French vs Italian, Is one "better" than the other?

May 15, 2021, 11:56 AM · Looking at older violins, let's say around the start of the 1900's. Other than being made in or by an Italian or French luthier, what characteristics do you traditionally see in a French or Italian violin (tonally for instance)? Do you find that you prefer French instruments from this time? Or are you more of a fan of Italian instruments from this era? Why?

In general, do you find that Italian instruments are better than French instruments from this time period? Or vice versa? Why?

I'd love to get some opinions on this one!

Replies (29)

Edited: May 15, 2021, 3:38 PM · Since noone is joining, let me set the point of view to a different angle.

During that time, the major output in French stringed instruments was from big workshops, which should rather be called factories. For the higher end models luthiers were employed, but for the rest of it... Better factory instruments, from today's point of view. They didn't do mass production in the same excessive way than the Saxons of their time, though.
Parallel there existed an universe of independent luthiers of all grades of competence, like nowadays. And from time to time, both worlds got mixed up.

Italian production was based on small workshops or independent craftsmen, as you'd still consider it the "benchmade" standard nowadays. Not all were formally trained, not all were living on it exclusively, and throughout the peninsula there was a very diverse variety of traditions.

This diversity in both countries (and others) makes it pretty hard to give you a satisfying answer. Maybe you could specify your interests?

Edited: May 15, 2021, 4:32 PM · If you have a maker's name check out the historic auction prices at Tarisio.com . Some really good maker's prices never get very high. But some maker's prices are ridiculously high just because of their name fame. But occasionally a maker's work will have risen above and elicited a real jump in price.

I think it is a reasonable way to start your consideration of maker nationality for your next fiddle until you can actually try playing some.

I play music with some people who have Italian violins of the age you are interested in (I once owned one). And I have played a number of more recent Cremona violins - also some American made ones - and one incredible Chinese violin that the owner had bought in China from the maker. And one of my music "partners" has an older French violin with gorgeous tone.

I think I am agreeing with Nuuska it's not a thing defined by national borders.

Edited: May 15, 2021, 4:10 PM · To put it crudely?
If there are identifiable overall differences, they could be due to the available choices of wood, or climate, but above all setup.

Comparing concert singers, I find the Italian voices richer and more brilliant, the French ones more nasal (even in the non-nasal vowels) and with a mid-range formant. My point is that the cutting of the bridge can produce a similar tonal difference.

My older viola is French, but bought in London. It has since been adjusted by my luthier in Paris, with a lighter, more cut-away bridge, which seem to give its tone a french "accent". Its original bridge give the viola a more "neutral" sound (to my British ears!)

May 15, 2021, 4:12 PM · There are some characteristics of French violins that MIGHT push them toward one bucket over another. Mostly post-Cremona, when people were trying to figure out why the Italians had done well. Probably a different general preference for varnish. And maybe there are some aspects of their market that encouraged stylistic traits of one sort or another. But I shall leave that to the specialists.
Edited: May 15, 2021, 6:44 PM · I’m going to go back a little further before 1900 and reference good French instruments I’ve tried by Vuillaume, Derazay and Lupot. They can be extremely powerful and have a very clean pleasant sound (think Hilary Hahn). My Vuillaume is extremely powerful and as loud as any del Gesu or Stradivari I’ve tried. It might not necessarily have all of the different nuances, overtones, and colors that the great Italian violins have. If you find a really great Stradivarius or Guadagnini, they can project to the back of a hall even when you’re playing very soft and have so many different voice like nuances that are hard to describe. Also I’ve noticed a lot of the French instruments I’ve played on tend to be on the larger side (my Vuillaume is 360mm). Have any of you noticed that?
May 15, 2021, 7:28 PM · @Nate: Funny you say that! My Vuillaume-adjacent violin is 361mm, which was apparently one of the main reasons it didn't sell as quickly as some other instruments in the atelier, because it was too big for most Asian tourists, to pull the direct quote.

I have no knowledge to share here, but my anecdotal impression is that the French sound is distinct and apparently over generations, to a point where I unknowingly selected a modern French violin as my favourite in a blind test while listening to the finale of the recent Wieniawski violin-making competition the other day.
As I was searching for my violin I've tried close to a hundred and the French ones kept being closer to what I was looking for until I finally found one that was a perfect match. From my limited experience, I'd say that they sound less posh and artificially beautiful - a trait that is, of course, very subjectively either a good or a bad thing. The French tend to be a little less sweet and more focused and overall a little stronger in the bass, at least under my ear. Perhaps a little plainer than a Stradivari, as Nate said, that's true, but not to a degree where they'd sound completely barren. The good ones still have a very broad and full space for nuances.

