Can any expert maker make a violin as good as the old masters?

Edited: September 12, 2022, 3:52 PM · Eliminating mystique/hype, marketing, the "provenance" factor of old instruments, with sound and playability as the sole criteria, do you think any experienced, expert violin maker can build an instrument that's as good as those of the old masters? Was there really any "Magic Juju" that Stradivari, Guarneri etc. could bring to bear on the materials that anyone who knows what they're doing can't replicate? Any secret to clamping, gluing, carving, varnishing? Giving ample credit of course to the old-timers for being the ones who figured it all out.

Under the umbrella of experienced and expert I'm including that they know where to get the right wood and are able to vet the materials they use.

It's understood that as far as I know there's no way to simulate the aging process over centuries but I'm talking about the fundamental build of the violin - can an expert make a new violin that's the equal of the violins of the old masters when they were new?

Replies (43)

Edited: September 12, 2022, 1:52 PM · Does "any" mean any expert maker can do it
OR
among all the experts is there "any" who can do it?

I think in the latter case the answer is "yes."

But acquiring the right material might be difficult now. There are plenty of legends/myths about magic soaking of the wood or that the logs were floated in water around northern Italy with "magic salts."

And it might take some time to acquire the patina of age the old-master violins have acquired - some think that. But I have played violins that were made from "old wood" that got it right (to my senses) - and some that were made of fairly newer "time-seasoned wood" .

September 12, 2022, 3:00 PM · The two words "any expert" seems almost a contradiction in this context. Can the very best luthiers of today create an instrument that is comparable in projection, tonal palette, playability, and cosmetic beauty compared to priceless antiques long regarded as the finest specimens of the craft? That's a tall order but I believe they can.

And you can make 'em a lot faster by roughing out the parts with a CNC mill.

(That last comment was for Lyndon's benefit.)

September 12, 2022, 3:07 PM · The vibrations of CNC routers can destroy the resonance of wood, and no new maker can simulate the effects of 300 years of aging which is generally thought of as being good for resonance.
September 12, 2022, 3:27 PM · I thought the theory that violins get "played in" over the years has been generally debunked?
September 12, 2022, 3:33 PM · Yes by people trying to sell you their new violins. Its not just a matter of getting played in its the changes in wood structure and drying out of the wood over centuries, the changes are quite significant, someone may make a great sounding new violin, but it doesn't sound the same as a great 300 yr old violin, someone may prefer the modern violin, someone may prefer the 300 yr old violin but they don't sound the same
Edited: September 12, 2022, 4:08 PM · You get different answers. New makers say sure. Antique dealers say no.

Players and audience can’t tell the difference, as concluded by blind studies that are lauded by the first group and derided by the second.

You will largely get answers motivated by pocketbook and ego.

September 12, 2022, 4:47 PM · As a maker and researcher, my take is that age can do things to tone that are neither adequately explained nor duplicatable as yet. Whether you think that change is good or not is something else, and personal taste.

But I think it is silly to postulate that makers 300 years ago had some secret that allowed them to make new instruments that were markedly different from new instruments today.

Edited: September 12, 2022, 4:58 PM · Dmitri, that is not true, the blind studies only demonstrated that roughly half the people preferred hand picked best of the bunch modern maker instrument, and roughly half the people preferred randomly picked and not tested Stradivari instruments. The organizers had many modern violins to which they had a contest and picked the 2 or 3 best, the Stardivaris were whatever they could get their hand on and were in no way tested to be the best sounding Stardivaris, only the ones they were able to get owners to loan to the contest, the whole contest was hardly scientific at all. and quite a few of the listeners not only preferred the Stradivaris but picked them out as being the older violins in comparisons. None of the listeners were tested to see how good their ears were at assessing violins, the audience was more a random cross section with many people presumably not very good judges of tonal quality, which skews the statistics. One thing came out, the modern violins were louder and most uneducated people will pick the loudest violin, not the one with the best quality tone
Edited: September 12, 2022, 4:58 PM · The technical craftsmanship of making in the present day is fantastic, and is somewhat science-informed (but the science of this stuff is still super complex and largely unknown).

