It’s been an accepted fact in the musical world that violins made by old Italian masters like Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari, are superior in every way to anything that has come since.
For many years, musicians, scientists and engineers have been studying the reason for the supposed superiority of these old Cremona fiddles. Is it the kind of wood, the wood treatment, subtleties in shape, or the varnish that’s responsible for their supposedly higher quality of musical sound?
Is it true that these old violins are superior to anything made today?
Most of these studies I’m about to describe were reported during the past few years in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. What follows is a summary of the experiments and their results extracted from articles in the popular press that described the original experiments. In other words, this talk is a summary of reports of reports of studies. Not very satisfactory, but the best I can do for now.
One study was made by violin acoustics expert Professor Claudia Fritz of the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris. Both old and new violins were used. Seven world famous soloists were invited to play to musically sensitive audiences at concert halls in Paris and New York, in a blind test in which neither the performers nor audience knew which instrument was being played. The old violins included two by Guarneri del Gesu, six by Stradivari, and one by another well-known 18th century Italian master.
On every occasion, the public preferred music played on newer violins.
In another experiment, the same researchers had 55 people listen to six violins, three by Stradivari and three by new makers, in a small concert hall outside Paris and also one in New York with 82 people in the audience. The Paris audience consisted of professional musicians, instrument makers and others. In both the Paris and the New York experiments, the study found that a large majority of both audiences thought the new violins had a better sound.
Another study was performed in 2012 by Claudia Fritz and Joseph Curtin, an outstanding violin maker in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This study was performed using a variety of violins, some from the old masters, some that were made very recently. The tests were conducted in a low-light hotel room, with 21 professional violinists wearing welding goggles to prevent them from being able to pick up on identifying traits or markings on the violins. The testers also applied perfume to the violins to mask any telltale odors that might give away their history. Then they had third party assistants, who also wore goggles, present the instruments to the musicians.
Each musician was asked to play two violins, one after the other. Unbeknownst to them, one of the instruments was new and one was one of the old prized violins. Afterwards, each musician was asked to judge both instruments on four criteria: tonal color range, projection, playability and response. In tallying up the responses, there were no clear winners, though there was one clear loser: one of the older instruments.Next, each volunteer musician was asked to try out all six of the violins (by sound alone as they were still wearing the goggles) and then to pick one as their favorite - one they’d like to take home.
In this part of the study, one of the newer violins was the clear favorite, while the loser from the first test was found to be the least favorite of all the violins tested by all of the musicians.
The loser in both tests just happened to be a violin labeled “O1” and has quite an illustrious history. It’s been used by many famous violin virtuosos over the years, both in concert and in recordings.
Another blind test performed in Hanover, Germany was reported in a YouTube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNzRHuqvMxQ) with the opposite result. The same violinist played the same short musical selection on each of Two Strads, two Guarneris, and two modern violins.
A screen hid the performer and violins from the jury. The first instruments to be discarded from consideration were the two modern violins, and near the end of the selection one Strad and one Guarneri were left. Was the violinist aware of the provenance of the violins being played? Probably. Did this knowledge affect the performances? Possibly, but we don’t really know.
Sometime in the 1980s the great American luthier Carleen Hutchins, an acoustical physicist, and (I think) also Rembert Wurlitzer’s famous violin maker Sacconi had all come to the conclusion that the lofty reputation of the old Cremona fiddles was mostly hype, but agreed not to publish this conclusion for fear that it would disturb and upset the ‘Cremona violin market’.
I’ll conclude with this famous story about Heifetz: Someone came backstage after a concert and said "Maestro, your violin sounds fantastic!" Heifetz looked at his violin, put it next to his ear, and then said, "I don't hear anything....."