Laurie posted her blog on this subject just as I was finishing this entry! But my words may be of interest to some people anyway.
As a violinist and luthier, I’ve played a lot of nice instruments, even the supreme, top-notch 1715 ex-Joachim Stradivari. As a car enthusiast who’s had his driver’s license over 30 years, I’ve driven some high-performance cars as well, including one with a supercharger and almost 500 horsepower. That doesn’t make me an expert on either subject, but reasonably a person who can share a thought or two.
Recently my wife allowed me to purchase a sport coupe (bear with me please, I do indeed have a point to make). Not a Ferrari or Lamborghini (Strad or Guarneri, if you will), let’s say a Vuillaume, one of the really good ones. I named her Brunnhilde.
Now, Brunnhilde wasn’t new, in fact she is one of the rather rarefied examples of a production auto directly deriving from a concept car, one that was unveiled at the Frankfurt Auto Show in 2003, built in limited numbers. A used car, and an interesting one. Like I said, a Vuillaume. But I digress. The point is that she was not new but broken in. The instructions said in print not to seek the highest performance for the first 1,000 miles from new.
Brunnhilde took up quarters in the garage in late January, and from the start, as it sometimes happens with a new violin, we didn’t get along. She had seduced me with her looks, but sometimes she wouldn’t respond to my commands as I would have liked, other times she’d overreact. I couldn’t figure out the logic to the transmission, and the brakes felt grabby. There was no way I felt comfortable taking Brunnhilde into her stride, our dialogue simply was insufficient. I spoke Martian, and she answered in Venusian.
I eventually realized I wasn’t happy with the power output (the sound, if you will) so I took her back to the shop and got the variable valve timing (the set-up?) revised.
Now, personalized to my tastes, we’re getting to know each other better. I’ve taken Brunnhilde up to her self-imposed top speed (155 MPH) on appropriate roadway and am learning to feel out her reactions on twisty roads, wet and dry. As my confidence grows, the performance that I’m able to safely extract from her increases, and I’m beginning to know how fast I can go and how sharp I can turn. Three months later I’m beginning to understand her character, when to exercise restraint, how much she can give, and what she wants in return. We are starting to work well together, as a team. Just like a violinist and a violin.
I understand of course that a car isn’t a violin. But they are both sophisticated objects that you must interact with to make them work, and the better the interaction, the better the result.
So my question is: if it took me 3 months and some tweaking to begin to get the most out of an automobile, how can a musician be expected to take not one but a DOZEN high-class but unfamiliar violins and make them all perform immediately at their best? For the purpose of first- and third-party evaluation, in the course of a few minutes?
It seems to me that it simply isn’t possible. At most, with such short-term familiarity, a musician can get the instrument to perform well, maybe to 80% of its capabilities, but not take it to its limits, make it really perform. Where perhaps the difference lies - and that is for both Strads and Moderns.
What do you think?
Doesn't it really boil down to personal preference? If you tried 10 sports cars, you might have found one that was closer to your liking and it might require less tweaking. But a different person (i.e. different driver) might pick a completely different car.
The same might apply to finding your soul mate. After one or two dates, you pretty much know if there is chemistry. Many of my friends are married. I could not imagine myself married to their wives, but they are quite happy. In the end, it all boils down to personal preference.
Cars, soul mates, wines, fashion, violins, etc, it's all personal preference. I love my violin, but you might hate it and that's fine with me.
Dimitri, can't an experienced professional race car driver get into an unfamiliar car and find its limits pretty quickly?
That's how I think of soloists. In my experience, most can explore the potential of a violin pretty quickly. No doubt, there are some exceptions.
Aside from the short "can you tell whether the instrument is old or new" segment, the times allotted for the testing were based on questionnaires sent to the soloists prior to the test, asking how much time they thought they would need to do the job. Their average estimate was 50 minutes. Out of that, the researchers scheduled a pair of 1:15 sessions for each soloist.
Weeding out the instruments one doesn't like, or likes the least can usually go very quickly, maybe just a quick scale. That leaves more time to more carefully evaluate the instruments which are the top contenders for that particular soloist.
