What's the deal with Strads and Guaneri and Amati...

September 21, 2004 at 06:07 AM · I have heard recordings of violinists at a very young age who do not use these master violins (examples: Sarah Chang used a 1/2 violin that was not a master violin for the making of her first album and a 3/4 for the Tchaivkosky album) I know that Midori used a 3/4 guaneri but i think that the sounds coming from Sarah Chang's violin sounds equal as midori's.

I know countless violinmakers whose violins sound very very good. But they are just not as old. What are your thoughts? Why do "famous" violinists use Strads and Guaneri? I know there is a bit of touching up the tone on some of the smaller violins but i would like to know what you guys think.

Replies (70)

September 21, 2004 at 08:15 PM · I think they use them to show off their wealth as well. "Hey, I'm famous and I've got money..."

:P

One-Sim

September 21, 2004 at 10:19 PM · maybe, but a pro violinist is going to be the most capable adn best sounding instrument he can

September 21, 2004 at 11:40 PM · Greetings,

there are quite afew threads on this in the archives. side form genuine complaints about affordability I do not buy the argument about Guarneris and such being no better than many modern instruments.

Just my personal experience but this has -never-been true and I have tried an awful lot of violins in my time. The best I played on by long way was an Andreas GUarneri that had depths and power I could not believe. I spend seven hours exploring avenues that seemed endless and was veyr hard pressed not to punch out the dealer and run like hell when he asked for it back....

Cheers,

Buri

September 22, 2004 at 10:47 PM · Are we talking about real Strads here or copies? Because I didn't know if even the richest violinists could afford a million dollar violin.

Sara

September 22, 2004 at 10:52 PM · people use strads and guarneris mostly for the prestige, but also because there's history to those instruments.

i also personally think a well-played violin is a happy violin :) so they want to sound better for you after they've been played out by a great musician. but that's my own personal belief and i choose not to scandalize myself by promoting that ludicrous theory.

September 22, 2004 at 11:46 PM · After spending the last 18 months testing and adjusting violins across the entire spectrum of age and price, my humble opinion is that there are definite advantages to a "great" instrument.

In particular, with golden period Strads, the biggest difference that I can put into words is the ability of the violin to take whatever you can dish out. You can ask for more and more sound and place the bow closer to the bridge without any loss of tone quality.

Del Gesus can have a sound that literally growls, barks, sings, or screams when you want it to. You can change color on a dime. On the other hand, they can be much more temperamental. It takes time to get to know one, and I haven't had the chance to really put a del Gesu through its paces for more than a few hours.

Strangely, Buri, my to-die-for instrument at this point is close to yours -- a Joseph Guarneri "filius Andrea" from c. 1700. The most pure sound I've ever heard. I'll never be able to own it, but I did get the chance to perform on it a year ago, and it set a tonal standard in my mind that may never be equaled.

September 23, 2004 at 12:29 AM · Alot of what makes a great violin great has not so much to do with it being able to make a sound which another violin can't make...Rather it's about what you, the player, have to do to get that sound. I once had the opportunity to use a Strad for a couple of months and then play a recital on it. When I heard the tape of the recital it didn't sound like a better violin was playing; it sounded like a better violinist! The great violin allows one to play with more confidence and abandon.

September 23, 2004 at 01:12 AM · Michael, NOTHING is worth dying for. Killing maybe, but not dying.

September 23, 2004 at 07:05 AM · Oliver, you hit on a great point. In the performance that I played on the filius Andrea, I was more relaxed than I'd been in years on a stage. There was a confidence that I just hadn't had before, and I'm sure having the fiddle in my hands had something to do with it.

The converse of your statement is also true, though -- you sound like a better violinist because the instrument is better able to convey your intentions and abilities.

September 23, 2004 at 02:30 PM · Sara, I don't think independantly on their own, violinists can afford to purchase instruments such as Strads, at least not generally. Often times there are private donors who will help an instrumentalist purchase such an instrument, or exceptional players are offered extended loans of their instruments for the duration of their career. In Canada there are a few instruments and bows that the Canada Council for the Arts holds competitions for the use of, and the musicians I think usually win the instrument/bow for 3 year terms.

September 23, 2004 at 05:54 PM · I've heard that some people even give strads to famous violinists but I think I have heard wrong.

September 24, 2004 at 07:32 AM · A Japanese lady gave Vengerov the Strad he now plays on.

Over the course of their career, some violinists get rich enough to purchase their own violin (Perlman and the 'Soil' Strad for example).

Carl.

September 24, 2004 at 07:50 AM · there are quite a few societies that lend violins to promising violinists, chris coritsidis got a guarnerius i think, (you there chris??). my teacher eventually took out a loan to purchase a gagliano and gave the strad back to the society

September 24, 2004 at 09:21 AM · Greetings,

Carl, Carl, where is she? Can the old Buri magic work for a second time,

Cheers,

Buri

September 24, 2004 at 09:52 AM · Greetings,

Michael, I chanced upon some writing of Primrose today in which he said he played on an "andrea' and that there were only four of them made. That was the sum total from the whole mainstream Guarneri clan . IKncidentally, after the Guarneri I use d a most beautiful Capicchioni (1934 I think) It was so dull in comparison.;(

Cheers,

buri

September 25, 2004 at 03:15 AM · Stradivari's and Guarneri's are analogous to cars.

