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Stradivarius phenomenon

When asked, what is the most important thing in the entire violin world, everybody will readily answer:

Stradivarius violin


No doubt, Antonius Stradivarius (Latinized from Italian Antonio Stradivari) is the most influential craftsmen of all times. His violins cost millions and are most sought after. But why?

  • probably Stradivarius violin sound is idiosyncratic ?
  • probably Stradivarius craftsmanship is exceptional ?
  • probably complete set of a Stradivarius violin features is unrivalled ?
    girl-playing-fine violin

. . . . .

Such questions (along with other violin related issues) are by no means new - all violin makers, interested musicians etc. are looking for similar answers. Being not first in a queue, and seeking for so essential answers, I was thinking a lot and reading books and regularly searching Internet ...


Scientists - about Stradivarius violins


Scientists regularly pay attention at violins. They say in an article 'Science and the Stradivarius':

Is there really a lost secret that sets Stradivarius violins apart from the best instruments made today? After more than a hundred years of vigorous debate, this question remains highly contentious, provoking strongly held but divergent views among players, violin makers and scientists alike.

That means scientists often are just another group that doesn't know


Later in the same article they state:

All of the greatest violinists of modern times certainly believe it to be true, and invariably perform on violins by Stradivari or Guarneri in preference to modern instruments.

Again, scientists are using somewhat outdated information


More opinions


That certainly was true some time ago. But it is not so evident nowadays. One of the biggest problems - Cremonese violins steadily are getting older. Complexity of the problem is nicely described in another good article:

Not every Strad is a Strad, so to speak (or every Guarneri a Guarneri, since four other members of his family made violins). Not all of them fetch millions. Of the 700 or so Strads known to exist, only about 50 are concert-quality instruments. The others have various defects--cracks, new backs or bellies, botched repairs by clumsy craftsmen. Practically all have been modified to some extent over the centuries to accommodate a particular violinist or to increase their carrying power: perhaps a longer finger board, a bigger bass bar inside, or a reinforcement of the belly.

Regretfully, we will newer know ideal Stradivarius' violin sound ...
We know for sure - it changes all the time, but nobody knows, what direction etc


One more connected problem - huge imbalance in demand and supply. That's clearly reflected in astronomical rising of prices. We can see in the same article:

... Prices start at between $200,000 to $800,000 and have soared in recent years to as much as $3.5 million an instrument, depending upon its age, condition and history...

How can musician be relaxed after he or she spend such enormous money?


Anyway, why Strads are so exceptional?


But why just Stradivarius violins are so exceptional? Some explanation is provided in the same article:

With astounding prescience, Stradivari recognized that in time, greater demands for volume and sonority would be made upon the violin. Somehow he foresaw, if not precisely the symphonies and orchestras of the late eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, then at least the likelihood that music was moving in that direction. Through constant experimentation--varying by a fraction of an inch the arching of one instrument's back, another's length, the overall dimensions of yet another--he created what Dutch scholar Dirk J. Balfoort called "the violin of the future," capable of producing not only delicate, sweet sounds but powerful, crystalline tones, strong and clear enough to perform brilliantly with the orchestras of today.

Again, is it correct if musician have to pay millions for a (favourite) tool?


So, what makes these days such a tremendous difference between a Strad, fine new and factory made violin?

Scientists about Stradivarius violins again


No doubt, traditions are highly involved. But again clever researchers have their say:

...every violin tested - old or new, "good" or "bad" - showed pronounced variation in the total volume it could produce from note to note. Moreover, one instrument's pattern of peaks and valleys showed little consistency with another's - even when the two violins were (made) by the same maker. This was both striking and embarrassing ... because it meant "there is no one quality which is characteristic of any violin." The result of this variability ... was that any tonal characteristics one sought in an old Italian instrument - Stradivari or otherwise - could be matched in a well-selected instrument of newer construction or by a maker of lesser renown.