That said, the premise under which the soloists were operating was that each was looking for a violin to replace his or her own instrument for an upcoming solo tour. They weren't expected to be making an irrevocable lifetime choice, or a purchase decision.
It is all relative- I had a high-performance sports car I could drive pretty well, but an old friend who was a US Navy pilot could drive it much better than I could the first time he tried it. Professional violinists have the ability to figure out how to get the best sounds possible from almost any fiddle quickly. They may benefit after an extended period for nuances and colors, but they have enough control over their technique to run the range pretty quickly on a new instrument. The players I saw named in this test were not handicapped...they were excellent players who knew what they were doing based on years of experience.
It's good to have a light vanilla ice cream between courses to cleanse the palate. What did the testers have between instruments?
to Mr. Christoudoulides: I wasn't saying old instruments are better or worse than new ones, I was just wondering out loud about this blind testing method. (I've answered you privately on the other issue)
to Smiley: The car seduced me with her looks even before driving it..! But how many people would perform on a good sounding violin that looks awful? Not many, judging by the fact that ugly violins (especially new ones) are very hard to sell. And ugly cars aren't best-sellers either.
to Mr. Cook: good point.
to David (and also Mr. Bop): I don't intend to intrude into your field :-) but I believe a race car driver will find out about 80% of a car in the first few laps, and the rest over a period of time. And if you take a Formula 1 driver and put him in the driver's seat of the car that won the last Gran Prix, but set the final drive ratio too low for that particular track and put on different tires, he might not like it at all. I once put 99 octane gasoline in my wife's citycar and it was transformed!
Let me ask you: if during the blind test, the bridge, soundpost, and strings were changed on the violins tested, in your opinion would the testers have chosen differently?
As a side note, it says a lot about the people on this forum that we can discuss a subject like this without becoming apoplectic (unlike other forums). :-)
"Let me ask you: if during the blind test, the bridge, soundpost, and strings were changed on the violins tested, in your opinion would the testers have chosen differently? "
That´s a point usually discussed among some friends, wondering if all the instruments had the right choice of strings and were properly adjusted - for sure that was the case of the modern ones since their own makers were around and involved in the test. And for the Strads, we have to guess that they were provided in their best conditions of adjustment and string choice assuming that anyone or any dealer who owns one keeps it at its best. So,back to the question,in my opinion and considering the reputation of these makers and of those in charge of keeping Strads in great shape, the results would have been very similar. It is hard to imagine that new ones or old ones would have been favored as a whole.
Get ready for Claudia Fritz's next "scientific" study where she uses her patented double blind driving method to prove the Ford Focus is better than any Ferrari!!!
Mr. Belmonte, I didn't mean to have the wrong strings on the instrument, or lousy ones. I assume that all the instruments were correctly set up in accordance with those who play them.
But if Test Violin "A" is owned by someone who likes Passiones and had them fitted, and it is tested by Violinist "A" who hates them because he dislikes their response, then wouldn't that instrument get a lower grade by Violinist "A" on the basis of the strings alone?
(Keep in mind that this is a blind test - you can't see what strings are on the instrument).
My guess is the moderns are mostly strung in Evahs or similar high tension strings for maximum volume, and the Strads much less likely to be strung high tension as they are more fragile antiques, this would give the moderns a volume edge, and as study after study has shown, most people will pick the louder instrument over the better sounding one, Not revealing the type of strings used on the test instruments is one of the least scientific features of this study, and an obvious place where a distinct bias or advantage to the modern instruments could creep in.
Lyndon, "Double Blind Driving"?????
Please warn me when it's in my area and I'll stay off my folding cycle. Or better, use something to shoot a puncture into their tyres.
In all fairness to this study, which I heard of last fall as it was being designed, it was far more exhaustive that has been suggested here.