A Vintage 20's Caddie with a V-16 engine in minto condition is going to cots waaaaaay more than a brand new Toyota Camry that has the new safety features and global positioning, leather, etc...

Simply put, these violins are classics, being the first to set the stage.

There is a lot of prestige to them.

And as someone said previously, they have been vibrated many times, to fix the would just right.

However, new instruments, built by a competant luthier following proper form, can make an instrument tantamount to a Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati, or Stainer.

As a matter of fact, when Stainer comes into play, he brings up a very important issue to the table, that once upon a time, Stradivari's were not considered to be the best, but those of Jacob Stainer of Absam were.

For that matter, there have been many Strad's and Guarneri's laying around not played for years, and they have no practical value; rather, they are museum pieces.

Sure, Guarneri, Stradivari, Stainer (don't forget him), and the Amati family (although Henley only regarded Niccolo's work as something to invest in) did produce great violins. But we really need to judge each instrument on a case-by-case basis. Vuillaume himself, the builder of the Messiah (falsely attributed to Stradivari) build some pretty lousy instruments that a good modern German shop violin (1-3k) could easily beat.

There is this false atmosphere associated with the instruments, set by the dealer's price and the buyers need to believe. (Hey, no one would blow that much money and then admit to such a mistake).

In fact, the will to believe keeps much nonsense alive nowadays.

And don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with belief. If we didn't believe in a little "magic", so to speak, our lives would be a lot more dull.

But there is a difference between a little wonder for fun, and being totally oblivious to a rip-off.

September 25, 2004 at 02:38 PM · Max,

When it comes to the price of an instrument, the has quite literally nothing to do with it. The instrument's value is created almost solely by the historical importance of the maker, as well as the condition of the individual instrument. Very much, as you said, like classic cars.

But the fact is, the classical Cremonese makers were popular for a reason. The reason is becuase they made instruments that created a different sound that musicians began to crave, long before the price of a violin was prohibitively expensive.

You do bring up a good point -- in Strad's lifetime, Jacob Stainer was the more imitated maker in most parts of Europe. This has to do with a (slightly wonky) theory that I have about the instrument itself and the changing tastes of the music world:

In the 18th century, the most sought-after and valuable instruments were by 16th- and early 17th-century makers -- Maggini, da Salo, Andrea Amati, and slightly later, Stainer.

In the 19th, musicians began to crave the sound of early 17th to 18th-century makers: Niccolo Amati, Stradivari, Guarneri, and others such Gofriller and Tononi.

This suggests a 100-150 year cycle for the most sought-after instruments. My personal (and as I said, completely unscientific) feeling is that the instruments finally reach their peak of quality at about this point. There are other factors -- the sizes of the halls and orchestras, the changing musical tastes -- but the instruments have to be getting better with age or the public woudn't want them.

The funny thing is, now in the 21st century, I see this being borne out again. The violins that are currently "all the rage", that over and over again people ask me if we have any in stock -- they're from the mid to late 19th century. Pressenda, Rocca, Vuillaume -- many, many players are looking for these instruments. There is a certain amount of lemmingism to it -- they hear a Rocca that sounds amazing and they want one just like it. But there's also got to be a _reason_ that it sounds amazing.

Regarding comtemporary makers -- there are many players who have a great modern instrument and are very happy with it. I'm one of them. But so far, anyway, I have yet to be wrong when doing a blind taste-test with a modern violin against a Cremonese one. There is a difference.

But stock up on them now while you can. Because in 100 years, I wouldn't be surprised to see Greiner, Hargrave, Zygmuntovich and many others take their place alongside Stainer, Lupot, and Stradivari.

September 25, 2004 at 08:06 PM · What about this $4 Million Dollar violin Bell purchased! I know you can't judge by a recording , but i don't hear nothing different in his sound. For his sake I hope he hears a 4 million dollar sound under his ear when he is playing in my opinion an over rated instrument. Bottom line to each is own.

September 25, 2004 at 09:08 PM · Well, you have to remember he was playing on a 3 million dollar instrument (the "Tom Taylor") before he bought the ex-"Huberman". Comparing Strad to Strad, there shouldn't be that much difference. And at any rate, with the "Huberman", what you're buying is the story -- the theft from Carnegie Hall, the gig player confessing on his deathbed, the dramatic return to Rene's shop and all.

Not to mention that I've never thought Josh pulls a particularly great sound to begin with. Whenever I've heard him live, it just seems a little thin.

September 25, 2004 at 09:12 PM · I just listened to a couple of recordings by Huberman recorded in 1923. I guess this is the violin Bell is using now!

September 25, 2004 at 10:24 PM · Greetings,

Michael, for me you are making the key point. The Strads and Guarneris of tomorrow are the istruments dating from the beginning of the lst century.

The ones of the day after tomorrow are the geat makers of today.

At this time there simply won"t be any more Strads and Guarnerui's to worry about. But then, that"s not my problem...

Cheers,

Buri

September 26, 2004 at 01:35 AM · I've concluded that, in the music business, where there are very few objective signs of success, that the dollar value of the instrument one plays on seems to be a big deal. The more expensive and saught-after the instrument, the (obviously?) more of a success one is. Or so musicians seem to think.

September 26, 2004 at 02:13 AM · Why, oh why do people ask the question if they don't note nor respond to the answer? Strads and Co. are NOT merely a status symbol for reasons which have all been stated, and for several which haven't.

1) They genuinely sound different, to the expert ear.

