a Strad...

Of course, I would rather listen to Perlman on the Strad but the thread asks if Stradivari is responsible for the tone? or the repairers that came after? The answer, clearly, is "no" to both questions.

Cheers Carlo

March 17, 2013 at 11:36 PM · Theorem: The Strad name is but a thin veneer.

Proof: see David Burgess' comment, above.

QED. ;^)

Hypothesis: The Strad tone is but a thin veneer.

Nobel prize for anyone that proves or disproves.

Here is one possible method of inquiry:

1) Take the violin David mentioned and get famous violinists to play it to a distinguished audience of experts, all the while letting them know it is indeed a Strad. We all know blind tests don't work.

2) Get the experts and players to rate the tone. Is it genuine Strad material (pun intended)?

3) If it gets the nod, repair to the workshop and do further repair on the instrument, carefully copying, removing and replacing the veneer.

4) repeat 1) and 2) and compare the results.

5) If results are the same then the tone may not be due to Stradivarius original materials but only his design!

6) Use the discarded original veneer to make a new Strad for yourself.

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