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Cremonese verus the rest


Argon55
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I too have greatly enjoyed reading this thread.

The sheer number of post and the careful thought that went into them is evidence to the passion that this topic stirs.

Logically, I must agree with henrypeacham on his hypothesis and that it could be proven with experiment and statistics. As an engineer it seems clear that these instruments can and probably have been effectively reproduced.

It seems that the most compelling augment to the contrary is that the top performers seem to be willing to pay extraordinary sums for the best old instruments.

I think that this is contributed more to history and economics than to an unequalled sound quality or playability of the instrument. At the time of the innovation, these instruments were the best; naturally they were preferred and used by the best musicians. At some point, playing these instruments became a cultural requirement to be considered a top celebrity performer.

Today, it makes economic sense for a celebrity player to use a Stradivarius. Not just any Stradivarius, but the most expensive and historically famous instrument that can be acquired.

Take my own experience as example. I am notoriously tightfisted with money. However, I just bought tickets for my family to see Joshua Bell in person. This is the most money I have ever spent on any single entertainment event; I would never have done so if he was not playing the Gibson Stradivarius (I just hope he takes it on tours).

Even tough I do not believe that these instruments are unsurpassed, like many others, I am still fiercely captivated by the subject.

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I agree with a few things in your post but I am curious, have you played a genuine Stradivari violin before? If you are one of the lucky people that have actually played one, then you have 'some' basis for your opinion that "these instruments can and probably have been effectively reproduced". Otherwise it's pure speculation.

I still think Strad had a few things going on that we have yet to figure out. I have not played one though so, I guess my opinion is pure speculation.

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  • 3 weeks later...

"Alone, no. I've felt I've done a pretty nice thing once in a

while, but a side-by-side comparison with the real thing is always

an abrupt and painful reality check. It's easy to believe you're

great if you have no fixed reality to compare with."

Those words by Mr. Darnton are some of the most honest words I have

ever heard from a violin maker or dealer.

I deeply respect them as I do the efforts of any modern maker who

painstakingly and honestly tries to reach that elusive del Gesu and

Stradivari level of craft.  

I would like to share my (very) humble 2 cents worth on this

subject from the point of view of someone 'with ears' who studied

at Juilliard and currently plays professionally on an 18th c.

violin of dubious origin (a gift, and not a fiddle of much value,

if any, in the marketplace but it does what I need it to do and I'm

OK with that.  It's a fluke fiddle).

While studying at Juilliard (and since) I've played several (over a

dozen)  Strads and del Gesus, and not just the "regular"

(!?!!) ones but some with big-time names and pedigrees, pardon my

crude terminology.  Meaning, golden period Strads and late

period Del Gesus, also a few fine examples by Peter Guarneri

(Mantua), Bergonzi, Sanctus, a wonderful Storioni, etc.  Some

were on loan to my friends from the School, some on loan from

foundations or private sponsors, and in a couple cases they were

privately owned (the lucky devils).  One of my

private teachers owned a 1714 Strad, another a Storioni,

another a Guadagnini.

At conservatory, many of my friends played excellent violins

made by some of the best makers of our time: from Ann Arbor,

Chicago, and New York (the usual suspects).

Violinists are nothing if not comparative (and competitive) by

nature. I don't know why, but they are.  Also very

curious.  So, on frequent occasions we would sneak into a

hall, usually the Juilliard theater or Alice Tully, and have

everybody sit in the last row and we'd take turns trying these

fiddles up on stage.  Really putting them through the paces.

 Great fun.  It might not have met strict scientific

criteria, but at least no one could see what was being played from

such a distance.  And I can promise you that in our little

group we could in fact all tell a Strad from a Guarneri from a

Burgess from a Finannza from a Lark both in real life and on

recording.  Some people can.

I can tell you from a recording if Perlman is playing his Sauret or

his Soil and also what fingerings and bowings he's using.

Now I don't play or own a Cremonese violin, nor do I play or own an

American or a modern fiddle.  No particular reason.

 I have no "agenda".  But I can tell you this: in ever

single informal playing test my peers and I participated in,

without exception, the Cremonese violins BLEW THE MODERN FIDDLES

OUT OF THE WATER.  There was no contest, it wasn't even really

close.  Ever.  And frankly that both surprised and

disappointed the hell out of me, because I'll never be able to

afford a great Cremonese instrument and my connections with the Chi

Mei Cultural Foundation are tenuous at best...maybe I can break

into the Comune di Genova and break the glass case before getting

shot...

Whenever a modern maker claims to have equaled or surpassed

Cremonese instruments, smile, turn, and walk out the door because

it's not true. They just think they have.  Now

some get closer than others, perhaps, but close is not nearly

close enough.  (Even a hair's breadth difference here is the

Grand Canyon).  True, many of the modern violins, esp.

