On The Stradivarius Myth

By · Title Image (modified) Steve Cohen (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) · Date 06/08/2017

In 2011, the Stradivarius violin known as the “Lady Blunt” sold for $15.9 million—four times the amount for any previous Stradivarius. The hefty price tag for these instruments is commensurate with their reputation. The Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti, who plays the 1717 “Gariel” Strad, has spoken of its “addictive quality,” while Anne-Sophie Mutter, who plays the 1710 “Lord Dunn-Raven,” has described how “these Stradivari violins have the amazing capacity to keep the substance of their sound, even when playing at the quietest pianissimo.” Stradivari’s instruments are also rare: only around 650 are believed to have survived.

For players and buyers alike, Stradivari violins clearly have valuable and special properties that modern violins cannot replicate. Several theories exist to explain this: it may be due to the specific wood or varnish that Stradivari used, which can no longer be sourced today; or perhaps it is down to how numerous violinists have played them over the years, allowing their sounds to mature in unpredictable ways.  

Recent research led by Dr. Claudia Fritz of the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, however, has questioned whether we can perceive the differences between old and new violins. In September 2010, Fritz and her team of researchers asked 21 experienced violinists to choose which violin they preferred from a pool of six. These consisted of three new and three old violins, two of which were Stradivarius. The experiment coincided with the prestigious 8th International Violin Competition of Indianapolis (IVCI). This allowed Fritz and her team to take advantage of the numerous excellent violinists assembled. Most of the 21 subjects in the study were participants in the IVCI, either as contestants, jury members, or players from the Indianapolis Symphony. Each of the participants wore goggles that disguised whether the instrument they were playing was old or new. (A complete description and results of the experiment can be found on Fritz’s website.)

Photo (modified) Shunichi kouroki (Public Domain)
Photo (modified) Shunichi kouroki (Public Domain)

Contrary to expectations, it was one particular Stradivarius that was the least preferred. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the single most preferred instrument was a new violin. There were, however, several limitations to Fritz’s initial experiment: the study used only six violins; the time allotted to each player was restricted to an hour; and the violinists tested the instruments in a hotel room, which meant they were unable to judge how well the instrument projected or sounded in the concert hall. The last of these drew particular criticism from several prominent players. Writing in response to Fritz’s original research, the cellist Steven Isserlis argued that “it is impossible for a performer to judge with any certainty how their sound is carrying in a large hall, unless they know the instrument intimately. A famous (and curious) feature of Stradivarius instruments is that their tone seems to increase with distance.” Testing them in a hotel room meant their special projecting abilities had no chance to shine.

Fritz took note of these criticisms. In her next experiment, carried out in September 2012, she doubled the number of violins, this time testing six old Italians (including five by Stradivari) and six new. Although a sample size of 12 may still seem small, Fritz has contended that reviewers and other scientists agreed “that sample sizes were quite adequate for the rather modest conclusions we did draw… The violin-world being what it is, we doubt that fine old violins will ever be available in sufficient numbers for a large-scale experiment. This means that many small-scale tests are needed in order to get a clearer understanding of the many complex issues involved.”

Fritz also adjusted the kind of violinists she asked to participate. Instead of involving players of varying levels as in her first experiment, Fritz invited ten soloists, who were either internationally known or had won major international competitions, such as Avery Fischer career grants, first prizes in the Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Paganini and Long-Thibaud competitions, and numerous other lesser awards. The violinists were also given a longer period to test the violins this time, with two 75-minute sessions, first in a rehearsal room and then in a 300-seat concert hall. Joseph Curtin, an American violin maker who worked with Fritz on her study, thought the old violins would win in this second experiment. “The Old Italians were beautiful in every way, while the new violins seemed a bit raw, both in appearance and sound,” he told me.

Yet once again, new violins outplayed the old: six out of the 10 violinists still chose a new violin as their most-preferred, even when the Stradivarius violins could take full advantage of their supposed special projecting properties. One new violin noticeably stood out, being chosen as the most preferred four times. Granted, a Stradivarius took second place, being chosen as most preferred three times. Nevertheless, the results were convincing enough for Fritz to conclude that there “is an overall preference for the new.” Her study presented “a striking challenge to near-canonical beliefs about Old Italian violins.”

