Violin making competition for maturing violins (no, not ones with wet varnish!).

November 26, 2022, 1:24 PM · Violin making competitions - such as the recent "Violin Society for America" (highlighted in a current blog) serve to identify promising and accomplished current luthiers and help buyers decide which instruments may be playing and provenance stars. I think we agree they serve a useful (but obviously not diagnostic) service - and allow the luthiers a moment in the sun and pats on the back (and to adjust their prices accordingly I presume). This topic is NOT about this (please resist :D ).

It occurred to me that since instruments exhibit significant maturing changes during aging (due to aging, care, setup etc I know, but lets ignore that for a bit), it might be interesting to have a competition for individual violins that have seen the test of time. While prices reflect in part the quality (again both provenance and playing) of the instrument I think most would agree that these are biased by many factors that are irrelevant to the instrument itself. The competition would presumably be divided according to instrument age (with a limit as its probably not very useful (but not impossible) to compare instruments from 1800-1850 but 1950-1969, 1970-1989, 1990-2009 would, IMO be fascinating. For example wouldn't it be fascinating to have an impartial direct comparison of a ~2000 Curtin and a Burgess. Which one 'evolved' better?

A big pluss is that this might highlight luthiers that make violins for the long term (and vice versa, ones that shine but fade).

This would have to work by individual owners submitting their instruments for the competition. The costs would be covered by fees to enter and, perhaps, to attend. However please focus on the idea and not the logistics of such a competition. [Whenever a new idea is proposed almost invariably people focus on why its impossible - negating the idea before its potential has been considered.]

Replies (9)

November 26, 2022, 2:19 PM · You would also get the possibility of having an instrument at its best setup, with flattering strings, etc. As good as Stradivari was, I am guessing that the new owners took a little time working out how to make them sound their best.
Edited: November 27, 2022, 1:23 AM · Elise - I'm one of those naughty people you mention in your last sentence. Firstly, the competition would have to be judged "blind", i.e. all idiosyncratic identifying features would need to be concealed. Or else the judges would have to be perfectly ignorant of violin history and make their decisions according to freshly minted criteria, determined by..?

But you seem to be thinking in terms of a violin's playing quality rather than build. This runs rather contrary to the practice of the VSA in which "tone" is judged as a secondary criterion. In your competition should the judges be players or a listeners? Attempts by Claudia Fritz and others to put the assessment of violin sound on a scientific footing suggest that even good players and world-renowned experts sometimes find it hard to distinguish between instruments of radically different ages (and prices) on sonic grounds. And there are various factors apart from "tone" which cause players to prefer one violin over another.

But in fact the competition is already under way. Posterity with all it's petty prejudices and inconsistencies will always be the judge.

Edited: November 27, 2022, 9:07 AM · Sign me up. I don't think my violin is all that special but I'd be curious to know where it stands relative to its peers.

I do think it's good to focus on the sound of the violin rather than the appearance because two violins from 1980 might have been cared for much differently. A violin from 1980 might even have experienced a significant repair. As for the build and appearance of the violin, newly-made instruments are the best to compare.

I have my doubts as to whether such a contest will change how violins are made. On the other hand, whisky-makers seem to know what factors will contribute to a well-made product after 10 years in sherry barrels.

November 27, 2022, 8:31 AM · Steve wrote: "Firstly, the competition would have to be judged "blind", i.e. all idiosyncratic identifying features would need to be concealed"
Why? They are not in new instrument competitions either. You have to trust the judges to be impartial.
"But you seem to be thinking in terms of a violin's playing quality rather than build. This runs rather contrary to the practice of the VSA in which "tone" is judged as a secondary criterion." It does not have to be done in the same way! The build issue is less important since if there are structural flaws the instrument will tell you. Indeed, one of the most interesting things will be how well the violin has held up (of course this depends very much on its history). However, I should have said that such a competition would reject any instrument that was not in excellent playing condition (its only fair to the luthiers) and focus primarily on tone, playability etc
November 27, 2022, 10:18 AM · Why blind? Because even if you're supposed to be judging violins on sonic criteria it's hard not to be influenced by how they look, how old you think they are, who could have made them and how well. I believe that to give any violin a fair trial of its tone, playability, carrying power, subtlety of nuance etc requires more than a short acquaintance. And as with any beauty contest, variation in personal taste is likely to be a major confounding factor.
Edited: November 27, 2022, 10:41 AM · One needn't focus only on sound.

Right now, there is a split between new-as-new finish (required by the Cremona competition), and antiqued varnishes. Either can look good when new, but it would be fascinating to see whose versions of each have legs ten or twenty years down the pike. Will maker X's antiqued version still look old and vibrant, or just kind of musty? Will a clean finish from 2003 look like a good Strad with only a few miles on it-- the Messiah or Lady Blunt-- or will it just get tired, chalky, and cheap?

November 28, 2022, 7:30 AM · I wonder if anyone will pick up on this - this would be an owner's show, not a luthiers one.

The 'testers', expert violinists would be encouraged to NOT play all the instruments the same but to bring out the qualities of each one. Thus, show if the strings are uneven and also if it has a gorgeous G string etc.

November 29, 2022, 2:33 PM · I’m trying to imagine how it would work. The premise seems to be almost entirely focused on sound and not workmanship; the idea of a mature violin is usually associated with its playing characteristics. Before getting into the mechanics of its organization, the premise needs consideration.

How do you decide what’s mature? Is it the passage of 100 years? 50? Is it the amount of use? A violin that’s sat for 20 years without being played generally won’t be as open and complex in sound as one that’s been played regularly.

I understand the idea of trying to bring out each violin’s character, but as soon as you have different players, the same violin may sound drastically different, to the point that even skilled listeners may be unable to discern it from another.

It may seem frustrating for players to see competitions focus more on woodworking ability than on judgments of sound by a jury or audience, but there’s strong reasoning behind it. Workmanship is something that can be much more concretely examined, and it doesn’t change—time may obscure or wear away details, but the pristine examples show us what the maker can do, and a competition for new makers allows us to see the instrument exactly as the maker intends to finish it. Yes, certain styles of making can become dominant among competitions, but this is the trade off for seeking a standard.

Who stands to benefit from the competition? If the makers are dead, they don’t have the opportunity to capitalize on the prestige attached to an award. If they’re living, assuming they win an award for a violin that’s no longer new, does that help them sell their new violins, or does it make them harder to sell than the older ones? Since the winemaking comparison has come up recently, as a buyer, I don’t feel entirely confident in the premise that I should buy something new that doesn’t sound the way I want it to with the hope that it’ll turn into something better in the future; it’s a bit like being handed a bottle of wine that’s still in process and just hoping it’ll turn out well. I don’t mind buying something new when it’s cheap and the risk is inconsequential, but I want the risk to be much lower if I’m buying something expensive. So, again, who benefits?
Is it the maker, the owner, the players, the venue, or the market?

What about an exhibition of violins by makers of a particular era? To me, this allows one to enjoy everything that is associated with the violins but removes the sense of competition that complicates everything.

December 1, 2022, 4:03 PM · A few comments about the Violin Society of America competition events:

When a maker has won Gold Medals in three or more competitions, they are no longer allowed to enter. (I haven't been able to compete for about 40 years.)

However, there is a separate "modern maker" exhibit room, in which anyone can exhibit.

All the instruments in both the Competition room and the modern exhibit room can be examined and played by convention attendees.

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