Study Casts New Doubt on Superiority of Stradivarius Violins

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So you think you can tell a fine Stradivarius from a modern violin without reading the label? If not, you're in good company: Neither can several professional violin soloists.

Researchers in Paris brought together ten experienced violinists to perform on six modern violins and six made by Old Italian masters, including five by Antonio Stradivari. The musicians wore modified welder goggles to prevent instrument identification by eye. When asked to compare and choose a violin to replace their own for a hypothetical concert tour, six of the 10 soloists selected a modern instrument. A single new violin was the most-preferred of the 12.

“They could easily tell in test conditions whether they liked the instruments or not,” said Joseph Curtin, a co-author of the study, along with French researcher Claudia Fritz. “They couldn’t tell if they were old or new. And for me, this implies that whatever it is they’re looking for in an instrument isn’t directly related to the age or for matter, the country of origin.”

The study, which was published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was partly an attempt to make up for previous studies that have been accused of lacking sufficient scientific rigor.

Specifically, a 2010 double-blind study conducted in a hotel room in Indianapolis was widely disparaged for not using concert-hall conditions, for an insufficient evaluation period, and for using a small set of test violins. The new study provided for two 75-minute sessions for each instrument, the first in a rehearsal room and the second in a 300-seat concert hall (now, as in 2010, modern instruments were most preferred).

The study is the latest salvo in the Strad wars, an ongoing debate over whether the considerable worth of such instruments is rooted in myth or merit. It arrives a week after Sotheby’s announced the listing of the 1719 "Macdonald" Stradivarius viola, which experts believe could fetch a record $45 million in auction.

Curtin, a luthier based in Ann Arbor, MI, acknowledges that he may appear to have a stake in the study's outcome. But he notes that his co-authors all brought different viewpoints; among them was the violinist Hugues Borsarello, who usually plays on a 17th century Ruggieri violin. Curtin also says that the authors sought to create a representative pool of instruments from top dealers and makers.

Still, the study is unlikely to be the final word. Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus at Texas A&M University in College Station who studies the chemistry of violins, told The New Scientist he wasn’t convinced. He says that players need to play a violin for weeks to evaluate it fully, and that the study did not take into account that Stradivari vary in tone.

Curtin acknowledges that what sounds best to a soloist may not resonate with an audience member or fellow musicians.

"They’re all valid points of view," he said. "The idea that violin quality is uniquely defined and judged from one single perspective seems to be naïve: in the end, it’s the players who choose their instruments and the players who are in a lot of ways who are best equipped to evaluate because they’re inside a feedback loop. They’re getting response from the instrument directly, whereas listeners are somewhat passive.”