Why Old, Expensive Violins Are Not Always Best

Thursday, February 02, 2012

A Guarneri violin A Guarneri violin (fred.andres/flickr)

Concert audiences may never know if a violinist is playing on a rare instrument from 18th-century Italy or a modern one that sells for the cost of a used sedan. But don't tell that to the owner of the "Lady Blunt," a 1721 Stradivarius violin that sold for $16 million at an auction last June. Or the recipient of a 1707 Stradivarius cello owned by the late Bernard Greenhouse that fetched $6 million in January.

Antique instruments are selling for astronomical prices these days, but some question whether they deserve all of the accolades. In a controversial study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, blindfolded experts were unable to pick two Stradivarius violins from modern instruments, based on their sound alone.

In this podcast Naomi Lewin asks three experts about this line between myth and merit: Steven Isserlis, the cellist and author of a Guardian article on the aforementioned study; Daniel J. Wakin, the classical music and dance reporter at the New York Times; Sam Zygmuntowicz, a Brooklyn-based violin maker whose instruments are used by some of today’s leading string players.

"Just because they're expensive doesn't make them better or worse than anything else. It's well known that listeners can't tell the difference between Strads and new violins. It's been done over and over and it's not even controversial at this point." --Sam Zygmuntowicz

"These instruments have souls. The souls have been growing in the Strads. We don't know what the Stradivarius's sounded like two or three hundred years ago. But I think the sound has grown and the souls have grown. They have these layers of color." --Steven Isserlis

"Money and value and a tool of performance are very separate. There's a clear-cut market for these instruments just as there's a market for great works of art. There is an existing market that functions because of dealers and perceptions and because people have money and they want to invest in things." --Daniel Wakin

Weigh in: Are you drawn to hear performers who play on rare instruments?

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Comments [20]

Mat Dirjish from New Yor, NY

As a stringed-instrument player - cello, guitar, string bass - some older instruments certainly feel better under the fingers than certain newer versions, mainly because they are used and broken in. I do not believe an instrument needs to be around for several centuries to acquire the "warm & fuzzy" feel. As far as an instrument sounding better because it has been played a lot, that is subjective. When you think about it, how much was a centuries-old Stradivarius played between the first owner and the current? Maybe a lot, perhaps very little, particularly if it sat in a museum or someone's attic. Bottom line, who really knows? About the extreme prices, it's fairly obvious that if something is rare and not easily replaceable it will cost a pretty penny IF the demand for it is high. There are US postal stamps close to two centuries in age that are not even worth face value. So it's economics 101: scarce supply + high demand = high price.

Feb. 07 2012 02:15 PM
jody breslaw from nyc

No intelligent music-lover can agree with the many people who insist that the construction, the wood used and the "aging" process make Strads and comparable instruments better than their modern counterparts. What part of a blind listening test don't you understand? If even the experts can't tell the difference (0 correlation in the results, which is to say NO one can identify with any accuracy), then the superiority of the Strads is a myth. I know a professional violinist who owns a Strad, but also a new instrument made of some space-age carbon compound (not even wood!), who says the former is in no way superior. I know that Republicans have no respect for science, but the rest of us should, even if not in keeping with the conventional wisdom.

Feb. 07 2012 12:54 PM

I have not read all the preceding comments, so all apologies if my opinion is redundant.

I think there is great merit to the vintage instrument aside from it's sound - the provenance; the history and the connection to its maker - in this case, Antonio Stradivarius.The fact that an instrument has survived for CENTURIES and still sounds as good as if not better than a new instrument makes it all the more impressive, therein lies the primary factor in the demand on acquiring such rare and aged instruments. It's not just an instrument; it's a piece of history, played on by the contemporaries and peer of some of classical music's legends.

Feb. 05 2012 02:35 AM
Michael Meltzer

Sorry about the typos. On Facebook, you can go back in and clean them up!

Feb. 05 2012 02:17 AM
Michael Meltzer

To elaborate, here's what I think an expeert is for: If you find an instrument that you like, but don't trust your own knowledge before deciding to purchas, an expert called in at that point should tell you if it is all the thing s the sller says it is, if it is over- orunder-valued, if it needs any repairs now or in the near future and what they would cost, whether it is suitable for public as well as private venues,and tell you something about how your own requirements and expectations may change "down the pike" as you use the instrument and grow as a student or performer.
Forums like this are just an entertaining exercise, they are not really useful.

Feb. 05 2012 02:10 AM
Michael Meltzer

@hunter/gatherer: What I suggest is that this field of inquiry is so murky and objective vs. subjective criteria so mixed, that any conclusion to be drawn will be a generalization that is about as much use as a generalization about horses before a horse race. I believe that my long experience with pianos applies to violins as well -that every instrument, old or new, if it is made of wood, is unique, unlike any other, and must be taken on its own terms.
The main function of experts in this area is to take their knowledge of the various criteria and try to assign appropriate dollar values. They will not be able to assign those same criteria to an instrument you haven't heard and tell you if you will like it.

Feb. 05 2012 01:41 AM
Hunter Gatherer from West Village

Mr. Meltzer: you seem to have a problem with the fact that this show used experts for their opinions. I'm not following your line of thinking. Would you have preferred a trombone or a flute player instead?

