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?
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.