American violins, are wonderful, both visually and acoustically.

 I admire them.  Wish I could afford one.  Often

times they are actually somewhat easier for some people to play.

 Often they sound louder under the ear.  Often they sound

bigger than Cremonese in the practice room.  But the acid test

is: Take them to a hall compare.  There is something about the

Cremonese which for lack of a better term involves colors

and direction.  Those instruments produce a tonal palette that

cannot (yet) be matched.  A multi-directionality to the sound

that is at times mysterious. It feels like it's coming

from all over and it's even confusing.  On a tactile level,

the darn things practically play themselves at times, the response

and articulation is that crisp. What can I

say, it's love on four strings, man. Or Zen or

whatever you want to call it, it defies easy 'labeling' as does all

great Art. Yet we know it is there right in front of

us.  

These are cultural treasures and masterpieces in ever-decreasing

numbers, and no amount of copying or tap tones or tea leaves or

humidity cycling or piezotronic hammers or VSA medals or UV lights

or computers or psychic channeling, none of that will work.

 Nothing can match that sound or that feel (at least not yet).

 Can the paying public tell the difference?  Looks like

maybe not. But then the paying public is tone deaf and

elected George Bush--what do they know?  Those of us who do

know, and those who are honest, we know.  And we agree.

 And that's enough. 

Cremonese instruments (when properly set up) are so far beyond

anything else that has come after--that is THE reason that all the

best violinists of the 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries prefer

them.  They are simply better, more comfortable, more visually

awesome producers of exquisite sound.  Paganini could

have played a more valuable Strad, or a then-modern Italian,

yet he opted for a del Gesu for most of his concert work.  In

fact he chose to play an instrument which was not nearly the

most valuable one then or even terribly well known at the

time.  No dealer conspiracy theory there.  Yet the

Cannone is probably the finest sounding fiddle in the world.

 Paganini simply chose to play the best sounding fiddle

he could get his hands on.  As did Kreisler, Heifetz,

Oistrakh, Perlman, Rabin, Primrose, Zukerman, DuPre, Ma...that list

goes on and on forever.

"...Scuse me, while I kiss the sky."

Respectfully,

Lisa

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Great post! Now that's what a meaningful opinions based on true

experiences!

 

quote:


A multi-directionality to the sound that is at times

mysterious. It feels like it's coming from all over and

it's even confusing.

Do you mean no matter where you sit, the violin still sounds like

it's playing in front of you? If it's true, that must be some

incredible carrying power and seems infinity... Amazing...

Often I heard people talking about Cremonese instruments doesn't

sounds loud when listened closely. It's surprised to know a modern

instrument sounds bigger in practice room, but lose its match in a

concert hall...

Oh boy... A piece of old wood that cost millions...

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quote:


Originally posted by:
lisajames

These are cultural treasures and masterpieces in ever-decreasing

numbers, and no amount of copying or tap tones or tea leaves or

humidity cycling or piezotronic hammers or VSA medals or UV lights

or computers or psychic channeling, none of that will work.

Nothing can match that sound or that feel (at least not yet).

Very well put, Lisa.

The Cremonese Masters left behind so many clues to learn from ... and yet relative little progress has been made in 200+ years. [Perhaps too much bickering over varnish and/or wood-grain properties ]

One of these days [... one of these days very soon !] someone will come along who truly understands

the relationship between acoustic instrument tuning-frequencies, string-length & body size/shape proportions AND carries on the Masters' work of perfecting the violin.

Until then, a huge "thanks" to Amati, Stradivari, del Gesu, et al for leaving the appropriate clues for all to see in their work.

Best wishes,

Jim

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Great post, "Lisajames". Well thought out, detailed and with some clever humor.

This topic will probably never be put to rest, but we could have some fun with it.

How about if you assemble some of the Strads and Guarneris you've talked about, or whichever old instruments you believe to be exceptional, and I'll select half a dozen modern makers to participate in a little competition. Maybe Michael Darnton could assist in producing the old instruments.

You can select the player, who will be blindfolded so they don't know what they're playing, and the instrument will not be visible to the audience. Tone etc. will be scored by Juilliard students and any professionals who wish to participate. This could be done in one of the Juilliard halls you have previously used for testing.

Maybe results could be published in Strings or Strad magazines.

The old instruments would have the advantage, as you'd be picking known good individual instruments, and I'd just be going on my experience with a maker without probably having ever heard the instrument submitted.

The makers I select might not come from the usual cast. Reputations and name recognition are driven by many factors other than sound.

I'm up for it if you are.

Feel free to suggests changes to the format, except that the blindfolding is essential, as I've found that players usually get a better sound when they believe they're playing on a Strad.