Waren: I've heard that too - that Guarneris project better than Strads. Strads are more refined and "prissier" while Guarneris are "manlier."

Feb. 04 2012 07:30 AM
Harry from Brooklyn, NY

It's been about 20 years, but I remember a colleague at an ad agency -- an amateur violinist -- who expressed delight at the wonderful tone of a new instrument. To be sure, it had been made for him by his wife as a wedding present. (Really! She brought parts to the office to work on them in her off time.) But above and beyond emotional value, the fact that Anne devoted more than a year to meticulously hand-crafting every detail from the finest materials she could afford clearly made it an outstanding instrument. Craft counts. Even Steinway still builds its concert grands mostly by hand.

Feb. 04 2012 04:50 AM
Miichael Meltzer

Correction: my first sentence should read, "... no one wanted an OLD fiddle, everyone wanted a new Stradivarius."

Feb. 04 2012 03:06 AM
Michael Meltzer

Age alone is of course not the only factor by any means. Since in Stradvarius' day, no one wanted a new fiddle, but they all wanted a new Stradivarius, it is theoretically possible for a modern luthier to emerge with the same genius for engineering and craftsmanship.
When the right violin is placed in the hands of the right violinist, it springs to life in a way so obvious and so profound that "experts" are a waste of everyone's time. If that chemistry does NOT occur, whatever is the experts' judgment is academic anyway.

Feb. 04 2012 03:03 AM
Warren in Tidewater

There's also the volume of sound. I read somewhere that the Guarneri is prized by soloists because it can be heard easily over the orchestra. True?

Feb. 04 2012 02:24 AM
Barry Owen Furrer

I recall the New Jersey Symphony purchasing a major collection of rare and desirable stringed instruments years ago only find out the majority of the collection were "Frankensteins," meaning they were parts of many vintage instruments put together to make "new" old instruments. If the idea was to enhance the sound of the string section when playing period works, if the woodwind and brass sections are playing 20th century instruments, what's the point and ouch - the expense!

Feb. 03 2012 07:34 PM
caesar j. warrick from Playland Rye N.Y.

I love old instuments. I own three vintage acoustical guitars and not only are they made well they sound wonderful. At present I am in the midst of restoring a 125 yr. old Luscomb 5 string banjo.This thing was made by real craftsman, mostly by hand. When I get done with it I am going to ask five million dollars for it,yeah, right. Ha,haaaa. I can not believe the price that these vintage instuments bring. This really opens up the market for counterfeit editions.Buyer beware. I hear that some of this stuff is almost undetectable.C.J.W.

Feb. 03 2012 06:31 PM
whitkeen from New Jersey

I think you can hear the difference between a fine instrument and a not-so-fine instrument, but I am not sure that age alone accounts for it.
Stads, Amatis etc were young once, and we have no way of learning how they sounde then, although if the sound had been less than terrific, they probably would not have survived until the present. We also have no way of knowing what the newer instruments will sound like a century or more from now. Therefor, if it sounds wonderful, use it, old or new.

Feb. 03 2012 04:14 PM
anne from ny

I am heartbroken by the death of the 'antique instrument' mystique! I love to imagine the other hands that played my cello, I love the smell of my old cello, I love to tell my students about the ways in which the Strads were studied and still no one could break the code!.... Some things can't be measured by technology; like love, joy, and my sentimental regard for beautiful, old cherished intruments!

Feb. 03 2012 04:07 PM
Richard Applegate

We talk about music as meaning "recorded" and "live" music rather interchangeably. The sound of an instrument IS important. It should be noted that recording venues and recording engineers can enhance or erode quality. I have recorded instruments, including pianos, regardless of vintage, that were highly regarded for their "sound" in the studio, but which did not fair well in a large hall. A poor venue can also make a beautiful instrument sound strident, un-musical.

Feb. 03 2012 02:28 PM
Michael Meltzer

Training and musicianship are admirable. Beautiful sound is intoxicating, irresistable, and the ultimate messenger. The two are not mutually exclusive, but there is a difference. Whatever it takes is whatever it takes, nothing to do with how we would like the world to be remade.

Feb. 03 2012 01:01 PM
Bernie from UWS

I think the instrument maker raised an important point - the more classical music becomes fixated on high priced instruments, the more it's tainted by an aura of elitism and "luxury." Joe Public thinks that classical musicians operate in this rarified world where everything has a high price tag on it. It shouldn't have to be that way. If their training and musicianship is solid, the instrument becomes secondary at best.

Feb. 03 2012 08:06 AM
Michael Meltzer

Perhaps the question is whether the "experts" deserve to be called experts.
When I was working for Steinway over 20 years ago, research was published proving that sound vibrations over a period of time effected microscopic changes in the grain structure of sprucewood, the transmitter and amplifier of the musical sounds we love. The wood improved its resonating ability. Piano soundboards eventually break down from high tension, not from vibration, and violins seem to go on forever, always improving.

Feb. 03 2012 02:57 AM
David from Flushing

I was surprised that the Academy did not use more scientific methods in studying the differences between modern and antique instruments. Sound can be measured in all its frequencies and comparisons would not be difficult to make today. The subjectivity of the listeners and differences in performance could alter the outcomes of the method used.

Feb. 02 2012 07:00 PM

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