Violin and the road to perfection

If you’ve ever listened to the second part of Paganini’s violin concerto #4…


you know that a violin can be an angelic instrument.

But after listening to Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns…


you also know it can sound like a Devils fiddle.

And after listening to Charlie Daniels band…

now you are certain.

The scale of expression is difficult to match with other rich instruments, like piano and organ, mainly since in these two the final tone is already predetermined by strings on the piano and the size of its pipes on the organ. The violinist has to make each sound by himself, which obviously is prone to individuality and imperfections.

The violin appeared in European music in the sixteenth century. At that time, no one yet even had heard of the piano. Modern pianos date back to the beginning of the eighteen century.

When presented with early Amati instruments, for the untrained eye, there is no difference between these and modern instruments played in contemporary concert halls. The look is the same, the shape is the same, and there is no major difference in the construction of the instrument. The main differences are in the type of wood (the top is still made from spruce and the fingerboard mostly out of ebony), the composition and way of applying the varnish, and the thinness, to the tenth of a millimeter, of the front and the backplates. Making a violin is an art and quite often is a trial-and-error process. If the luthier doesn’t like the sound, or when he does, but the violinist doesn’t, the instrument is taken apart, shaved off here and there, varnish changed, and then reassembled again.

When I played violin, one person told me, that she likes violins only if they play in the orchestra. Not the case. In the orchestra, violins lose their individual sounds and the skills of the artists cannot be appreciated well.

So the violin as an instrument didn’t change since the time it evolved from viola de bracio. It looks like it’s impossible to improve on perfection. But violin literature exploded with a huge scale of expression, results of which are cited in the above clips.

Most of the people prize good violins, and these with famous names attached to them commend sizable price tags. But is it worth it? Study after study strongly suggests that even the most experienced musicians cannot differentiate the sound of the most expensive violins from the sound of the mass production instruments. The best Strads are seen more as art objects than as musical instruments.

Franz Kreisler owed a powerful instrument made by Guarneri de Gesu, which eventually came to bear his name. Niccolo Paganini owned a violin made by the same luthier and was so powerful it got a nickname ‘The Cannon”. During one of his concerts, Kreisler played the first two parts on a commercial, assembly line type of cheep violin and during the intermission he smashed his instrument, so all the parts were only held by strings. The audience gasped, thinking that it was his prized possession. Then the violinist went backstage and came out with his Guarneri, a real deal. The question was whether the audience could appreciate the difference in sound.

The best of instruments get unique names given by their provenance and are known for their given single names, just like celebrities.

The most expensive Strad went for sixteen million dollars. A cello made by Stradivari, put up for sale by Sotheby for forty-five million on a silent auction, didn’t take a bite. The most expensive concert pianos made by Steinway go for around one-hundred thousand dollars. And there is a distinguishable difference in sound between the first made pianos and modern instruments.

So what’s the mystery of violins made by Amati, Stradivari or Guarneri?

That’s for another post.

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