David

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David,

When you do this test -- in addition to having the panel judging the sound from the audience -- I would suggest you have three points where the player must vote Old or New. When they first pick up the instrument. While they warm up. After performance.

I think it would be interesting to see how many get it from the simple feel, from the first attack, and after playing for a time. How many change their minds.

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quote:


Originally posted by:
falstaff

David,

When you do this test -- in addition to having the panel judging the sound from the audience -- I would suggest you have three points where the player must vote Old or New. When they first pick up the instrument. While they warm up. After performance.

I think it would be interesting to see how many get it from the simple feel, from the first attack, and after playing for a time. How many change their minds.

Good idea. It might be difficult to keep them blindfolded the whole time though, trying to eliminate "placebo effect". We might also need to include two players, one who normally plays on a modern, and one who normally plays on an old. The playing techiques for optimizing sound on each might be slightly different.

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quote:


Originally posted by:
David Burgess

Maybe results could be published in Strings or Strad magazines.

David

I think I could arrange that. I've actually just started working on an article for the Strad about this subject, and the editor has pencilled it in for next Feb. The test you have proposed sounds excellent David - it would be good to get something organised that was generally accepted as a fair and reasonable assessment by all parties. Let me know if it anything eventuates and I will base the article around it.

Thanks for a great post Lisa. I was going to ask you though whether the players in your informal trials knew what they were playing. As David said, it would be very important for it to be double blind, and the player to also be kept in the dark (literally as well as figuratively).

Goods to see this topic still has legs - certainly a lot of food for thought here.

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quote:


Originally posted by:
falstaff

And yes, I would agree, doing the same set of tests on two (or three) occassions with two different players (and same audience??) is a good idea.

The odd thing is that these tests have already been done over and over, and the results have been published before. It seems that people forget, or that some people will always come up with some "procedural flaw" to attempt to invalidate the results when the old instruments don't dominate. "But they didn't all use the same shoulder rest. Wahhhhh."

Heh heh, it would also be interesting to test the confidence of the people who own these old instruments. Do they even believe they're superior?

What if we told them that their instrument would be receive a numerical ranking, be specifically identified, and the results would be published in such a way as to make this information readily available to any potential future buyer? I bet it would be almost impossible to come up with the old violins.

I'm perfectly willing to be wrong about all of this. Let's find out. This is where the rubber meets the road. Put up!

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And there we have the difference between players and makers. The makers (for the last 200 years or so) have wanted just one last chance to show players that they're wrong, but they don't seem to be able to do it. David is going to deny it (and will have some slick rationalization for doing so) but he just completely missed Lisa's whole point, from one end to the other.

The "procedural flaw", David, is that every test I've ever heard of has used a very random selection of listeners whose main qualification is that they have one ear on each side of their head, and may play the violin, as well, or not, which you, yourself should know is no guarantee that they can hear a thing. It's like asking anyone who can read to judge fine literature, or my mother to evaluate racing cars (maybe some day I can drive your Corvette, and tell you if it's any good, based on my extensive driving experience of my VWs or my current Toyota Yaris). Or maybe even better, it's like getting a bunch of people off the street and asking them to sort out diamonds from cubic zirconia. If they can't do it, does it mean there's no difference?

The necessary preliminary tests have never been done to find people who are accurate in telling violins from each other, and thus qualified for such a trial, and using them as the listeners. The only qualification there's ever been is the willingness to participate. If you took the time to find those people who could tell one violin from another consistently, then of course their very existence would be a start towards finding the difference, but no one's tried to find them. So yes, there definitely are some problems in all the past designs of the trials you suggest, and they aren't small problems, either. I think that I already used the phrase, which I have stolen from someone actively and professionally involved in acoustical research, "the double deaf leading the double blind"--that's exactly the problem that's never been dealt with.

So David, are you basically saying you don't think there's any difference between your violins and a Strad, then, or are there some makers you'd care to name who you think are better than you who do stand a chance of being better than a good Strad?

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David;

I think it's fair to point out that makers themselves tend to support the notion of the "mighty Cremonese". Below are four quotes from web pages of makers (names removed) with excellent reputations, all of whom I very much respect. The reference, either direct or by default, to Cremonese instruments, and/or the sound produced by them, seems to be present in all four.

"Made by hand and adhering to the ideals and the working methods of the 17th and 18th century makers of Cremona, Italy, each XXXXX instrument is a unique artistic creation. Every violin, viola, and cello maintains the highest standards of craftsmanship, combined with deeply satisfying richness and complexity of tone."

"There are many ways to make a violin and different techniques can produce similar results. Because we're lucky enough to also restore old instruments, we've been able to see the working marks left by the makers. By studying these instruments we can see into the working traditions of the 17th and 18th century Cremonese and other Italians. Copying an old instrument is about the only way to really learn from that maker."