2) They genuinely make the professional's life a whole lot easier. Even though many professionals can sometimes produce a comparable sound on an infinitely cheaper instrument, the "pedigreed" instruments allow him/her to make HIS/HER sound with MUCH less effort or risk of scratching, etc.

3) They are pieces of living history and as such, are valuable not only as tools, AND as works of art, but also as handmade, multi-century old antiques.

4) A violinist's prestige has little to do with the instrument he/she plays. However, the availability of a top-notch instrument usually does depend on the violinist's prestige (and, consequently, the violinist's earning power). In other words, you are not automatically more respected as a performer BECAUSE you play on a Strad. You have a Strad upon which to play BECAUSE someone, somewhere respects you enough to loan you one. Or because you have so many well-paid concerts, by virtue of being so well known and respected, that you can afford one.

5) Because an amateur can't make a Strad sound like Perlman but instead sounds much the same on the Strad as on his/her cheaper instrument does NOT mean the Strad is the equivalent of their cheaper instrument. The question is not why an amateur should pay millions for a Strad; those reasons have the most to do with amateurs who are also collectors of, in this case, fine, antique art. The reason why the Perlmans and Bells and Spivakovs of the world pay millions for their instruments is that their instruments are the finest equipment which they need in order to produce their finest performance. Certainly, Spivakov or Perlman, Bell or Hahn could sound extraordinary and magical on even a factory fiddle. But the real questions you must ask yourself are a) would the factory fiddle enable them to produce their absolute best performance? And b) would a factory instrument enable them to allow such a performance to be favorably compared to their peers' performances (Perlman vs. Spivakov, sort of thing) when those peers are not hampered by an inferior instrument?

September 26, 2004 at 02:09 AM · Greetings,

KG, I beg to differ. I have almost invariably found one of the defining characteristics of a great usician is their lack of interest in success, at least as it is conventionally defined. It is entirely epiphenominal. They are only concerned with haivng the bets posisble tools to work with, and yes, they do no the difference between a good tool and a great one,

Cheers,

Buri

September 26, 2004 at 02:13 AM · Greetings,

and for heavan"s sake read Emils comments above. he slipped in ahead of me by about one tenth of a second, but that is pretty much what it is about. Much of the argumentr presented here is non illuminating for the simple reason that top professionals spend years searching for, saving moeny for that elusive S,G or A. They can"t all be stupid or tone deaf....

, Cheers,

Buri

September 26, 2004 at 03:10 AM · Sorry guys, but I just don't agree. I'm not saying these instruments sound worse or no better than other instruments...just that they are undoubtedly a status symbol for most of the people who play them. Other people have beach houses on Nantucket.

September 26, 2004 at 03:30 AM · Greetings,

Sorry, but I have rarely met players who boast about their insturments which would be an obvious indicator of their real pupose.

I played in a quartet with a Menuhin Protege who was given a Del Gesu. After concerts and such people would ask him about his 'glorious' violin and he would mumble somehting about 'just another old Italian, nothing special.'

Fortunately, the top player s are not going to be too worried by all this. They will caryy on using the best violins and er, carry on being the best players. Of course, I only buy their recordings as status symbols ;)

Cheers,

Buri

September 26, 2004 at 04:49 AM · Buri: We seem to have met different people. You've been luckier than I.

September 26, 2004 at 05:38 AM · I have to agree with Buri on this one. There are people in this business, like any other, who will always want to compare equipment. "Oh, that's only a Simonazzi that you have? Well, I think you'd probably like my Pressenda better", and so forth...

But in my experience in the professional world, the people who tend to boast or brag about their instruments are generally the ones whose playing makes me wonder how they got their hands on it. These are the same people who will buy a Mustang at 44 to make themselves feel younger.

When it comes to the great performers and the great instruments that they have access to, by and large they tend not to advertise it. That is, of course, unless the sponsor that's loaning to them requires it...

And Emil, would you mind if I copied your response and pasted it onto my wall for the many times that people have asked me these questions? You put the answer far better than I ever could.

September 26, 2004 at 06:26 AM · While I agree to a large extent with Buri, I care far more about the music the player makes. Hahn uses a Vuilliaume (not sure if that's how it's spelt...) and I would rather listen to her play the Mendelssohn concerto than Sarah Chang, who uses a del Gesu. For anyone other than the very best soloists, a Strad or del Gesu seems to be a fantastic waste of money,

And really, to pay a figure that sometimes amounts to millions for what would sometimes constitute an almost imperceptible (to the average listener) difference in sound (from for example, a good $20,000 violin) seems misguided.

Carl.

September 26, 2004 at 07:49 AM · Greetings,

KG you do seem to have been unlucky.

Carl, I think we have this converstaion about once every two years. I agree with you about the price differential. But that is not quite the same thing as the qualities found in these instruments that make them so special.

Perhaps i have been mislead by those box sets by Oliviera, Ricci, Accardo et al entitled variously 'The Glory of Cremona," 'Cremona rocks.' etc.

I shall be producing a new CD set based on my Skylark collection which I have named after the label inside my first ever instrument:

NADE IN KWANGCHOW.

I predict it will oust Emil"s new CD from the number one spot within minutes. Until he records 'twenty best loved concertos for drinking beer to,' on a Suzuki student model that is,

Cheers,

Buri

September 26, 2004 at 09:58 AM · Speaking on violins,

Eminl - what do (did) you use on the Three violinists album?