There were many components to the test, including solo performances unaccompanied, performances with piano and performances with orchestra. There were also audience evaluations. The 30 second blind test if you can call it that, was simply one component whose object was to put to light the idea that people have that you can tell right away if it is a Strad, which basically proved that it is not that obvious. The test was also designed to remedy shortcomings of previous ones, including the quality of the instruments in the pool (including the exclusion of poor ones that might skew the results either way), the venue, the components of the test and the setup of the instruments. All aspects were to try to make it as fair and as complete as possible. I would suggest that people read up on the whole study as it is quite interesting. Of course, it will and cannot satisfy everyone, as nothing ever will in this debate, I think.
Double blind driving is the only way to scientifically compare cars without the inbuilt prejudices involved in seeing them!! It makes about as much sense as playing the violin blindfolded......
"It's good to have a light vanilla ice cream between courses to cleanse the palate. What did the testers have between instruments?"
Oddly enough: the testers had a bowl of light vanilla ice cream between testing each violin!
Mr Musafia, I think that the response of the string and the result it produces in a particular instrument can be different things. In other words, maybe some player may dislike passione strings in his fiddle but just love their sound coming out in certain violin he is testing at that moment, since he cannot see anything and can´t have a previous judgement on what he is going to hear. He could have rated that particular violin lower in terms of playability if the strings didn´t feel right , but not necessarily in sound.
Mr Taylor, I wouldn´t guess old Italians don´t have pirazzi on, I see many with them on like Vengerov´s, Janine Jansen´s, Repin´s, just to name a few. And at the same time, I have seen many modern instruments by great makers given to their owners with other brands apart from Evah P. As I said before, the only thing I think we can guess is that all instruments were presented at their best, according to their owner´s taste.
So one thing that I saw from reading the study is that apparently there was one modern that was pretty much universally the favorite of all the players. (That alone might have skewed a lot of the new-vs-old results.)
What I'm really curious about though is: Who was the maker of that instrument?
Dimitri, about your original question minus bridge/post set-up, I think that decisions on an instrument would certainly change if just strings were changed to different brands on an instrument. Changing the strings is one of many ways that will affect the tug response, color, richness, brightness or darkness, and timbre of an instrument. I would have no doubt in my mind that it could change a judge's perception of an instrument if they were blindfolded, had strings changed and were given the same instrument after strings settling later in a test.
I've had conversations with colleagues regarding the tone of the great old instruments vs great modern instruments. In my experience with a number of sound tests, the tone of great instruments old and new will sound extremely colorful and with great modulation out in the hall, but with great older instruments under the ear would be equally modulable. Great moderns usually will have less of that modulable sound under the ear to the player, but still carry an equal or near equal degree of color and tone out into the hall as the great older instruments. It is a pretty arcane subject and the debate will continue as long as makers and musicians are curious about age of wood and response. It boils down the the response preferences of the performer.
I am a believer in both violins and bows that contemporary work has fresh response in playability and tone, which talented players need under their command. I think that with restoration, the old instruments also are continually freshened and renewed generation after generation, when they are outfitted with new bridges, posts, bass bars, and anything else that would affect the set-up. It gives the old a mix with the new. I can't think of a great old instrument that hasn't been restored or set up that can appeal to a concert performer. For example I think if one put new strings on the nearly untouched Lady Blunt Strad vs any of the Strads that soloists are concertizing on, the concertizing ones would certainly win out.
Just earlier today I spent a very pleasant afternoon attending Mondo Musica New York - a violin-family trade show. I played on a few very good modern violins - sorry that I don't recall the makers' names, but one was Italian, one Polish and one American - 2 Strads and one del Gesu - not a bad way to kill a couple of hours! I also played on some excellent bows by David Samuels and Matt Whehling. On top of that I finally met our own David Burgess in person! (I did not play on him though!)