I've recently been thinking if maybe the stronger bass corresponds with the larger instruments? That would fit in with what I've heard about the sound differences between big and small violas...

May 15, 2021, 8:43 PM · That is interesting to note that there were more workshops or factories in France and none of note in Italy, especially during that time. Does that make the French instruments better due to increased collaboration and sharing of techniques and ideas or does that make the Italian overall better because of the trade secrets that were not widely shared and overproduced?

I guess my reasoning for asking was just that I’ve noticed that Italian instruments seem to be more widely preferred overall. Was curious if it was purely for snobbish reasons as it’s the “home” of the violin or if there were things that truly made Italian instruments a better quality. In the same note, if French instruments were truly less quality or simply because it’s not origination point of the violin.

I’m currently violin shopping and have narrowed it down to a couple violins. One is French, from early 1900’s by Paul Magnenot, Mirecourt. It’s definitely been used and loved. The other is a more modern instrument, an Italian violin by a living maker Edson Puozzo made in 1985. They both have a beautiful sound in their own way. Other than tonal quality, what makes one better than another? Or more likely to hold it’s value over the years?

May 15, 2021, 9:54 PM · Determining factors for value: maker, country of origin, age, condition, positive attribution, provenance, quality of construction and material

Sound character has little-to-nothing to do with price. It is too subjective.

May 16, 2021, 5:21 AM · Nate-- I don't know if an authority or shop-owner told me this, but the longer model appears to be a 19c French preference. Perhaps following the 'more is better' logic that gets designers in trouble when it is no longer true.
Edited: May 16, 2021, 7:12 AM · Melanie, the factory topic is more about mass production than "collaboration and sharing expertise". There were workshops with a very pleasant output though, so one shouldn't talk in pejorative generalisations about these instruments. Even on the lower end, it's something completely different than the "Dutzendware" fiddles from Saxony and Schoenbach from this time. (And also in the same region from where the Dutzendware flooded the world, there were exceptionally fine instruments being made...)

If you're looking for an instrument from an individual maker, and looking in the same price range, expect the French to be better. Not because French violins were any "better" than Italian, but rather because the Italian instruments are more expensive. More sought after, for the "country of origin" myth. Simple market mechanism.

You'll also find gorgeous instruments from England, Germany, Austria, Belgium, The Netherlands, Hungary, etc etc. And later on in 20th century, fine instruments are made in many many countries on various continents. If you're mainly looking for an instrument to play, and not for a financial speculation object, then don't rule out any origin. You might be surprised what you'll be able to find for relatively small money. There are no trade secrets at all anymore, nowadays.

May 16, 2021, 9:32 AM · Nuusaka, I am definitely not ruling out any origin. I honestly don't care where it's made as I'm looking at the tonal characteristics of it primarily. Surprisingly enough, out of the 4 I'm trialing right now, 2 are Italian (one newer from 1985) and 2 are French. There were a couple I looked at previously that were Polish that I really liked as well. I simply find it curious that we as violinists tend to have distaste towards instruments based upon where it was made versus the actual sound/quality of the violin itself.
Edited: May 16, 2021, 10:40 AM · Melanie, I didn't mean to act instructive. Sorry if I came over that way.
May 16, 2021, 11:00 AM · There is brand snobbery in almost everything. For example, here in the US the Japanese and Koreans are making superior automobiles yet the Germans still command higher prices. In the violin world one must pay a premium for an excellent example from a top-name maker. It’s not a bad thing from a collectibility point if you can afford it. But from a pure, practical, musical standpoint I think the best value is in used, bench-made instruments by reputable modern makers.
May 16, 2021, 3:51 PM · John, used bench-made instruments by reputable modern *living* makers seem to be scarce. As I heard, many of these makers seem offer buying their instruments back for something near the price they were purchased at first (ideally their prices went up in the meantime) rather than risking damage to their reputation by dumping prices on an open market.
Specify your statement to "reputable modern deceased makers from any country except Italy" and I´ll totally agree. In my case, I found it to be true with top level German makers from the second half of 20th century.
May 16, 2021, 5:57 PM · Yes Nuuska, I agree they are not easy to find. But they are out there. I have purchased excellent examples of modern American violins from highly-respected living makers (my personal preference) for less than you might think. I’ve had great luck with Tarisio although it’s a bit risky if you cannot get there in person. Also I’ve occasionally found bargains with my local maker/dealer.
May 16, 2021, 11:27 PM · Greetings,
I used to play on a beautiful Pique which pretty much had everything in terms of power and range of colors. The best violin I have ever played by a long shot was an Andreas Guarneri which was so mind glowingly good I almost punched the owner and ran out of the house with it. I ended up just whimpering audibly as it left my hands.
CHeers,
Buri
Edited: May 17, 2021, 12:57 AM · Benjamin: Very interesting to hear about your experience with your Vuillaume! I’ve tried enough of them to notice some similarities and fundamental aspects of sound produced when playing his instruments - many of which you described when addressing the focus and extremely strong lower register which was one of the first things that blew me away when I tried my violin at the auction gallery. I also had a similar theory as to why my violin was sitting in a corner all alone and not immediately sold when I first visited it. Many petite violinists probably prefer the smaller Guarneri model instruments and shy away from the long pattern Stradivari models like mine. I would imagine the dimensions could impact certain tonal aspects like with violas. I’ve also tried a J.B. Vuillaume Maggini model which is 370MM and it has a sound very much like a viola in the lower register. Extremely powerful and resonant. I think the rather high arching on this instrument also has an impact on the tone as well.