I have finally heard it :)

September 26, 2004 at 02:20 PM · My opinion is this. The great violinist buy these expensive instruments for their own personal beliefs and likings. Most likely the Strads and other fine violins do project a bigger sound in a large hall, which the professional violinist needs. But the average listner can not tell the difference in sound or tone. I 'd like to thank Ruggiero Ricci for recording the Glory of Cremona. Can anyone honestly say there is a big difference in sound or tone out of the 15 violins Ricci is playing. If so a very very little. The only thing I hear when listening to these recordings is Ricci's personal sound!. That's why I say it is a personal thing when a Great violinist buys an expensive instrument. Now personal can mean different things, but that's another subject.

September 26, 2004 at 02:26 PM · Rick: you may never know just how much harder Ricci had to work to get HIS sound from a different fiddle. That's not his job - to make his effort visible. But it is certainly in his interests to find an instrument which complies with his demands with the least risk or effort required. And that's precisely why we so covet the "big" fiddles, for reasons not at all subjective. I'm sure Ricci and any other professional performer can tell you EXACTLY what they have to do differently when playing on an inferior instrument. For my part, the easiest off-the-top-of-my-head point is that while some del Gesus I've played have a sounding point that feels miles wide and off of which it's practically impossible to swerve, my fiddle has a sounding point - and therefore a margin of right hand error - of less than one centimeter.

K.G: it's often said that everyone is entitled to their opinion. But the truth is that what you're stating is not opinion but blind faith. I've offered some evidence, as have Buri and Michael, which supports our opinions. You have just repeated your article of faith. Upon what do you base this belief, that the pros use instruments for status? After all, a Nantucket beach house says something of someone's earning power, costing what it does, while a "big" fiddle says absolutely nothing either about someone's wealth (the instrument might be loaned), or playing ability (someone might have found a gullible sponsor or may play awfully but be loaded).

Michael: of COURSE you can use my little diatribe as you see fit. Now, as to the issue of royalties... ;-)

Carl: but once again you're arguing against a straw man. We're not talking about a miniscule difference in sound that the casual listener perceives making a Strad worth millions more than a "small" fiddle. We're talking about the notable difference in sound that an expert ear perceives. And, more importantly, we're talking about the enormous difference in the instrument's "user-friendliness" which the player him/herself perceives.

Mattias: on the Three Violinists CD I was using Isaac Stern's Vuillaume. I was still using it for most of the pieces I recorded on my next CD, "So, What Have You Done Lately?". By the time I recorded the Saint-Saens and Bruch concerti, I was back to using my fiddle. And, of course, the new CD (due out in October) was recorded on my own CD. So I guess the naysayers can get all four recordings (!) and listen and compare. For what it's worth, Stern's Vuillaume made recording MUCH easier. There were any number of otherwise wonderful takes in China which suffered from a slightly less resonant note here or a slightly more fuzzy sound there and thus required an extra edit or two. Whereas the Vuillaume only required that I try to play in tune; it pretty much took care of tonal palette and of complying with my musical imagination's demands without my having to do much about it.

September 26, 2004 at 04:43 PM · No I don't know how much harder Ricci had to work with the different fiddles. I did hear from a very good source that Ricci is known for his one take recordings, that's why on some of his recordings he sounds a little ruff at times. If he did use this approach on the Cremona album he sure didn't put alot of effort in it to get out his sound.

September 26, 2004 at 05:39 PM · Luckily for Hilary Hahn, Vuillaume is also one of the top builders. The main reason why his violins sell for over 100,000 rather than over 1 million like with Strad and del Gesu is because they're French! At least that's what my teacher says. Apparently, Vuillaumes and Lupots are called "poor man's Strads" because they're very close to Strads in quality and sound but for some reason have about a 900,000 dollar difference. So I believe that your argument doesn't really work Carl, because Vuillaumes are also beautiful instruments. And hey, I would rather listen to Heifetz than Sarah Chang and they both use Guarneris! So it's not really about the violin they play. Hilary Hahn also has a great violin and we don't really know if Sarah's is better, but even if it is, and you like Hilary Hahn more, that's totally reasonable because both of their instruments are probably more or less on the same level and then of course it's about opinion on the player.

September 26, 2004 at 10:12 PM · Emil, I wonder what you mean by "once again."

For me, the difference really is not worth $980,000, no matter whether the expert ear can hear it or not. It's funny that you say it makes the job for the player so much easier - I've heard that old Strads (and particularly Guarneris) can be extremely temperamental.

No matter how much easier it is for the player to make the sound they want, some very famous soloists will use Strads and create only one tone colour, and a not very interesting one at that. Others can use modern instruments (with none of the fame or reputation of Strads) and frankly make a much better sound. It depends far more on the player than the instrument (as Perlman said in The Art of Violin).

Carl.

September 26, 2004 at 10:16 PM · You go straight to the points as always, Emil. Give me a call about the royalty checks...

I offer up this anecdote: At Machold, part of my job is to help Julie adjust the instruments. When I first started there, when she would ask me what's wrong with a particular fiddle, say, a Vuillaume, I'd say, "Nothing! It sounds great." Then I'd pick up the next one, and say, "It sounds great!" and so on.

You see where this is going. It took me almost 3 months to really develop the critical ear to accurately tell her what the violin needed in terms of adjustment. Now, almost two years in, I can pick up a fiddle and not only tell her what's wrong, but also tell her exactly what's changed since the last time I played it.

