Early last month, CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker’s excellent 60 Minutes piece, The City of Music, profiled the long history of violin making in Cremona. The small Italian city has produced some of the world’s finest violins, including instruments by Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and luthier families such as Amati (active between 1537 and 1740), Guarneri, and Bergonzi.
Itzhak Perlman talks about the characteristics of his Strad and plays briefly. He describes his mental image of the sound and its sense of “sparkle.” Violinists Cho Liang Lin, Salvatore Accardo, and Anastasiya Petryshak also appear.
With one hundred and fifty shops, Cremona is still an epicenter of fine violin making. Whitaker offers an inside look at violin making and restoration, including the selection of wood which is based on resonance.
The debate surrounding comparisons between priceless, old Italian Stradivari and Guarneri violins and the work of top-level, modern luthiers rages on. Meanwhile, the quality of some of the finest contemporary instruments is undeniable.
Brooklyn, New York-based luthier Sam Zygmuntowicz has great reverence for the old Italian makers, but he refuses to be intimidated by their mystique, rejecting the notion that “mystery” surrounds their brilliance. Through extensive research, he has attempted to gain an increasing understanding of the way design impacts sound. The Renaissance principle that “beautiful form leads to beautiful function” applies. Zygmuntowicz has used vibration scanning technology to understand how violins “move.” Watch the surprising slow motion CT scan of an undulating Strad here.
In this clip from last year’s Banff International String Quartet Competition, Sam Zygmuntowicz has some interesting observations about Strads and modern violins. He mentions that violin making has become fairly homogenized, compared to the distinct French, German and Italian schools of the eighteenth century. In each of these schools, the style of violin making was informed by a distinct concept of sound. Zygmuntowicz points out a key advantage of modern instruments: luthiers are able to work with violinists to craft an instrument which meets their specific expectations and needs. He describes the violin as “a conduit for energy,” which passes from the player through the bow, into the bridge and ultimately through the air and into the listener’s eardrum. At the end of the lecture, we hear a brief demonstration of two of Zygmuntowicz’s violins.
You can also hear one of Zygmuntowicz’s violins in action in this excerpt from Richard Strauss’s ballet suite, Der Bürger als Edelmann (Le bourgeois gentilhomme). The violinist is Steven Copes, concertmaster of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.
The results of a long anticipated study published on April 7 seem to shatter long-held assumptions about the superiority of 300-year-old Stradivari and Guarneri violins to fine modern instruments. The study, led by French scientist Claudia Fritz with the help of American luthier Joseph Curtin, follows up on a controversial blind test conducted in an Indianapolis hotel room in 2010. Ten prominent violinists, including Ilya Kaler and Elmar Oliveira, were unable to distinguish old instruments from new in a blind test. In fact, modern instruments were slightly favored. This tantalizing documentary shows how the Paris Double-Blind Violin Experiment unfolded.
Currently, many soloists own copies of their famous Strads and Guarneris and frequently perform on these well-crafted modern instruments in concerts. In the end, it’s the relationship between the instrument and the violinist which may be most important. Over time we learn how each violin wants to be played and we discover new colors and tonal possibilities. It’s a relationship of give and take. If we put the right energy into the violin, it rewards us. Nothing can diminish the technological and artistic achievements of the old Italian makers. But this study may be the first step in overcoming an irrational bias against fine modern instruments.
The violin is a ruthlessly honest seismograph of the heart. Four strings stretched over the bridge put sixty-five pounds of pressure on the wooden sounding chamber; this stored energy amplifies every nuance of weight, balance, friction, and muscle tone as the musician draws the bow over the string. Each tremor and movement reflects the musician’s minutest unconscious impulse. There is nothing hidden with the violin-it is like mathematics in that respect; pretense is impossible. The sound coming out of that instrument is a sensitive lie detector, a sensitive truth detector.
-Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts