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.