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Send your e-mail to mclennan@artsjournal.com



FROM: Art Haykin


Some years ago, Nova did an in-depth investigation into the mythology of the redoubtable output of the Cremona masters, and came up with some interesting conclusions that cast suspicions on the validity of the lore that attends these legendary fiddles.

Surely it was the varnish that accounted for the incomparable tone, and of course the wood, the design proportions, and the craftsmanship.... what else could it possibly be?  But they had access to it all, except for the "lost varnish formulŠ."

So what did they do?  They scoured the best makers and submitted all the quality violins they could find to exhaustive tests.  Woods were compared, as were construction and design styles down to f (F) holes and string materials. Audio experts dissected sound output patterns and the welter of arcane sub-harmonics, etc, Different players were chosen to comment on blind tests, and it came off as a sort of wine tasting thing, with highly personal evaluations that often differed remarkably.  The same instrument was found to be both shrill and warm on the highs, while the lows were both booming and rich. Whatever all that means. Middle ranges were something else altogether:  both passionate and lacking luster.

Finally, they convinced a very nervous Strad owner to allow them to make measurements of the top (sound board?) portion, nonintrusively through the f (F) holes with a specially designed calipers, and they determined that it was the cunning control of the varying thickness of that board that did the trick.  To confirm, they bought several raw fiddles from a German firm that massed produced them for routine players. They weren't junk, but they were real violins.  These were completely disassembled and modified to conform to the Strad's dimensions, and when tested, performed incredibly close to the Strad's standards, as judged by both the "wine tasters" AND the audio experts!  They were confident that with better raw materials and more time spent on modifications, they could equal any Stradivarius, Guanerius, or Amati.  What do you think of them apples?

How much of it is hype, and/or the result of good playing, assuming, of course, GOOD instruments at least?  I certainly don't know, but I surely wonder now.





Silencing the Great Violins: Violins aren't just musical instruments, they're also - unfortunately for musicians - art. Increasingly, only banks and investors can afford to own them. Are musicians just out of luck?
By Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan

Our "Rare Instruments" Archives