Buri: I agree Pique made some fantastic violins very similar to Lupot. I’ve heard Andrea Guarneris are great. I’d imagine they’re pretty similar to Nicolo Amati’s work?

Edited: May 17, 2021, 12:51 AM · Still waiting to get an appraisal on the Dawid Burgess violin I bought on ebay for $500
May 17, 2021, 1:16 AM · Greetings,
Nate, yes I think there are similarities but my limited experience of Amati’s is they ‘tend’ not to have enough power for the modern concert hall ( I have heard there are some exceptions to this though). The Guarneri I played had power beyond belief. In the end I tried ‘pressing’ and it played louder so I pressed more and it broke me. Then it whispered soft and gentle sweet nothings in my ear and I really did almost commit the crime of running off with it. I have never recovered although my wife is somewhat similar.
Cheers,
buri
Edited: May 17, 2021, 2:29 AM · Lyndon wrote:
"Still waiting to get an appraisal on the Dawid Burgess violin I bought on ebay for $500"
_________________________________

Lyndon, maybe you can get your Ebay DaWid Burgess violin appraised by the same person who appraised your Rolicks watch and your Rolls Rice automobile. LOL

May 17, 2021, 2:26 AM · You mean you don't think it is real, you never called yourself Dawid, say it isn't true!
May 17, 2021, 8:25 AM · @Nate: I'm afraid there was a misunderstanding - I do not have a Vuillaume, no matter how much I'd be intrigued to play one! But I do have a Buthod (one of his own; not a factory instrument) that seems to be very strongly inspired by Vuillaume's work, judging by how you mistook my description of its sound for one of his teacher's violins. It really is a beautiful instrument and the more I play it the more I think to have gotten a steal. Some time ago I compared its photos to those of a 1823 Vuillaume that I saw somewhere on the internet - must've been on Brobst's website - and I wouldn't even be surprised if Buthod took that violin as a reference. I'd be very interested in travelling the land and trying out all the Vuillaumes out there, and the 370mm monster sounds especially intriguing!
May 17, 2021, 9:31 AM · Can't answer. To me its like saying which is better, a yellow flower or a red one? The other features of the flower (and the violin of course) are so much more important. Not only that, 'better' with an instrument means so many things - even if we limit it to say tone 'better' is too simple, variable and personal a criterion to differentiate between them.
Edited: May 17, 2021, 11:56 AM · Lyndon--

Send me $500 and I will be happy to confirm the valuation. Of the check, that is.

Edited: May 17, 2021, 4:32 PM · Lyndon, most probably it's a fake label inside a real violin. Whether Mr. Burgess is the maker or not can only be judged by learning more about it's provenience (attic finding?) and a dendrochronological evaluation of Mr. Burgess' left arm done via social media.
May 17, 2021, 5:01 PM · Oh my goodness, I hope we don't need to cut my left arm in half to examine the grain lines.
May 17, 2021, 5:15 PM · That's how we check for age-- slice off the head to count the rings.
May 17, 2021, 5:27 PM · But don't be afraid. What you'll feel is only the pain. As long as it is done via WhatsApp, it's considered a procedure of minor invasivity. Have it done directly via Facebook, and it might turn out as a brain transplantation. But that's another story...
May 17, 2021, 5:41 PM · "But don't be afraid. What you'll feel is only the pain."
____________________

Hey, "No pain, no gain". ;-)


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