I am actually not that interested in the question of being able to identify a Strad or not. As a professional violinist, I'm more interested in being able to identify a fine violin or bow, period. I will make a generalization with qualifications about old vs new sound. Often an old violin has a certain mellowness and flexibility that is more salient than many new violins. Most otherwise fine, new, barely played violins that I've tried - and I've tried innumerable ones and own 7 currently - tend to be stiffer in their response. But that was only a generalization. There are 2 exceptions in my own collection, which have a lot of flexibility and openness, and were pretty much like that from the get-go. On the other hand, and I've tried both of the following, the "Molitor" Strad sounds as fresh, brash and brilliant as can be - and a little hard. Ditto, albeit with a much darker color, for the "Kreisler" del Gesu.
I think I have a view somewhat in-between that of David and Dimitry. I fancy myself a rather good test-pilot for trying fiddles and bows. It is indeed, easier to quickly toss aside something that I don't care for, than to feel that I've gotten all I need to know from something that impresses me, and naturally, I will spend more time, if I can, with the latter. Aaron Rosand has said that it can sometimes take years to learn how to get the most out of a great violin. Averaging about 10-15 minutes or so with each of the 2 Strads and the del Gesu at the Florian Leonard booth at Mondo Musica today, with an unfamiliar bow, none of my violins with me for a comparison (-they wouldn't have allowed that-) a lot of din from other people trying other instruments, talking etc., I wasn't going to plumb the subtleties of any violin. Yet, I still felt that I gleaned a lot. They were all different, and I liked different things respectively: the lower strings here, the overall balance there, more or less core in this or that violin. There was an early long-pattern Strad, c. 1690's, the "Stephens". The other Strad and del Gesu were from the 1730's - I forgot their names. The "Stephens" had a dark, luscious quality, and was especially satisfying on the lower strings. The late Strad was more balanced across the board. The del Gesu surprised me. The conventional generalization is that you can dig in more vertically with a del Gesu, but that a Strad needs a more lateral sweep. With these three, I felt that I needed to caress the del Gesu but could dig into those Strads more. I would have preferred a more gutsy core under my ear on each of the 3 E strings, though I wouldn't have been surprised to hear that at a distance all the E's projected. What I got from all of them was lots of color and complexity. And I sure had loads of fun!
Not all the soloists picked the two moderns that did well, 40% of them picked a Strad and the second worst violin was a modern, so does this mean moderns are better than Strads, absolutely not, it was not a fair cross section of modern violins, only instruments by the best makers were included, and only two of them beat the Strads so we can conclude that there are two makers, whos presumably best work can for roughly half the players, sound better than some Strads of unknown provenance and condition, revarnished??? repaired, unknown strings and fittings, etc
Which is in all not saying very much, is it????
Here's one way to clinch the issue.
Let's assume that the basic premises and modus operandi of the test are all correct. Take the same violins with the same set ups and strings, in the same place under the same conditions. Have a different set of violinists (however with the same grade of expertise) test them with the same process and see what they have to say.
If the results are also the same, or even close to the same, we would know more about this issue. Having other people repeat a test and get the same results is a confirmation of validity.
I strongly disagree that the basic premises and the modus operendi are correct. The studies authors set out to prove modern violins are better, they even admit it, I'm sure if they set out to prove old violins are better, the instruments used and the results would be totally different.....
I said "let's assume" just for the purpose of discussion. I'm trying in fact to maintain an equidistant position for the old-new factions, not least because I personally have no vested interest in either.
That said, when two-time Nobel prizewinner Dr. Linus Pauling proved that Vitamin C was good for you, that prompted scores of scientists to go hell-bent to try to prove him wrong so they could become famous too.
Science is not... an exact science, at least when humans are involved.
I'm not aware of any studies that concluded that a listener or a player could reliably distinguish an old named violin from selected modern ones. It can be done though, on the basis of wood, age and art.
Why not accept that? Its not the point anyway, anymore than anyone - even an expert - can distinguish an original painting from a really good copy - without the same kind of technical analysis.
The ownership - and more so the sponsorship - or violinists with classic instruments is as much (or more) a badge of achievement as it is the assignment of a tool. In some cases its true of course that its hard to separate the musician from their 'voice' - the classic Italian instrument. But increasingly it seems that's voice is becoming a modern violin - but still the top ranked musician still has a classic violin in their atelier as their symbol of achievement.
