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Is a Stradivarius just another fiddle?

In the current issue of Standpoint, I look at the vexed questions of instrumental values.

Why is a pedigree fiddle, affordable until recently on a orchestral salary, now the plaything of bankers and speculators?

Who has been making a killing?

Why do violin dealers and luthiers keep getting hauled into court and jail? Why, only yesterday….

 

Dietmar Machold, Geigenhändler und Kunstmäzän, Eichbüchl 2006

 

Why do violins – and no other instruments – get onto the nightly news?

Why has David Schoenbaum’s excellent social history of the violin been banned in Britain?

Answers and more in my Standpoint essay. Click here to read.

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Comments

  1. The price of fine old violins has everything to do with normal economic considerations: finite supply and huge demand due to the superior sound qualities that are perceived by players and listeners. It is a bit odd that even poor sounding c18 italian fiddles carry a hefty price, but such is the desperation of players chasing “that” sound.

    Without mentioning any names, I would also suggest that it is somewhat naive to represent the London trade as having been a haven of honesty compared to other locations.

  2. John Soloninka says:

    As we have commented on this blog before…”that sound” can be achieved and sometimes exceeded by brand new instruments from master makers. (See Claudia Fritz’s experiments in 2010 and 2012 where strad and guarnerius instruments were compared to brand new instruments under strict double blinded conditions). Remember, when Beare or Bein and Fushi get a violin to appraise, they look at its authenticity, its provenance and chain of ownership, its physical condition, its potential role in history (e.g. concerto premieres etc.). At no time do they play it, and say “Oh…because of that tone I will increase the price by X”. It is more like valuing a painting or antique furniture…rather than “that sound”. Fortunately for players, the irreproducibility of “that sound” is myth. Unfortunately, too many collectors and violinists still believe the myth. In many ways, it serves them to do so. You will now invariably see in concert programs “The soloist is playing an XYZ Stradivarius violin.” All part of the marketing.

    • Yes there are great new makers, but the top soloist who plays a new instrument is a brave exception. And the market discourages new instrument making: a luthier can make far more money restoring an old instrument than making a new one.

    • That myth serves EVERYONE who sells. Astronomic prices for the old Master instruments have a proportional influence on the prices for new instruments. If a Strad sold for 100.000,- only, a new master instrument still could only ask for a fraction of that. If the Strad sells for millions, the fraction increases proportionally. So the makers of new violins are all in it, when it comes to keeping the – mostly unjustified, exceptions apply – myth alive. They profit nicely.

  3. Daniel Mullin says:

    Hang on a minute, since when has a pedigree instrument been affordable on an orchestral musician’s salary? Maybe in your lifetime, Norman, but certainly not in the last 50 years!

  4. Mr Schoenbaum’s book has not been “banned in Britain”: it seems to be easily available on amazon.co.uk, for example. If, as your article suggests, there could be defamation issues if the book were formally published in the UK, then that is a concern for Mr Schoenbaum, his publisher and their advisers.

    There are a number of defences to an action for defamation, of which the first and most important is that the imputation of the statement is “substantially true”: relevant other defences are honest opinion and public interest. If the book cannot get over these hurdles in respect of any allegedly contentious material, Mr Schoenbaum may well have a problem under English defamation law should he decide to publish it here. No-one has banned it.

    It is one thing to campaign against airlines for their violin transport policies, but quite another to imply that a social history of the violin should be exempt from the law of defamation.

  5. This is an ongoing story since it has been discovered that a fine violin is a better investment than almost anything else.
    It is a sad fact that a great number of those instruments are in hands of banks, museums, business people etc. Those violins are never played, but at least some will be given to players on loan for a period of time. (I personally don’t like the idea from the player’s aspect because if there is a good “relationship” between player and violin, then it is like an unwanted divorce by giving it back)
    On the other hand, there are many wonderful violins with great sound and much lower price. However, I think in most of the cases it’s up to the player how a violin will sound, (to a certain degree of quality of course) Just recently, someone came to me after a recital asking what violin I was playing, because it sounded much nicer than a Strad of another violinist he had heard a week before.
    Sometimes it is extremely difficult to find the violin, it needs a lot of luck and money, but unfortunately also many of us believe that a good violin will change everything, not realizing that learning to build a great sound is our daily homework.
    Maybe we should draw a line between those extremely overpriced superviolins and the rest of them, letting the business world use these like paintings, antiques etc., and having for us the more affordable, many beautiful, even new instruments.

  6. Kees Cornelder says:

    Dear Beloveds, the Italian craftsman/luthier Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) made -oh yes indeed- very good bowed string instruments. Question: concerning his instruments, how many of them have survived in their original state? A very few I am afraid. Oh….so for the rest it’s a Haute-Financelike tinselthing? Yip

  7. There was a French study some months ago where musicians could not tell the difference, in a very serious blind competition (including blocking the smell) between an excellent new violin and a Stradivarius.