Even for professional players, it takes time to get used to hearing a new instrument. Especially in recordings, you can't expect to hear a dramatic difference in the instrument because there are so many other factors: production quality, the engineer's choice of balance, the placement of microphones -- the list goes on. You can tell when it's live and when it's Memorex. (Did I just date myself?)

The real point I wanted to make, however, is this: Learn to bring the most out of the violin you have. This whole thread seems to boil down to who's got the best equipment, when knowing how to use it is really the crux of the matter.

I own a 1927 Amedeo Simonazzi violin. Every time I give it to someone to try, they give me the same response: that's it's loud and has what I lovingly call the "sledgehammer effect" -- it pounds you over the head with its sound and changes color only with a Herculean effort. The next thing they say is to ask me how I play with it, because loud and monochromatic is not my sound (most days, anyway).

The answer, of course, is that I've had 13 years to learn every strength and weakness of the violin, and to understand how to pull the sound I want out of it, to the best of its ability and mine. Too many people I know constantly think that if they just get a better instrument, they'll be a better player. I think it really goes that if you work to discover the qualities of the instrument you have, you'll become a better player by doing it.

September 26, 2004 at 10:51 PM · Yes, it depends far more on the player than the instrument, but one obviously wants the best instrument they can get especially if money isn't the issue. And how you said that a better player with a cheaper instrument can sound better than a worse player with a better instrument... well what if the good player had the good instrument? He would sound even BETTER. That's just how it is. And I didn't say the difference of quality between a Vuillaume and a Strad is $900,000. They just cost that much because Stradivarius became a household name and everyone knows it and they have more of a reputation. Having a violin of that stature really makes it easier to play, not necessarily in the sense that it's actually more playable than another violin, but also because they reaction is so sensitive, so you can just make more levels of sounds easier. It's almost like they play themselves compared to cheaper instruments. Just face it, they're way better instruments and they're played by people who can get their hands on one for that reason.

September 27, 2004 at 06:45 AM · I think you misunderstood me. I didn't mean to imply that the difference between a Strad a Vuilliaume was worth $900,000 - I meant to say, is the reputation worth paying that much for?

Of course, they are better instruments, and if you've got the money and the career, buy one. But I think they're over priced just in terms of sound quality.

Carl.

September 27, 2004 at 11:25 AM · Remember, Strads and Guarneri’s were once brand new instruments:

With regard to a violin dealer’s perspective, the most telling actions that a prospective violin buyer exhibits is that he/she looks over the violin and then proceeds to look into the sound f holes and try to make out the writing on the label.

The violin dealer knows immediately that prestige is a deciding factor in that customer’s violin selection and then the contest begins. Used car salesmen know the psychology.

The prices then begin about 20-50% higher to boost the violin dealer’s bargaining position.

As for me, I usually don’t say much and play away for about 30 minutes. Then I quote a lower than expected beginning price and say that maybe I’ll return in a few weeks.

Ted Kruzich

September 27, 2004 at 11:47 PM · Greetings,

Ted, when I look in the sound hole I am checking for old prune stones. That is a sure sign of a discerning previous owner,

Cheers,

buri

September 27, 2004 at 11:56 PM · lol

September 29, 2004 at 04:19 AM · Good one. Carl, I don't think it's worth that much money also. I don't know if anyone really thinks that. But, that's life and they're the best instruments out there so one can charge as much as they want.

September 29, 2004 at 10:47 PM · Who was the Japanese lady? I think I might befriend her...

October 2, 2004 at 05:15 PM · I was a little disappointed to hear once again that the "Messiah" is a Vuillaume and not a Stradivari. I thought this issue had been put to rest.

Most of the appraisers and experts I have spoken with attribute this violin to Stradivari. Many have taken this position publicly, as in the debate at one of the Violin Society of America conventions which I think included Charles Beare and Robert Bein.

While it may be difficult to make the visual connection between the new looking "Messiah" and the grossly worn and repaired Stradivaris that most people have access to, I see even less similarity to any Vuillaume I have ever seen.

Further, dendrochronological evidence (the science of dating wood from the spacing between the rings) has been unable to rule out that the wood used came from the time of Stradivari.

If any of you are curious about the appearance of the "Messiah", I have some pictures of it on my web site at burgessviolins.com

Regarding the superiority of Stradivaris etc., I've had some fun with this. A number of times, I've asked pretty competent musicians to try Stradivaris which happened to sound particularly bad. (Dare I say that?) If I didn't tell them what they were playing, they all had a negative opinion. If I told them it was a Stradivari or they looked at the label, the judgment was quite the opposite. Nobody likes to look stupid, right? Few people have the courage to say that a bad sounding Strad sounds bad. Faced with this icon, they just adjust their opinion. Of course, there are some Strads that are great concert instruments, but this is by no means true across the board. They're all over the map.

Another thing that might be worth noting: I have talked to professionals who own both some old big-name instrument and some modern instrument, who prefer the modern instrument, but most often using the old one in performance. Why? Reasons like, "My audience expects me to perform on a famous instrument" or "The instrument is furnished for my used by an individual (or foundation) and I feel obligated to use it."