"The sound of XXXXX's instruments is usually targeted toward that of the world's great concert instruments. This can create a problem. Many people have never played these instruments, and have set their standards according to the sound of lesser instruments they have played."

"Since I began my career as a violinmaker and restorer, I've worked on, studied and documented as many classic Italian stringed instruments as possible in order to produce a modern instrument with similar tonal and aesthetic characteristics to the great Cremonese instruments."

Now certainly, everyone (at least everyone I know) who has had contact with a significant number of Cremonese instruments won't be able to say (at least with a straight face) that they were all great sounding.

So I'm going to go back to a statement I made earlier in this thread. Which Cremonese classic, which contemporary instrument? The way I see it, considering the quotes above, it's the concert instruments each of the makers is referring to, or emulating, that should share the stage with the contemporary works.

Now, no matter who is selected to judge the contest, if a test like this can be arranged, I'd gladly buy a ticket.

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It would be interesting to design such a test, but the ground rules I'd think of could be daunting. For instance, make each test one on one, with short passages, played back and forth as many times as necessary to satisfy the judges (that is, until they were sure they were hearing what they think they were--often differences "open up" dramatically on rehearing, as listeners inventory the details they're hearing). Second, you'd have to get around the known phenomenon that the second instrument in a trial always sounds better. And of course the audience would have to be "qualified", as I mentioned above. As far as I know, no test has ever done the above. I'm sure there are more details to think out, too.

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quote:


Originally posted by:
Michael Darnton

David is going to deny it (and will have some slick rationalization for doing so)

Michael, seems you've tried to pre-emptively invalidate any response I might give by labeling it "slick rationalization".

Good one, but this probably relies on "slickness" more than anything I'll ever say.

quote:


Originally posted by:
Michael Darnton

The makers (for the last 200 years or so) have wanted just one last chance to show players that they're wrong, but they don't seem to be able to do it.

I don't have to show players that they're wrong. I don't think they are.

I've talked to enough of them who own both modern (not mine) and famous old stuff.

Many will say, off the record, that they prefer their new instrument. Many soloists with both perform regularly on a modern instrument. They must be the ones with defective hearing though.

I bet if you poll the general population, they'd say Strads and old violins sound best. I wonder how good thier hearing is. I wonder if we're seeing a pattern here that has little to do with hearing.

quote:


Originally posted by:
Michael Darnton

....he just completely missed Lisa's whole point, from one end to the other.

Lisa's post was read and understood. If I respond differently to Lisa's post than you would, it doesn't mean that I've missed any "points".

Regarding the rest of the post, you seem to be arguing against points that I never made, or which have already been addressed.

For example, you speak of a design flaw in evaluations. In the test I specifically cited, a musician played, and musicians listened. Do they all posess that special and rare discerning ability which you think is important? Obviously not, or they clearly would have favored old instruments, at least in your paradigm.

Lisa was satisfied with the ability of the people who assisted her in testing, so maybe she could pick the judges for the suggested competition. Or maybe you could pick them.

Instruments played by violinists, evaluated by violinists, including feedback from the player......here's your chance to prove what you've been asserting, that old instruments are superior. If something about the test isn't valid, please be very specific about how it could be improved. If you're really a member of the "reality-based violin making community", here's your chance to prove it. Some put their money where their mouth is, and others generate endless strings of excuses.

As for your question about whether I'm saying there's no difference between my violins and a Strad, I've made no claims whatsoever about my instruments here. I believe I can come up with violins from other makers which will blow away some Stads and compete very favourably with others. All depends on which modern makers and which Strads. An instrument of mine could be included in an evaluation or not. It makes no difference to me.

I deal in facts as best I know how, and I think that's been reflected here. Myth, legend and magic voodoo varnish will always be superceded in my world by things that are lucid and proveable.

My agenda here is nothing more, nothing less than in any other area of my life. I'm a bit of an anti-BS proselytizer.

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quote:


Originally posted by:
Jeffrey Holmes

David;

I think it's fair to point out that makers themselves tend to support the notion of the "mighty Cremonese".

Jeffrey;

I think your quotes show respect for the old Cremonese work and a willingness to learn from it.

I'm not sure I saw anything acknowleging Cremonese work was superior to the makers own work, and one qoute strongly suggests that the maker's instrument is equal.

"I've worked on, studied and documented as many classic Italian stringed instruments as possible in order to produce a modern instrument with similar tonal and aesthetic characteristics to the great Cremonese instruments."

Again, I've never made any kind of blanket statement that modern instruments are superior. That would be foolish. As you have said, "Which specific instruments agaiinst which specific instruments?"

And everybody has different taste.

I only claim that in group listening tests, personal tests, and evaluations by highly skilled players, modern instruments can and have stacked up very nicely against some of the finest antique Cremonese.

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