Material quality is lower than it was in the past. Acid rain, etc.

Age changes instruments, for better or for worse. This shouldn't be surprising since wood changes at it ages.

But a modern maker makes a heck of a lot fewer instruments than the makers of the historical past. Production equals experience, and experience is more likely to lead to greater instinctual expertise.

Are there fantastic instruments being made by the very best living makers today? Sure. Good luck getting your hands on one. They have massive waiting lists (and they still cost many tens of thousands of dollars).

Edited: September 12, 2022, 5:13 PM · There are many great makers from the last 200 years who have left behind an enormous number of fine violins that are equal to "old masters" and also as good as violins being produced by today's living makers, and often less expensive. They knew what they were doing, and many of them were teachers as well as makers.

Furthermore, it is literally impossible to state with any factual basis that violins made 300 years ago, or even 100 or 50 years ago, are better or worse than when they were new as far as tone is concerned.

September 12, 2022, 5:47 PM · Its very clear that violins change in sound over 100s of years, these changes are preferred by many but not everyone, many people prefer the sound of a new violin, its more a question of preference than claiming one is better than the other, but any violin dealer knows that 200+ yr old violins sound different from new ones
September 12, 2022, 6:29 PM · "Material quality is lower than it was in the past."

I know of no factual evidence of this... unless you're talking about logging for construction. Tonewood is still very good, if you want to look for it.

"Production equals experience, and experience is more likely to lead to greater instinctual expertise."

Perhaps, unless the production is at the expense of care. However, most makers know that some instruments come out unexplainably better than others, so more production = more abnormally good ones... and those are the ones that get noticed.

September 12, 2022, 6:45 PM · Lydia Leong

Are there fantastic instruments being made by the very best living makers today? Sure. Good luck getting your hands on one. They have massive waiting lists (and they still cost many tens of thousands of dollars).

Being expensive and having a waiting list is compatible with my original point of curiosity, it's a testament to the fact that people think highly of them.

Edited: September 12, 2022, 6:51 PM · Don Noon
September 12, 2022, 6:29 PM ·

"Production equals experience, and experience is more likely to lead to greater instinctual expertise."

Perhaps, unless the production is at the expense of care. However, most makers know that some instruments come out unexplainably better than others, so more production = more abnormally good ones... and those are the ones that get noticed.

Don - so you can build two violins with the same care and precision, same techniques and level of expertise, yet one will end up superior even though there's nothing you deliberately did differently?

September 12, 2022, 6:52 PM · I believe Lydia Leong said she couldn't find a modern maker instrument as good as her more expensive Vuillaume that she bought
September 12, 2022, 6:52 PM · Scott, yup. All wood is different, as a minimum.
September 12, 2022, 6:56 PM · I was listening on and off to the Indianapolis prelims today and really wish the violin makes and makers were listed....
I would bet for young soloists there would be a lot on new makers, unless they were using loaners.
If you eliminated the Strads and Del Gesu's from the question, since they are not available to mere mortals, I would bet the the contemporary vs. antique would even out more.
September 12, 2022, 9:56 PM · "Players and audience can’t tell the difference..."

No, people that can't tell the difference can't tell the difference.
A lot of people think Arby's is good...

September 12, 2022, 9:59 PM · Yes
Edited: September 13, 2022, 2:53 AM · I don’t think one can really call a maker great until that maker’s instruments have stood the test of at least a century. There are plenty of instruments that sound very good when they’re relatively new but eventually become disappointing. A great maker to me is one who finds a way to make an instrument that endures and matures. While it certainly does seem that time is a good friend to tonewood, there’s more to it than that—not all of Stradivari’s peers are regarded as highly for tone.

Stradivari and Guarneri are great, not just because of their innate abilities with arching or refining wood, but because, after centuries of constant use, alterations to their necks, extensive repairs, new bassbars, regraduations, and countless setups and adjustments, their violins continue to take hold of us by the very soul. I’m not ruling out the possibility that more makers will eventually reach that pinnacle, but I don’t want to put the cart before the horse.

Solon’s argument to “Call no man happy until the end is known” might be applied to the world of the violin in terms of greatness.

September 13, 2022, 4:55 AM · good points
Edited: September 13, 2022, 5:27 AM · It is simply an unprovable myth that violins get better purely with age, but it is a great marketing claim for selling older violins. :-)

Nobody ever heard a 300 year old violin when it was new so as to compare it to how it sounds today. This is true for even 50 or 25 year-old violins. There is no "test of time" because such a test is impossible.

To do that "test," one would need to have the violin in the identical condition as new using identical strings, identical set-up, and the identical bow. And one would need the same player in the same acoutical surroundings using sound equipment that could objectively measure changes in tone.

Most importantly, one would need to have identical ears, and we do know as a biological fact that human hearing physically degrades significantly over our lifetimes, and our frequency response changes dramatically as we age. Just as "you can't put your hand in the same river twice," you can't hear a violin with the same ears twice, either.

September 13, 2022, 5:44 AM · So why do really old violins sound quite different from new violins?
September 13, 2022, 6:21 AM · Don said, "But I think it is silly to postulate that makers 300 years ago had some secret that allowed them to make new instruments that were markedly different"

I have absolutely no doubt that their approach was radically different from that practiced today. Most contemporary makers are dimensional copyists, though some do utilise computer software or follow the style of a particular school or maker. Cremonese makers applied a common method to achieve a common goal, and each instrument was slightly different as a result. They didn't copy anyone- though one could argue that stradivari copied himself.

In answer to Scott's question- yes, absolutely. There are certainly makers producing instruments that sound as good as many of the strads and del gesus we have today...but perhaps it's an unfair comparison? The modern equivalents are sturdy unmolested examples, whereas most of the old masterpieces have been messed with. On the other hand many of the cremonese violins have been set up by luthiers who specialise in such adjustments.
Materials today are as good and effective as anything available then, varnishes are excellent and generally speaking our tools are the same

September 13, 2022, 6:25 AM · To answer this question with any practical knowledge and credibility, one would have to actually play violins made by both the old Cremonese masters and some of the reputed modern makers. I would be interested to hear those opinions. Who are the best modern makers that come close?
September 13, 2022, 8:36 AM · There has been speculation that "mini" or "little ice ages," in around 1650, 1770 and 1850 were responsible for slower tree growth and thus higher density wood in northern hemisphere trees that were harvested and used for instrument production. This would have resulted in some different/"better" resonant properties of the wood of some instruments.
September 13, 2022, 8:50 AM · Nobody can say if old violins, in the aggregate, sound "quite different" than new violins, in the aggregate. It has never been tested, and probably never can or will be tested.

Do repaired violins sound different than un-repaired violins?

I will posit that no two violins sound identical.


September 13, 2022, 9:15 AM · Is this debate OldvsNew extended to other instruments (piano, organ, guitar, brass, etc) or is it a particular thing of bowed instruments?
September 13, 2022, 9:16 AM · Martin McLean wrote:
"I have absolutely no doubt that their approach was radically different from that practiced today."

Martin why do you think that? I am fairly well immersed in making practices all over the world today, so even a shred of evidence supporting your claim would be helpful.

Edited: September 13, 2022, 10:03 AM · "Nobody can say if old violins, in the aggregate, sound "quite different" than new violins, in the aggregate. It has never been tested, and probably never can or will be tested."

It HAS been tested quite a bit. Dunnwald's 1991 paper in CAS was the first I know of, showing distinct average differences in response curves between old Italian and modern violins. There have been many tests and papers since then, all showing the same trend. With some listening experience, I have gotten fairly good at picking out these differences either by listening or looking at frequency response curves. It's a real effect... not to be confused with preference tests.

September 13, 2022, 10:34 AM · Hello David. Would you describe any of the cremonese greats as a copyist?
Edited: September 13, 2022, 11:13 AM · Don wrote: "It HAS been tested quite a bit. Dunnwald's 1991 paper in CAS was the first I know of, showing distinct average differences in response curves between old Italian and modern violins."

Thanks for the reference. I have not read the paper, but it isn't surprising that there are differences between these non-random sample sets. What hasn't been (and cannot be) tested is if those differences are due strictly or even primarily to age.

For better or worse, there is no proof nor practical way to prove that age alone improves the sound of a violin.

But to the original topic, I am curious if some or many individual modern violins match the average response curves of the "old Italians" violins?

And if some modern makers can match these average frequency response curves (within a standard deviation), are these violins associated with "better sound" compared to other modern violins that don't?

September 13, 2022, 11:16 AM · Martin Mcclean wrote:
"Hello David. Would you describe any of the cremonese greats as a copyist?"

Yes, I would, although many of them also incorporated their own new ideas into the tradition, just as makers do today.

Edited: September 13, 2022, 11:19 AM · Rich Maxham

I don’t think one can really call a maker great until that maker’s instruments have stood the test of at least a century.

"Antonio Stradivari's unconditional guarantee - if 100 years from now this instrument doesn't sound just as good as the day it was new, return for a full refund, no questions asked - must have original receipt" :)

September 13, 2022, 11:22 AM · Thanks David. Could you point out both a famous Cremonese violin and the instrument from which it was copied?
September 13, 2022, 11:47 AM · "I am curious if some or many individual modern violins match the average response curves of the "old Italians" violins?

And if some modern makers can match these average frequency response curves (within a standard deviation), are these violins associated with "better sound" compared to other modern violins that don't?"

I have tried a few times to duplicate the sound of known old violins, including artificially aged wood. I'd say it's closer (others have said so too), but still some of the "new violin" tonal features have shown up. I am not aware of any makers who can really match the "old violin" response curves; most don't try, and some don't even want to.

As to "better sound", that is and always has been a separate judgement call from what the sound actually is. Sound preference varies, and you can get all kinds of results and opinions that can never be sorted out satisfactorally. It's a never-ending swamp.

Edited: September 13, 2022, 2:08 PM · George,

I’m not sure why you say there is no such thing as a test of time. That’s exactly what has determined the value of the best makers, and there are plenty of players who have owned their instruments for 25 or even 50 years and have good enough ears to know how they’ve changed over the period of ownership. As I said earlier, I’m not arguing that age alone dictates sound; as evidenced by the price disparity between different makers at a given time, some perform better for other reasons. However, I can’t agree that the age of wood has no impact on sound.

Different bows can modify the sound, but an instrument has an overall character that’s independent of the bow. And we can get a reasonably good idea of how the sound has changed on famous violins by listening to the recordings players have made on them. If there was no difference in old wood from new wood, there would not be a premium on the price of old wood. I remember very well when I attended a past VSA conference and wood that had belonged to the Juzek family had been made available by vendors. I never even had a chance to buy any because one of the top current makers had sent his apprentices to run into the vendor area the moment it opened and buy everything they could get. That says a lot to me about the value of old wood. It doesn’t mean newer tone wood is bad at all, but the pricing is dictated by the demand.

Last week a professor from a university here was at the shop looking at a fine old violin. He plays on a very fine old Italian and insists that the violin has a certain “memory” from having been played over the last few centuries, and that it feels like it fights against the player if it isn’t played in tune. He said the violin he was trying was responding more as it was being played but had to wake up a little more after “being played out of tune for 50 years.” You can choose to write off comments like that as mysticism or unscientific, but the reality is that good players often make similar remarks. There’s no surer way to alienate your clientele than to tell them that their observations are invalid or that they’re foolish for thinking the violins they covet are not worth their reputations.

I’m always a bit cautious when conventional wisdom is put on trial as unscientific because it so often happens that as science evolves, we find that many traditional ideas are valid, even if the reasoning given for them at the time doesn’t hold up; in a sense, the science sometimes catches up to the ideas.