Interesting points, Elise.
One could also add that a classic-period Cremonese violin is a work of art, just like a modern violin of today. A parallel would be a Canaletto (1697-1768) and, say, a Jackson Pollock.
Both are paintings, but can you safely say that ones is better than the other? And more importantly, would anyone care?
"...when two-time Nobel prizewinner Dr. Linus Pauling proved that Vitamin C was good for you..."
Sorry, but I'm under the impression that while Pauling was one of the great scientists, his attempts to prove the various benefits of taking large doses of vitamin C pretty much failed.
Not sure if I've asked this question, but what qualifies as "modern?" Does it mean by definition a violin right off the bench? Has it been played for a month? A year? 10 years? And by whom?
For the purposes of this study what classifies as "modern" is only the very best work by a very select few of the greatest makers today, what classifies as "stradivari" is anything attributed to the maker, in any condition or state of repair that the studies authors could happen to come up with. Hence the conclusion; "moderns" beat "Stradivaris"
Surely you're not implying that the "modern" fiddles, however they are defined, are not the 1-in-a-million ones cherry-picked and probably impossible to find by most people (or if they could they'd have to be on a 5-year waiting list...)?
They didn't randomize the modern violins by simply picking at random from a given professional price range? Say it isn't so...
What I am implying, in any generation from the present to 250 years ago, there were/are a select few rare instruments by top makers that can give Stardivari's a run for their money, but that's always been true, its not a recent development and not due to a magically superior breed called "modern violins". Remember these modern beat Strads tests have been going on for 150 years, with one caveat, few of the old winners are so respected today as when they were brand new.
For instance I'm sure the select best Ruggieri would beat perhaps even most Stradivari's, same for other top makers, even Vuillaume's best would compete, I'm almost sure.
I really feel the idea that the top violins made today are any better than the top violins made 100,200,300 years ago has more to do with the egos of modern makers, than reality. Violin being made today as good as those from the past, I could accept, but better than, no.
Well, I'm glad to read Lyndon's last sentence. As I've indicated a number of times on different threads, I do not esconce myself at either end of the old vs new debate. I love fine instruments and bows, old new and in-between. Indeed, I love instruments period. I'm very happy to have in my collection a lovely Victorian grand piano by Knabe from 1896, and a rare Mandolyra (a lyre-shaped mandolin) from 1912.
I think the point to be made re the current state of making is that in the past several decades there has been a real Renaissance of violin and bow making throughout the world. I don't think that there has ever been a time when somebody here and there wasn't making fine violins. But I think that there were times and places where the pickings for fine instruments were much slimmer - a kind of relative Dark Age. I think that there is more knowledge now, which is more widely shared, hence a very high standard, much more broadly extant. And I have yet to speak to a fine violin or bow maker who has expressed anything less than great admiration for classic masters of the past, or who has claimed that their work is superior to the best efforts of Strad or Tourte.
There has been a lot of speculation on this thread of how it could be that this sounds better than that, or why a Strad could not be picked out easily in a crowd. I've now tried at least 8 or 9 Strads over the years - and no two sound alike. One can speak of a broad family resemblance - but for every rule there are exceptions. What I tried to do in my earlier post is give a sense from personal experience of what it feels like to be a professional violinist, trying out instruments within a limited time frame.
Setting aside issues of dollar or investment value, or status symbols, there are any number of classic and modern instruments that would disappoint - and any number that would thrill. Old or new, on a practical level, it comes down to the individual chemistry between and among instrument, bow and player.
Unbelievable, on another forum Claudia Fritz is now saying this was a study a 6 old and 6 new violins, and that the studies results only apply to those 12 instruments and in no way apply to all old or new violins, or old and new violins in general, DUH.......
Nice post, Raphael.
Tests like this tend to produce strongly polarized reactions and comments, so it's refreshing to see the number of comments in this thread which have avoided that.