  8. It is a complicated business, but as a violin maker myself I would say that he situation is very healthy for us. The more unaffordable antique instruments become, the more payers will turn to a well-made modern instrument, as long as they are indeed well made. Values of old instruments do not depress new making. But I would never suggest that new instruments (certainly not mine) are an adequate replacement for the great masterpieces of Stradivari. Players know right enough why they want them, why they choose to pay them and sacrifice everything to get their hands on them. You can’t dupe someone who is about to take the stage and perform some masterwork under intense public scrutiny. Old instruments provide a richer, wider tonal palette, and thus greater freedom of expression. Why, I don’t know. But it is not something that can easily be judged in blind ‘tone’ tests. In performance, the audience doesn’t hear the violin, it hears the player. And the player performs best with an instrument they can express themselves with best, the instrument that gives them the maximum resources, not just the loudest or sweetest voice.
    Violins improve with age. I sincerely believe the best, oldest violin will always be the best one you can get. Antonio Stradivari was the greatest violin maker of his age, and so his instruments, as long as they survive, will remain the best that can be got. New violins will age and gain their voices, but they need time. We makers do spend a great deal of time in maintaining and restoring these older masterpieces, but we learn from the experience to improve our own work. The instruments have been ‘modernised’ in many ways, but their function and performance remains.
    It’s a shame that it is the banks that get the financial benefit, but we still get the artistic benefit. Nothing’s perfect.

  9. Alan Penner says:

    Rubbish. The overwhelming subjective nature of sound alone dilutes the general consensus that there’s “Stradivarius,” then there’s everything else. It’s just a counterproductive idea that runs on ancient myth and lore about a mini-ice age affecting the wood of a certain region. Is Stradivarius a good sounding instrument? Of course. The only good sounding instrument? Don’t be silly.
    There’s also the matter of practicality in various situations; some top players use carbon fiber instruments when the conditions are less than ideal for wooden instruments — a concept, I might add, that came from the cellist Luis Leguia. They also project a far greater sound than wooden instruments could ever do. Might not be a big deal in intimate settings, but the larger the venue, the more you’ll see them.
    The reason bankers got interested in the first place is that such an expensive instrument is an investment (something that could be said about anything of high value). The higher the value, the more opportunity to make money off of it (insurance / maintenance, etc.) The fact that we all somehow agreed that they’re worth that much is the odd bit.

  10. Dean Williams says:

    They are old fiddles, nothing more. I have heard of at least three blind and double blind experiments, and all of them had the same results: Nobody could tell with any certainty which violin was a Stradivarius and which was a recent one. Before responding to this post, I searched, and I found something even more interesting. It is a link to a double blind experiment during which violinists were asked to play instruments and pick out the Strad. Read the results yourself.

    There is even a link where you can hear an excerpt being played on a Strad and a new violin. Before reading to the end of the article, try the links and see if you can pick out the the Strad.

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/01/02/144482863/double-blind-violin-test-can-you-pick-the-strad

    It might also be interesting to find out who picked the Strad, and why.
    (I did hear a difference. Number one had more overtones and was more pleasing… to my ear.)

  11. Although oblique to the discussion, let me say this (because Lebrecht mentions Fox News and I work for it).

    As always, he writes well. Public understanding of what goes into an orchestra and why is diminished, possibly never to return. Presumably within our lifetime we’ll see celebrated Strats rival Strads at auction. Bankers will offer absurd figures for the factory-line laminated chipboard of Eric Clapton’s Layla guitar.

    Popular media connives in this. Fox News Channel has probably covered the Minnesota standoff at some point, but the last story I personally remember was the NY Phil’s visit to North Korea. And we didn’t fly there because of the orchestra.

    Although, I would add, there are more cultural dissidents within Fox’s staff than you might think (it recruits from the New York liberal media set, after all). And we try.

  12. Making a violin is one of the simpler crafts. In 1936 with no practice and working under the most extreme conditions this maker proved that a violin didn’t need to be made with conventional tools or from the finest materials to play well, sound good and be beautiful to look at.

    He had no carpentry skills, couldn’t read or play a note, had no knowledge of instrument making and no one to guide him or give him a hint of advice. His only tools for cutting and shaping the violin were; a cut-throat razor, a sharp knife, and a file. What’s more, he weighted and pressured it into shape with six gallons of water (in pans), two flat irons and two firebricks.

    As Lord Yehudi Menuhin said “It is a quite wonderful violin and bow, how extraordinary.” And, on another occasion Nigel Kennedy said it was “a phenomenal achievement.”

    A recent BBC TV news item publicised an exhibition of the maker’s violin and more instruments. The video includes Lord Yehudi Menuhin and Nigel Kennedy here:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-sussex-22434728

    Detailed photos of the violin and some of the other instruments can be viewed on the website.

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