The myth of the stradviarius

A few years ago I presented a programme on BBC Radio 4 entitled, Science vs the Stradivarius. I explored whether science could identify the secrets of the famous Stradivarius violins. But I also questioned whether scientists were chasing a myth. Now, new research has shown that during blind tests with 10 world-class soloists, Stradivarius violins sounded no better than excellent modern designs. Is this further evidence that the scientists who have been looking at the wood, varnish and construction of ancient instruments to ‘unlock the secrets of the Strad’ have been wasting their time?

Stradivari (By Edgar Bundy (1862-1922) (…) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The radio programme started from the premise that the Strad are the best violins. One thing that might surprise you, is that the Strads that sell for millions of pounds, make a very different sound today, compared to when they first left Stradivari’s workshop. Over the centuries the violins have undergone significant changes, as the instruments had to be altered to make them louder so they could fill large concert halls with sound. Also, violins have to be regularly serviced to keep them producing the best sound. One of the thing that makes a Stradivarius sound so good, is because over three centuries their sound has been continuously refined by craftsman.
But this new study by Claudia Fritz casts doubt on whether the Strad is actually the ultimate instrument. The investigation showed that that the sound of modern violins matches that of the Strad, and players actually found the newer instruments more playable.
Are people wasting their millions on these old Italian violins? Maybe from a cold-hearted scientific perspective they are, but at the heart of violin music is a performer. When you give a musician a precious Stradivarius to play, one that has been used for centuries by the great violinists, this must influence the performer psychologically. Maybe Claudia Fritz’s next experiment should be to redo the test, but tell the musicians what instruments they are supposedly playing. It would be interesting to see how a player responds to being told they are playing a Strad when it is actually a modern instrument. Maybe we could then found out how much the myth of the Strad influences performance.

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0 responses to “The myth of the stradviarius”

  1. Actually, if you look into the basic performance structures of what makes a violin good, it has to be about as extreme as a formula one car.
    In the case of violins, the sort of trees that cremona luthiers had access to at that time do not exist today, old-growth trees with extremely straight grain. Wood was the performance material of the time, many people were dedicated to woodwork lots of knowledge and craft has been lost since everybody kept secrets to protect their designs and nobody wrote anything down. We cannot make instruments that way today, but you can have some carbon fiber. The issue we have that the cremonese luthiers did not… is that we don’t think we’re allowed to invent new types of instrument that sound different to the old ones – today’s luthiers making instruments for violinists are copying but never matching, rather than innovating. To significantly improve the violin would require an analysis of its values and would require changes, but if the values being expressed are those of tradition, then trying to advance or innovate is the opposite of that value.
    While string tension and concert pitch have gone up, and the necks have changed angle and length, the fundamental quality of a good instrument body is its timbre and frequency balance – it shouldn’t matter if you put different gauge strings on an acoustic guitar, nor does it matter for violins.
    During the modernisation process and transition from gut to steel, many older instruments which had passable flaws ceased to work well at all. The majority of modern instruments are based upon the Stradivarius design, and this is one of the reasons why the original instruments are so coveted.
    As with studio monitors, a good violin doesn’t actually sound “nice”, it sounds balanced. Stradivarius violins are valued highly by players for their playability – one can get the violin to resonate with reasonable power regardless of pitch.
    The quality that makes an instrument playable is also the quality which will make it easy to modify.

  2. I think this applies to instruments in general. To an audience, a high end instrument isn’t going to sound any better than a middle tier instrument, and most low end instruments can be modified to sound good. It’s not about how it’s built; it’s about what you do with it. Playing a $2,400 Ibanez Prestige isn’t going to make my music sound any better or any scarier than playing it with a $300 used Dean Edge.
    Speaking of prestige, that’s what most of this obsession with antiquated instruments is. It’s just a badge to flaunt on stage. It’s all part of the aristocratic pretense of classical music culture.

  3. Strad violins are absolutely MYTH, why?
    Start from number of violins what he has made, 1200 instrument he made, approximately 400-450 survived. Is it possible, NOT. He started his own business with age of 30, before he was probably student of Amati family. He was working by himself, without any power tools, any good light, just by candle, any glasses( vision after 40 years of age, drastically goes down) how he could make violin without glasses, no way. I’m a bit involved in violin restoration, and I scraped couple of them, because I did not see well-glasses- my age is 50, he lived very old age, passed away close to 90.Other thing is wood. For making 1200 instrument you need tons and tons of wood. Where he stored all this wood. He’s shop has very limited space, not enough room. How that he’s wood is all perfect, in structure and density, not possible. Finishing, varnish, they finishing just in a summer, drying on the sun. Only one thing about Strad violin I’m agree, CRAFTSMANSHIPP. He made nice-looking violins. Instrument is like woman. Pretty woman first go married, hard-working les attractive goes last married.

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