This is one in a series of tests, encompassing a variety of methods and conditions, and no single one in the series has been intended to cover every possible variable. The researchers are biting off what they think they can chew at one time, and publishing portions after they have successfully passed peer review. They have been taking mountains of data, much more than has been published so far. More papers are in the works.
I also don't think it's worth getting too excited over the "headlines", or even things which have been extracted from the paper without context. The paper itself is about 20 pages long, and I think that's a much better source of information.
One of the testers picked 5 out of 6 of the old violins vs the new, while that could have been coincidence it seems more likely it was ability, the authors say its just chance, well the selection on tone of 60% modern vs 40% old would be pretty close to chance, just like they were flipping coins, too. Really its much ado about nothing until you think about the effect on the violin market which is mostly older antique violins and their restoration and upkeep, giving a few cocky modern violin makers all the advantages doesn't help anything. The study was not scientifically set up as the study's authors did not set out to "discover which was better, old or new', but rather set out with an agenda, that stradivarius were over-rated and moderns deserved more attention, so we of course get results that favour moderns, because the parameters were set up to give the modern violins some advantage it would seem, by using better examples of moderns than the quality of the examples of old, it would seem to me.
"One of the testers picked 5 out of 6 of the old violins vs the new, while that could have been coincidence it seems more likely it was ability, the authors say its just chance, well the selection on tone of 60% modern vs 40% old would be pretty close to chance, just like they were flipping coins, too."
If so, this would be interesting nevertheless, since it's been a common belief that Strads would readily distinguish themselves.
As to whether or not the researchers started out with an agenda, I will once again recommend reading the actual paper, as opposed to accepting various opinions and spins regarding it.
No one can deny that Claudia Fritz is now a house-hold name, at least in these circles. In the publish-or-perish world of academics it can mean two words: mission accomplished.
...and having also been in academia (actually and not vicariously), I know that quantity is just as highly valued as quality...
EDIT: oops it's been posted in the blog comments
A link to the concurrent blog discussion:
After reading that "concurrent blog discussion", it occurred to me that speed-dating will not guarantee the acquisition of a faithful life-partner.
True, but wouldn't you be able to weed out the obvious non-contenders pretty quickly?
Funny thing about marriage:
I know some people who got married very quickly, and lived happily ever after.
And I know some people who got married after being involved with each other for many many years, and the marriages failed right away.
Another curious thing about marriage:
Second marriages have a much higher failure rate than first, despite this group being older; with more life experience; with prior marital experience; presumably less driven by raging hormones; and often (not always) more cautious, having already been through one bad experience. (I'm involved with counseling people who are going through divorce)
Are you trying to equate soloists playing a Strad with a "bad marriage" and ones playing a Burgess with a "marriage made in heaven????
"Second marriages have a much higher failure rate than first"
Yes, and its due to the teenage children.
I often use analogies, but come on--Porches, divorces--these just aren't coming close for violin comparison.
Anyway, whether it's a spouse or a fiddle, "marry in haste, repent at leisure".
Holy Wedlock can develop into Holy Deadlock...
"Yes, and its due to the teenage children."
That's one theory, but it's also present among couples without children.
However, no fiddle, even one impulse-bought after speed-dating, will hog the remote, stack the dishwasher badly or stay up late on porno websites.
Don't think of these trials as speed-dating but as SPEED-HATING; - as David Burgess suggested, those trials are useful for weeding out the "obvious non-contenders".
"However, no fiddle, even one impulse-bought after speed-dating, will hog the remote, stack the dishwasher badly or stay up late on porno websites."
That's funny! :-)
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April 9, 2014 at 07:17 PM · How about soloists who own Strads or Del Gesus and prefer to perform on their modern instrument? I do realize that soloists in the early 20'th century chose their old Cremonas to perform on in preference to any modern, but times have changed and a lot of soloists now perform on modern instruments.
By the way Mr. Musafia, may I sent my master series violin case back for refurbishment? I bought it the early 90's and it shows some wear.
Good comparison between the one off sports car and the Vuillaume violin. Now I'm personally involved since I keep my Vuillaume Guarneri in a Musafia master series case which needs a visit to the shop.