New instruments: How to look for and evaluate the work of today's violin makers
by Wendy Moes
Today, renowned players are recognizing the worthiness of new instruments and are using them proudly in public.
This recognition encourages violin makers to invest their time and talents in making instruments to an extent never possible before. Many of these makers have backgrounds in repair and set-up. With extensive knowledge of the classical maker's methods, successes, and failures, they are equipped to make real advances in both the quality of sound and appearance of new instruments.
New makers also have an advantage over the classical makers: they can build for today's players and today's halls, both enormously changed in the last 50-100 years.
You may not intend to alter the course of music history by looking for an instrument, but there are several reasons why you ought to consider a new one the next time you do look. By discussing some of the factors that enter into such a decision, my aim is to help you become a free agent in this process. You can then make your own decisions and be confident of them.
When looking for any instrument, the biggest considerations are authenticity, condition, sound quality, and appearance. The harrowing thing about the first two is that both are a matter of opinion, and worse yet, usually someone elses opinion. Since violin dealers seem to make a sport of disagreeing with one another, the musician looking for an instrument can be left in a miserable nervous quandary.
One of the biggest differences between looking for an antique instrument and a modern one is that authenticity and condition are both givens in the latter case. The nervousness and resentment which can grow out of the necessity of relying on other people's sometimes fickle opinions is gone.
To many people there is also something special about the experience of ordering a new instrument, seeing the rough wood (sometimes even getting to choose it), and watching the instrument grow. This certainly matches the excitement of owning an instrument which has had many experiences you have not shared.
Sound quality is still the major factor in choosing an instrument, new or old. So a little preparation is necessary in order to learn what sound one likes best. Before you spend time and money going around looking for instruments, play every instrument you can get your hands on from friends, teachers, and stand partners. Play every instrument at length for hours, not minutes.
Instruments vary in material and build, and each will make subtle, or even drastic, demands on your technique before you get the best sound. Chances are great that the technique you use on your present instrument won't be an instant success on others. This does not make them bad instruments. Try changing the bow speed, pressure, and sounding points. Be able to play on different kinds of strings. After doing this for a while, you will get used to changing instruments and finding out how each responds. Discuss the pros and cons of each with their owners and anyone else who cares to take part. This is very good for opening your eyes and ears, and will help you develop a definite opinion of what good sound is and what suits you best. Unless you know this, you don't really need to change instruments. Then with new ears and playing ability, you can start looking for an instrument.
This vital knowledge is the same for new and old instruments alike. With new instruments, one question that often arises is whether the sound will change. This is an age-old problem with improperly built instruments, and deserves some de-mystification.
Everybody knows a young branch will bend and an old one will snap. This stiffening process goes on long after the tree has been cut. A stiff piece of wood vibrates differently from a flexible one, resulting in a higher and more complete overtone series. We can't hear all the overtones, but we perceive the sound to be more full and pleasant. This means a well-made instrument will improve with age as it stiffens, but it should sound good to begin with. A bad-sounding instrument will not necessarily get better and could get worse.
There is a wide range of quality in new instruments, just as with old ones, and there is a great deal of overlap between new and old instruments. A mistake often made is to assume that any old instrument is better than any new one. People come to us often and say: "I already have a new violin." (As if they were all the same.) "I am looking for something better now." (An old one.)
Until recently, a great number of musicians were reluctant to play any instrument that looked new. But that prejudice is rapidly disappearing into the past. The instruments of Stradivari, Amati, and Guarneri were all once new. They looked it, and they looked great—fit for kings. It is not the newness of some modern instruments that makes them unsightly. It is not the age alone of old instruments which lends them their charm. The charm was there to begin with in the character of the work and the varnish, and should be there with new instruments too.
Audiences, by the way, are notoriously unable to hear the difference between old and new instruments. Any soloist who owns a new instrument—and there are many now who do—can tell stories by the dozen of green room compliments on his Stradivari or Guarneri, when really he had played the new one that night. The best instrument is the one that performs and handles best for the player, not the one with the biggest price tag or the most venerable reputation.
When looking for a new instrument, you will probably find them falling into one of these three categories: copy, model, or original.
A copy is meant to look exactly like an old instrument, often a specific old instrument such as the Stradivari "Messiah" or the Guarneri "Ex-Kreisler." They have scratches, dirt and wear, and sometimes even cracks to make them appear old. To look more authentic they are usually built to the exact dimensions of the original. Undoubtedly some copies were made to be deceptions, but many were made for other reasons. Makers build copies as study projects—the best way to learn a maker's style is try to copy it.
A Stradivari model, for instance, is a violin modeled after Stradivari's violins, or one in particular. Some may have "shaded" rather than full varnish, but they are not intended to look old. It would have either exact or stylized Stradivari outline, f-holes and scroll. It may or may not stick to Stradivari dimensions. Some people making Stradivari models stay very closely to Stradivari-like workmanship; others use the outline and/or proportions as a basis and allow their own ideas to take over from there. This is a kind of "variations on a theme by..." approach and is on the way to becoming an original work.
An original is a model designed by the maker himself and not borrowed from a previous maker, or borrowed but changed beyond recognition. It will have his own outline, proportions, his own style f-hole and scroll.
Most makers seem to start out being influenced by their training, and then make changes gradually according to their aesthetic and acoustic tastes. Makers often begin by modeling their instruments after those of their teachers, and become more and more original (if they are going to) as their careers progress. Stradivari, for example, began by using a model based on Nicolo Amati's violins (his so-called "Amatise period"). Later, he began to make his violins wider in the middle bouts, quite possibly for acoustic reasons. In doing this he straightened the middle bouts, tightening the curves at the top and bottom of the middle bouts. Thus, his model looked different from Amati's, and so on.
Because originals often seem to evolve rather than come about by spontaneous generation, it is hard to draw an exact line between them and models.
Excerpted from an article in ©Strings Magazine. November/December 1989.
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