September 13, 2022, 4:32 PM · Regarding wood composition: I remember reading a research paper that I cannot seem to hunt down again, about the changes to the structure of wood over the last 150 years or so, as a result of acid rain. IIRC it was most focused on the changes to pernambucco rather than tonewood, but I would imagine the effects would apply to tonewood as well.
September 13, 2022, 6:02 PM · Supposedly, the Petrus owned by Joseph Szigeti sounded absolutely awful-- unless you played it precisely in tune. It had been trained to reject anything else...
Edited: September 14, 2022, 8:09 AM · Rich, Thanks for your note.

What I was referring to is the "test of time" as you originally described it ("instruments that sound very good when they’re relatively new but eventually become disappointing") because no one can compare a violin that sounded good or bad when it was new with how it sounds 100 years later.

By all accounts I have read, Stradivarius violins were very good when they were new. Nobody knows if they sound better or worse today than when they were new.

But I do know that some branding and marketing has survived a "test of time" as you describe, and provided a foundation for a some good makers and workshops to maintain enhanced reputations and prices that have endured over centuries and decades. But there are also many other good makers who were mostly unknown in their day, and have faded into obscurity. The violin maker books are full of these makers, and some very good violins made by them can be found at very good prices if one looks.

In America, many well-known late 19th and early 20th C. makers became well-known in their lifetimes simply because they lived and worked in major cities like Chicago, Cleveland, and New York, and they had access to marketing, customers, supply chains, and shipping. There were others making fine violins that did not have this advantage, and died in relative obscurity but left behind some fine instruments. There are still many makers today that few have heard of but are making excellent violins.

In regards to people who have owned and played the same violin(s) for many decades; I am one of those people. I also know as a fact that hearing inevitably changes over time for everybody, and the ears that we had when we were 20 are not the same ears that we have when we're 60, particularly for men and loss of high frequencies. Not to mention bridge changes, string changes, sound-post changes, plate distortion, repairs, etc. So violins probably do sound "different," but improvement soley due to aging is not provable, nor in my opinion, likely.

We do know that violins do degrade over time. Left on their own, they fall apart. That is a fact. Wood shrinks, seams open, cracks form. Using old wood to make new violins is a good idea simply because the wood has already shrunk a lot, and is more stable than fresher wood. Does using "very old" wood make better sounding violins than just "old" wood? I think the jury is out on that. However, using 100 year-old wood makes for great violin marketing.

In regards to your professor friend, yes, I would write-off comments such as his. There are certainly kind ways to have discussions around these things, but most of the time, what's the point? Just because someone is a great violinist or luthier doesn't mean that they aren't susceptible to mythology, pseudoscience, physical limitations, placebo effects, and many known cognitive biases. We all are.

I am quite fond of Carl Sagen who said, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." I believe that. If "conventional wisdom" sounds like it could be true, then its truth must be scientifically testable. If it isn't objectively testable, then there is no good reason to trust or believe it, particularly if it is being promoted by people to make money.

September 14, 2022, 8:26 AM · Don Noon,

I wonder if you took some modern violins, cracked their tops and backs, and then added cleats, soundpost patches, half-edging, etc, if you'd get some response curves that fall within a standard deviation of the "old Italian" violins. :-)

September 14, 2022, 9:02 AM · I haven't heard of any modern violins that were badly damaged, repaired, and suddenly sounded like a Strad. I have done plenty of damage to my early violins, and they stay in the modern-sounding category. Or worse.
Edited: September 16, 2022, 8:01 AM · The question will never be answered. But I believe we live in a golden age of violin making. Some of the violins that are made today will "stand the test of time" and violinists will be talking about them 200 years from now. Likewise people will be talking about today's workshop violins just as we now talk about German antiques that were workshop-crafted. Some of the best violins 200 years from now might be the products of today's most celebrated makers, and some might be from the hands of lesser-known makers, and possibly some even from workshops.

One thing is for sure: It's very important that we have people who still make entirely bench-crafted violins. We cannot afford to lose this trade. I believe it is also useful that we have folks who know how to churn out decent workshop violins because the population of the earth does keep increasing.

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