I remember David Soyer coming into the shop where I was working at the time, going through a bunch of Suzuki cellos and picking out the one he thought sounded best. Why? He said he was going to perform with it. Frequently after performances, people would come up and ask what he was playing on, and he wanted to able to tell them, "A Suzuki", and be able to prove it by showing them the cello. I guess he was a little bored, and tired of all the B.S. surrounding old instruments. Or maybe he wanted to be able to take complete credit for the sounds produced and not have to share it with some dead maker. : )

October 2, 2004 at 10:59 PM · the greatness is in a player's hands more than their instrument but it must be admitted there are different tiers to instrument quality.

speaking of tiers, i shed many of them when i hear a bad player with a del gesu or strad knowing that great players often do without.

October 2, 2004 at 11:34 PM · It's good (and refreshing) to see someone with real expertise take a stand on this board about the "Messiah".

Personally I've always thought the dendrochronology was a red herring -- if Vuillaume was going to make an instrument to deceive, he was a smart man; he could very well have used old wood.

But looking at the Vuillaumes I've seen and the Stradivaris, there are parts of the "Messiah" that don't match up with any Vuillaume I've ever seen. Vuillaume was a great maker, but he was a little obsessive about the details; for lack of a better word, he was too French about it. That's not to say Strad was careless; he was as meticulous a maker as anyone. But there is a spontaneity to the "Messiah" that Vuillaume lacks, an attention to overall form that is stereotypically Italian in its quality. And yes, it does look new. But many violins would look that way if they weren't continually reused, repaired, retouched, restored, regraduated, and any other "re's" you can think of.

You're also right to bring up that not every Strad sounds like the millions it's worth. People forget that there's 600-odd violins floating around by Stradivari, but we continually hear only the 150 or so that are the most famous. The rest are not nearly as famous, many for the simple reason that they don't have the same level of sound.

It comes back to a simple concept: Does the violin have the sound that you want? For a musician, that is the only real question. Its pedigree, price tag, and all other factors are secondary. There's nothing wrong with buying an instrument mainly for its pedigree, but you have to realize at that point you're buying as a collector, not a performer.

October 5, 2004 at 11:41 AM · Michael;

I'm not a big fan of dendrochronology either. I only brought it up because of the considerable publicity generated when Stuart Pollens of the New York Metropolitan Museum claimed, partly based on these studies, that the Messiah was a fake. Since then, other studies have dated the wood to the proper period, or been inconclusive. To me, the Messiah looks like a Strad and looks a lot like other Strads I have seen with minimal wear.

One question I think has never been satisfactorily answered: If not Strad, then who? I'm quite comfortable saying it's not a Vuillaume.

October 5, 2004 at 12:06 PM · yes...

November 13, 2004 at 02:53 AM · Having tried a couple of Strads, a del Gesu, and many other violins, I personally believe that the difference can be picked up by the player with an expert ear.

The main difference is how Strads and Guarneris sound not under your ear (although you can hear a different type of resonance), but how they sound in an actual hall. The sound usually carries in a different way.

The player does make a huge difference. No great fiddle will sound great when played by an average player. But when well played, the sound of a Strad or del Gesu will simply carry more, or rather differently in a large hall. Much more of the player's intentions will be communicated.

Now this said, there are a lot of great violins that are not Strads, del Gesu, there are a lot of bad Strads, and there are also many great modern violins. But, in my very humble opinion, it is not a matter of price, or prestige but there is really a significant difference between a great Strad or del Gesu and most other violins.

November 13, 2004 at 05:08 AM · My two cents: We must never forget that what is considered to be the greatest violin made (and most expensive!), le Messie, was built by Vuillaume.

They justify this by throwing out propaganda that Stradivari was the maker (when he was not). The violin dealers can really be snake oil salesmen, if you don't watch out.

P.S.- So, Emil, you were the lucky gentleman at the Tarisio auction who came across the ex-Panette copy by Vuillaume. Wow! :)

November 13, 2004 at 05:50 PM · there is tremendous controversy about that but i still think it is in fact a stradivarius.

November 13, 2004 at 05:52 PM · Owen, what evidence do you believe would suggest that it is indeed a Strad?

November 13, 2004 at 06:48 PM · Max,

You might take a quick look at the earlier posts between myself and David Burgess on this thread.

November 13, 2004 at 08:05 PM · anytime a professional calls it a fake, it gets a lot of attention so people seem to get the mistaken view that the majority of experts think it is a vuillaume, which is untrue.

November 14, 2004 at 12:20 AM · Max, at this point I think it's definitely YOUR job to come up with the evidence, since virtually no one with any authority on the matter agrees with you, nor is there any evidence for your side that I'm aware of.

November 14, 2004 at 10:40 AM · makes for interesting reading: http://web.utk.edu/~grissino/downloads/jas2004.pdf

November 14, 2004 at 08:47 PM · Off the top of my head, Mr. Darnton, here is what I recall:

1.) The markings on the pegbox are not in accord with the time frame.

2.) The varnish is more in line with that of J.B. Vuillaume then with Stradivari

Now, Vuillaume was an experimental luthier with a great deal of time, money, resources, and patience to build violins.

It would only seem logical with his wide range of experimentations that he would eventually build his masterwork.

Now, I know myself, if I were in Vuillaume's position I would have loved to do nothing more than to build a violin that even the "experts" cannot discern from the authentic. It would be amusing to see the violin trade after doing this, everyone completely unknown to the truth. Which is why I think Vuillaume did this. But that is only one reason. Another would be that he genuinely wanted one masterwork as his own, the finest of the fine, built by him for him. And there is nothing wrong with it.

