The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Annals of the Violin 1 – Can YOU hear the difference between a vintage Stradivarius violin and a newly made 21st-century violin?

January 5, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Sometimes the same subject draws the interest of different reporters, and we have a happy convergence of information that can often remain esoteric and known only to specialists.

Two recent stories – one in The New York Times and the other on NPR – focused on the differences – or lack of them – between old and new violins.

Traditionally, the Old Master violins, made by Stradivarius (above, the 1729 “Solomon ex-Lambert” Strad photographed by Dan Emmert/Getty Images) and by Guarneri, sell for millions and are legendary. They are always considered more beautiful in tone, louder in volume and easier to play than more modern instruments.

But how much of that received wisdom is, in fact, wisdom or truth? And how much of it is myth or hype?

Defying conventional wisdom, some high-profile professional concertizing musicians have turned to modern string instruments, including cellist David Finckel (below) of the Emerson String Quartet who will perform an all-Mendelssohn program with the David Finckel, pianist Wu Han and violinist Philip Setzer Piano Trio at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Friday, Feb. 24. And the acclaimed German violin virtuoso Christian Teztlaff (at bottom, playing solo Bach) also performs on a modern violin.

This is a particularly interesting topic to Madison circles. Until his death last summer, William “Jack” Fry (below), a retired professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Physics Department, had long investigated the sonics and engineering of violins. The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival has used some of Fry’s instruments as played by John and Rose Mary Harbison, the husband composer/violist and wife-violinist who co-direct the summer festival.

So both old and new violins have their defenders and partisans.

Now you can try the test and decide for yourself.

Here is a link to an illuminating background story in the New York Times.

And here is a link to the NPR story – listen to the streamed broadcast over reading the typescript, if you can — where you can take a “blindfold” hearing test to see whether the old or new violin sounds better to you, and then compare your results to the panel of experts and violinists:

How did you do?

What did you learn?

What do you say in the debate about the superiority of older violins and the inferiority of newer violins?

The Ear wants to hear.

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