Saunders (scientist) demonstrated this point several times in listening tests with audiences. In 1940 he asked an audience of some 2000 musicians, non musicians and experts to identify the Stradivari from among violins A, B, and C played by a concert violinist behind a screen. The proportion of listeners who correctly chose the Stradivari was the same as would have been produced by chance alone, and more than half the audience thought a modern Strad copy sounded more Strad-like than the Strad. The musicians and experts chose no better than anyone else.

Correctly organized and performed tests newer show significant differences. Is it possible?


Famous violin makers about Stradivarius violins


Similar words concerning difficulties distinguishing well and poorly sounding violin arrive from a famous contemporary violin maker Joseph Curtin:

Telling a good violin from a bad one is not always easy by ear, Curtin cautioned. In blind tests where experts have listened to both, they've never been able to consistently the maker said.


OK, there is no specifically unrivalled Strad sound, so what? Certainly, there is some mystique and charm in all old antique stuff, all histories etc. No doubt, there are dealers, auctions ... They get their (quite valuable) profit, promoting and selling old violins.

That's confirmed by another famous American violin maker Gregg Alf:

... Certainly economics favors such a decision - a musician can purchase a violin by one of America's best contemporary makers for $25,000 or less. But increasingly, so does quality. In 1996 Strings Magazine conducted a survey of U.S. businesses involved in the violin trade. Of the non-makers who responded - those whose business was buying, selling, or repairing - 58 percent said today's finest new instruments are "equal in sound to the best ever made"; 22 percent said they were "superior." There were similar findings for workmanship. In other words, we are now in a new golden age...

Violin makers always create new instruments!


How good are these newly created violins? It certainly depends. Just now more and more violin makers are interested in all possible innovations, scientific results etc. Violin makers are extremely dedicated and usually highly experienced. They undoubtedly want to make only best instruments. And they can do that.

I am certainly not alone. Similar thoughts arrive from most violin makers as well as top violinists. For example:

... Instrument makers today have before them the finest works of the old makers as examples and inspiration, for their examination and study. And they have the accumulated experience of all who have come since.

Frequently, musicians who have done extensive comparison shopping conclude that they would have to spend well into six figures on an antique instrument to equal the sound they have found in a good new instrument. Jaime Laredo is quoted in a 1991 New York Times article as saying, "I've been shocked when students have asked my opinion of old Italian or French fiddles that cost $50,000 to $60,000. Often, they're just pieces of junk."

Isaac Stern, in the same article states, "If musicians can't spend at least $250,000 on a stringed instrument, they'd do better with a fine new one, provided they take the time to test it under battle conditions in a good concert hall."


One more good example:

... This recognition (of new instruments) encourages violin makers to invest their time and talents in making instruments to an extent never before possible. Many of these makers have backgrounds in repair and setup. With extensive knowledge of the classical maker's methods, successes, and failures, they are equipped to make real advances in both the quality of sound and appearance of new instruments.


These shifts in opinion are obvious and more and more widespread. Everybody (especially violin makers) agrees and is thankful Stradivari for his exceptional job:

Had it not been for Stradivari ... the violin would have become the victim of tradition, because it would in the long run have ceased to be able to adapt itself to the requirements of the times. Thanks to Stradivari, the violin has been able to remain "the Queen of musical instruments".


That's so simple - make a beautiful violin that sounds nicely (singing voice) and is heard in big halls.

It so soundly coincides with a nice short description of Antonius Stradivarius activities:

... he wanted to make the violin sound more rich and bolder but yet smooth


CONCLUSIONS


Even the locomotive is not a greater marvel of mechanism than the violin - Gladstone

  • the most complicated issue around violin is violin sound
  • there it seems to be no specific Stradivarius violin sound
  • Antonius Stradivarius foresaw existing traditions and created 'violins of future'
  • all violin makers are always making new violins
  • Antonius Stradivarius became such a exceptional celebrity because of joint efforts of all antique auctions and dealers
  • contemporary violin makers are making more and more violins that compare with or are even better that old Cremonese


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