I think it is safe to say that everyone in here, or most people, are aware of the violin trade, how deceitful it can be, and how prices are fixed by the majour players. They simply at this time cannot admit that they permitted a violin that was not a Stradivari or Del Gesu to fetch a value of over twenty million dollars! They whole trade would go bankrupt, authenticities would be doubted, and violins would for the most part drop down to the reasonable price range.

Granted, Mr. Darnton, that the rest is theory, my numbered points serve as evidence, and the theory will remain a strong possibility until you can give exact dating of the varnish, and the label as well.

Regards,

Max

November 14, 2004 at 10:05 PM · Max,

I would agree that Vuillaume was the kind of person who would probably try to create a master copy. But the fact remains that if you look at the whole body of work by Vuillaume -- take all the greatest Strad models that he made -- is there any single one of them that looks like the "Messiah"? No. Vuillaume's method of purfling was too meticulous, his arching is flatter and doesn't recurve at the same point on the edge, and his varnish is much less supple, to name just a few differences.

And the prices for violins are not set by the dealers, they're set by the market. If all the dealers in the world were to come together and decide that a Nicolo Gagliano would now be $500,000, no one would buy one, and they'd be forced to bring the price down. The market is responsible for prices rising; it's a simple equation. More players + a limited number of old instruments = higher prices over time. I would say there are dealers in the industry who try to take advantage of the situation by raising prices perhaps faster than they should be, but they are in the minority. It's a good thing, too -- if the prices go up too high and too quickly, the customer base decreases and it becomes infinitely harder to sell the instrument. Therefore, it's in the dealers' interest as well as the players' to keep the prices to a reasonable rate of increase.

November 14, 2004 at 10:39 PM · Max, most experts would say that the violin is Stradivari in all respects, but would be happy to agree that since Vuillaume was trying to copy Stradivari, and not the other way around, that Vuillaumes (as do all French Strad copies of the period) tend to look a lot like Strads in some respects. The varnish is completely Strad, as are a number of other details that Vuillaume didn't ever copy.

What marks on the pegbox do you mean? If you mean the letters inside, that's a real red herring, since not all Strads appear to have had them (and, in fact, many Strads have original heads from other periods, which implies that neck production was a completely different operation not kept in time with bodies), and if, as some claim, the ones that appear there were added recently, are you implying that when they were added (if the even were) at that point it ceased to be a Strad? Real experts would never reach a conclusion based on one or two points (because makers, for some reason, don't like to follow the rules we invent for them hundreds of years later) but on an overall assessment of the whole violin.

November 14, 2004 at 10:46 PM · Good evening,

Okay, I do understand your line of reasoning as to the authenticity. After reading your remarks, I would have to agree with you that it is likely a Stradivari.

However, I do believe that in many cases it has been the dealers setting the price, and not the market. Mr. Darnton, I have heard great things about your work, and there is no doubt that you are a reputable dealer. However, there have been many cases (as I am sure you are aware) of dealers taking in instruments, and "slightly" raising the price several thousands -or millions in one case- of dollars. This way, you weed out the lower end buyers.

Still, will no one buy if it is done so subtle? Certainly, there will always be buyers, especially with an instrument so romanticized and fantasized about.

It is a simple sales technique, called leading the seller. Car salesmen constantly partake in this activity.

Not to discredit the reputation of Antonio Stradivari, clearly one of the greatest makers ever, but the dealers inflate their prices.

And this is not necessarily unfair, in most cases, as fair market value is the price set between a willing buyer and a wililng seller, non compus mentis.

November 15, 2004 at 06:24 AM · I will add my two cents about the issue of who sets the prices. My feeling is that it is pretty much the dealers, though I don’t think they make a practice of directly colluding (that said, I would bet it has happened on occasion) . I do think the business is extremely incestuous and that these people talk with each other enough that they all pretty much know the market and what has sold for what.

As for market forces keeping prices in line – that line of thinking is not so applicable to the violin market because the market is not efficient. None of the conditions for market efficiency apply. First off, information is virtually non-existent. One does not know what a particular instrument has sold for in the past (or even what similar instruments have sold for) or what other instruments by the same maker are selling for today(the latter can only be obtained at some cost and an investment in time). These pieces of information are normal in any well-functioning market. So, if someone hands you an Enrico Ceruti violin, say, and tells you that the price is $195K, how would one know if that is a reasonable price? The answer is that, unless one has devoted some time to studying this question, he wouldn’t have the slightest idea that whether it is out of line. Secondly, the typical buyer does not know enough to be able to judge the condition of an instrument or even to be sure of its authenticity. This problem doesn’t exist if one is going to buy stock, or houses, or new cars. It creates the potential for very costly mistakes. Lastly, the violin market is completely illiquid. There simply are not enough transactions to drive any price to an equilibrium level. This is a major issue for sellers, who may find, to their horror, that a perfectly good instrument can take years to sell, but also for buyers, who cannot rely on the price to reflect the valuation of a well functioning market.

The example posed about of the $500k Gagliano is interesting. It seems out of line to anyone who knows much about the prices of violins. However, there are people to whom such information is unknown and they might not realize it is out of line. I have personally experienced attenuated versions of this example, such as the Ludovico Rastelli violin offered by one dealer for $110k (later sold for $52K) or the $195k Enrico Ceruti ($75k higher than any example I have ever seen – apparently without reason) mentioned above. In my opinion, these prices were about double a reasonable level.

