I recently had my 15 seconds of fame in a recent copy of the Strad. I had read an article by Frank Almond in response to the latest blind test between million dollar old Italian violins and modern instruments. According to the test, contemporary makers had won out, to the surprise of everybody who missed the last blind test with the same results. In his response, Mr. Almond alludes to a mystical relationship with an older instrument, that may not immediately be apparent to a blind test taker. There is something special about these old instruments that scientists, and the violinists doing the tests, don't fully appreciate. He cites his own experience with modern instruments, and the incredible histories that are intrinsically part of the experience of playing older violins.
Strad had noticed the comment I made in the Facebook post, and had quoted me in the equivalent of a "readers response" section. What I'm trying to say is, now that I've been quoted in Strad, I no longer see the need to write blog posts. I kid. Actually, what I would like to do is elaborate on the 4 sentences Strad took from my response. Before I do, I would like to make a few things absolutely clear:
1. The history and construction of the old master violins are indeed incredible, and in many cases have no equal
2. There are aspects of these tests that cannot(and will never) accurately measure the 'je ne sais quoi' elements of great old violins
3. There are some serious flaws in how some of these tests were conducted. For example, in one earlier test the scientists did not think to test professional violinists; they just played for a general audience and hoped for the best(The test I linked, however, fixed this glaring issue)
3. If you have a wealthy donor (or are independently wealthy), by all means buy an incredible old instrument secure in the knowledge you have made a sound financial investment( and now you get to put "<your name here> currently plays on a the <insert Italian dessert> Stradivarius" at the end of your bio!)
Now that THAT's out of the way, here are my issues with this response.
There is no other profession that I can think of that prices its professionals out of the market with such ferocity. An instrument that is worth half a million dollars one year, could be worth double that 10 years later. Keep in mind, the violin has not rapidly increased in quality. Often it is the association with a famous performer, or an unusually high bid from an enthusiastic investor. And it bears repeating, the violin itself has not improved. It may have actually deteriorated due to being overplayed and over 300 years old(lets see how you'd feel playing violin on your 300th birthday).
For those of us who grew up with parents who were not musicians, shopping for instruments and bows was an absurd task. There was no rhyme or reason to anything in our price range. Often times instruments were suggested that had some meager attachment to the old great masters. It always felt dishonest, and it always left a bad taste in my mouth. I was convinced, until I played one that spoke to me, that all modern instruments were sub-par. It was part of the culture that was fostered by, well, everyone. If all the great players have million dollar instruments, that must make them better than these newer ones, right? Something about being played on for hundreds of years just intrinsically makes the sound better?
This pseudoscience is in the back of the mind of every string player I know, because it's what we've been told since we were young. There is no science to support this notion, but it is widely accepted as fact. Now, I would agree that time being played makes a huge difference on an instruments sound production and quality, but it cannot be an infinite improvement. You can play a bad fiddle for years, but you will not change the fact it is a bad instrument. It may sound better with usage, but at its core it will not miraculously improve.
So the question becomes "Can a modern instrument, made with the same care and competence, compete with that of the old greats? Why or why not, and how can we help to prove it?" As I've mentioned before, there is no perfect way to attempt to test this question, but it is far and beyond a more valuable resource than what we have had before. And when someone like Frank Almond comes out and says "well science doesn't REALLY get it", it strikes me as incredibly tone deaf. These tests aren't directed at the Frank Almonds, Hillary Hahns and Frank Peter Zimmermanns of this world. These tests are for the rest of us poor schmucks trying to sound great on a budget. These tests affirm that yes, you too can sound fantastic if you do your homework and pick the right instrument.
But thats not how we currently measure the value of an instrument.