Dealers also sometimes tailor their prices to their buyers. A reasonably wealthy acquaintance of mine told me that one dealer offered him a Ruggeri for $250k. The dealer knew perfectly well that he was well off and could easily afford it. He didn’t buy – not because of the price, but because he didn’t want to buy anything. The dealer then sold the instrument to a player in the local Symphony for $175k. We can safely assume that the dealer did not take a loss on this.

My point is that any belief that “you get what you pay for” in the violin business has the potential to be very costly. The conditions that cause this to be true do not hold. To view this another way, the typical person would be horrified to learn that he had overpaid by even 10% on his house. In the violin market, it is easy to overpay by many times this amount.

You can bet that any dealer will be much more versed than any buyer in what is going on in the market and they will set their prices at the highest level they can get away with. In my opinion, this means that no buyer can win in this game – i.e., you cannot "beat the market." The trick is not to get taken.

November 16, 2004 at 03:37 AM · My answer to the problem of not knowing what the market conditions are like is to learn. Your analogy of overpaying to buy a house is a good example. With such a large investment, the buyer would be foolish not to investigate the prices of houses in the same area, in the same condition, etc, to get a feel for what the market is doing. Likewise with the violin -- if you find a Gagliano priced at $500k that you like, you would be a fool not to investigate the prices of other Gaglianos at other shops, to find out where the level is. Most dealers (with a few notable exceptions) will tell you the asking price of a particular instrument if you want to know.

The other analogy with a house also holds up. You would never offer the asking price for a house, except for the unusual event of a bidding war. You would offer less, and see if the owner is willing to come down to meet you. The same thing applies -- there's nothing wrong with making an offer to a dealer and asking them to come down in price. Some people are harder negotiators than others, and will get a better deal as a result. That is not the fault of the dealer, any more than it would be the fault of the homeowner that one person was willing to pay more than another for the house.

You're right, in that the violin market is unique because market forces act on it differently than say, appliances or cars. But as with any purchase, it pays to be informed, and with the spread of information that has happened over the last several years, it's become much easier to do that basic research.

November 16, 2004 at 01:10 PM · Even though the violin business isn't a technically open market, one rule still prevails: what sets a price is a sale, nothing else. If two people are willing to pay a given price, it's still too low, as can be easily seen in a notable recent auction where two buyers bid a $25,000 violin up to over $110,000. (They did that without any help from dealers, by the way). If no buyer wants a violin, the price is too high.

That's how Strads, etc., have become so expensive: supply vs demand. If Strads were priced the way players wanted, they'd all be sold in the first five seconds, and you'd never see another one on the market ever again. Don't believe for a moment that someone who pays $4,000,000 for a violin is a sucker--suckers don't accumulate that kind of money.

November 16, 2004 at 11:59 PM · Dear Mr. Darnton,

A few points I would like to make:

suckers don't accumulate that kind of money.

1.) Yes, some suckers actually can accumulate that much money, simply by inherriting it. It happens more frequently than the average person would think. Financial means is not a measure of an individual's intelligence.

1a.) As a follow up to this, let us grant that the individual is intelligent accumulating their money; their financial gain intuition states nothing about their gullibility, particularly with an object so lusted after through the centuries.

1b.) Their willingness to buy would not contradict my main point, that the sellers do in fact set the price. Time and again, we have seen collusion; big firms without any real testable credentials can label whatever they want a Strad (I am not arguing that just because it comes from Bein & Fushi, it's fake); and that they allow for llllaaaaaarrrrrrrggggggeeeeee gaps in bringing up prices. For instance, they can purchase a Stradivari for one million, and turn around and sell it for one and a half, or two million. Or higher. And the reason the wealthy buy is simply because of they want a Strad, that's what they have to pay. No one chooses for a box of wood, no matter how delicate and beautiful and historical, to be brought to astronomical prices unless they benefit from the deal, period. Honest dealers do exist, I do not doubt this. But those are not the ones who set the price, they can, should, and do benefit from this maket.

2.) I am not arguing against the quality of a Stradivari. Many are wonderful instruments, some aren't, as they are dead of old age. New violins built with wood and proper form made under a trained and watchful eye meet the standards to fill a concert hall with a magical carrying power and even sound. And they sound just as beautiful as Strads, although that is a subjective concept.

Believe as you will, I don't hold anything against honest dealers. And I appreciate great violins. But I would never stake out large amounts of money for simply a name; when a violin just as good can be purchased for thousands, in cases of Strads, millions less.

I am a Consumer Reports subscriber. :)

Have a good evening,

Max

November 17, 2004 at 12:22 AM · Some great violinists used other makers instruments.

I believe Kriesler often used a Daniel Parker, for example

gc

November 17, 2004 at 07:32 AM · Max,

I feel exactly the same way. Even if I was stinking rich I wouldn't buy a Strad, just as a matter of conscience; knowing I was promoting the ridiculous pricing would be too difficult, and still a huge waste of money.

Carl.

December 12, 2004 at 02:50 AM · I think that they get these types of violins so that they can get the fullest, and best sound possible. Take Joshua Bell, for instance. He doesn't have the Gibson Strad for nothing!

December 12, 2004 at 03:32 AM · If you check out the thread "working class players, world-class fiddles" there's a part in the article linked therein which addresses this very subject; i.e., the amazing tonal versatility available from the great old instruments.

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