The value of a string instrument is, if we are being very honest, measured by the following qualities:
1. Who is the maker, and is he dead?
It is of the utmost importance that your violin maker has been dead for at least a century. Anything made after the year 2000 should be met with a tepid "oh really- mmm". Violin makers seem to suffer from the same plight that plagues composers. If they made a large enough body of work we may be interested, after they've died. We might be more interested depending on how much they suffered for their art in their lifetime. I jest! (But only a little bit)
2. Who has played the violin before?
This is an understandable factor, all things considered. Often when violinists are looking for a new instrument, they are given anywhere between 1-2 weeks to try out the instrument in a best case scenario. In a worst case scenario(say, at an auction) A violinist has even less time and must rely entirely on first impressions, usually given in an extraordinarily forgiving acoustic space. In an attempt to assuage our fear of committing thousand(or millions) of dollars to this miraculous piece of wood, the dealer tells us "well, THIS particular Antonio Molto Benne was part of Fritz Kreisler's collection of instruments that he kept in his upstairs bathroom". Well, if one of the old masters bothered with it at all, surely it must be pretty fantastic, right?
3. Is it a good investment?
Because financial stability for musicians has changed very little in the past 400 years, an understandable anxiety of purchasing a stringed instrument is, can I sell it and sort of retire in 70+ years? This is where the absurdity of the violin market seems to work out pretty well. For a small payment of half a million+ dollars, your instrument will likely gain unbelievable value over your lifetime. The market for great old instruments seems altogether unaffected by the turmoil of war or economic hard times. This is probably because the people who are buying them are fantastically wealthy and are thus unperturbed by such things.
4. Does it sound good?
While this should be the only question that matters, there are factors that can create a bias for both bows and instruments. I have had the good fortune to have had extended amounts of time with great old instruments. I've tried out and played on instruments that are worth more than a million dollars, and I've had thoughts like "wow, this instrument is amazing! Except the A string". This is not an uncommon thing to hear. This is also a little bit disconcerting, if said instrument is supposedly worth a million dollars. If I'm paying $250,000 per string basically, why on earth would I accept anything but excellence across the (finger)board?
"I love my Guarneri, but its just a bit soft on the G string. and D string. and A string."
"This Stradivarius I have on loan is amazing, but I've noticed the E string isn't very bright, no matter how I get it adjusted"
"I got such a good deal on this Lupot! It just has a weird buzzing sound on the G string, but otherwise I'm super happy with it!"
These issues aren't exclusive to older instruments. These are normal issues that every string player probably deals(open seams, wolf tones, etc). However, here are the benefits to having a modern violin:
1. No need to sell a kidney to buy one
2. No need to beg someone else to sell their kidney and sponsor you
3. With a little patience, you can find a maker who can make an instrument specifically for your personality
4. Harass said maker if your instrument isn't exactly the way you'd like it
5. Not to sound too much like a bumper sticker, but remember that every instrument ever made was at one point considered modern!
The difficulty of finding a great instrument is the same regardless of its age or fancy-factor. It comes down to how much time you are willing to spend finding and trying violins. The upside is buying modern takes a lot of the 'horse trading' elements out of it. You don't have to worry that your $100,000 Peccatte was broken before, and then mended dishonestly(this has happened, and will continue to happen). If you find yourself mulling over an instrument made in the 17th century by Stradivarius's 2nd cousin Biff, ask yourself "why am I doing this to myself?".
But don't take my, or Mr. Almonds, or anyone else's opinion as fact. If you are in the market for a new instrument, try doing the following. Visit some shops/makers who are willing to let you borrow an instrument or two for a few days. Get some fancy ones, get some unknown ones, get ones people recommend. Disregard age and pedigree, and play them without knowing beforehand which is which. Have a few trusted friends listening. Get a bottle of wine out(or bubbly water if you're pregnant/underage) and play in the room of your house with the absolute worst acoustics. Try out each instrument on many diverse passages, and be absolutely honest. In my experience, and those of many of my compatriots in music, when you find an instrument that you love you will know it. It may well be the fancy, multimillion dollar instrument, but it doesn't HAVE to be. And that is really the most important thing to understand in all of this. You do not need to have a Strad to sound like a million bucks, you just need the right instrument.
Agree/disagree/interested in modern instruments and bows? I'd love to talk about it! Feel free to send me an email, or Facebook message. Angry tweets also accepted.