This preference for new violins is not only restricted to soloists. In her most recent paper, published last month, Fritz asked an audience of 55 volunteers to listen to and compare three new violins with three Stradivari violins in a concert hall in Paris. The audience consisted of those with relevant expertise, such as violin makers, players, musicians, audiophiles, music critics, composers and acousticians. Without knowing whether they were listening to old or new violins, the audience decided that new violins not only projected better, but that they also generally preferred their sound over old violins. Fritz repeated the experiment in New York and gained similar results.

Photo (modified) ANNA GABALI (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Photo (modified) ANNA GABALI (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Clearly, the mythic quality that surrounds Stradivari violins is exactly that—a myth. Under blind conditions, neither players nor listeners can really distinguish between old and new instruments. It should nevertheless be emphasized that Fritz’s research does not assert that Strads and old violins are bad, only that new violins can be just as good. But breaking a centuries-held belief in the superiority of Stradivarius has proven no easy task, with some critics reacting rather personally to Fritz’s research. “The chief failing of this test,” wrote Isserlis in his article, “is that the players are not identified.” Does he mean to suggest that only top violinists with considerable experience of playing old instruments would be able to distinguish between old and new violins? In Fritz’s second experiment, two of the soloists who participated had extensive experience of playing on violins by Stradivari and Guarneri “del Gesu” (another prestigious 18th-century violin maker); another participant owns and performs on a Guarneri “del Gesu”; and the other seven also play old violins, including instruments by Carlo Bergonzi, Gagliano, Gobetti, Guarneri del Gesu, Storioni, and Vuillaume. It is also worth noting that participant anonymity is a well-established research principle, since it allows all participants to express their honest views without fear of potential criticism.

Frank Almond, the concertmaster at the Milwaukee Symphony, who plays a Stradivarius, has also criticized the study, arguing that “the paper itself feels like was written by, well, a bunch of scientists who are unaware with how professionals seriously assess string instruments.” However, Fritz included violin makers, players and dealers in her research team. Indeed, when I spoke to Fritz about her research, she emphasized their broad expertise, as her team included the soloist Hugues Borsarello and the violin dealer Thierry Ghasarossian, who, according to Fritz, are both “really into old violins.” Almond contends that “the researchers started with a premise and set out to prove it,” but that seems unlikely, since some members of Fritz’s team actually hoped the old violins would perform better. Moreover, Almond overlooks that as a violinist himself, he is far more likely to have a vested interest than Fritz, who as a scientist and flautist has little to gain or lose from the results. Fritz even refused to divulge who made the most-preferred new violin, as she does not want her research to have any effect on its market value. (Fritz gives further responses to criticisms on her website).

This attachment to Stradivarius becomes even more bewildering when one considers the potential positive impact of Fritz’s findings. Curtin told me that “many makers (myself included) have felt over-shadowed by the Old Italians, who have been held up as a sort of unmatchable standard—and I’m not sure that has been good for the field.” He thinks that the new research will give makers greater freedom and confidence and he hopes that “young makers will now feel the horizons are open and they can make real contributions to the evolution of the violin.” Fritz’s research is also good news for violinists. Instead of hoping for a millionaire banker to kindly loan them their most prized antique, they can feasibly purchase a new but equally good one at a more realistic price.

Photo (modified) Pogo1 (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Photo (modified) Pogo1 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Fritz, however, doubts whether her research will do much to change Stradivarius’ mythic status. “We are in a culture where old things are quite respected,” she told me. “It’s the same if I would look at a Picasso: if you gave me a copy I would definitely not see the difference, but knowing it’s a real one in a museum, you feel different than if it’s just a copy in the living room of a friend. So, I suppose we are sensitive to what is authentic and what has history, and Old Italians survived for more than 300 years, through wars. They have been played by amazing players and in addition they are beautiful instruments…you have a piece of history and art in your hands… with new violins you still have a piece of art, but you don’t have the same history behind it.”

This may explain why the attachment to old violins continues. One of the participants in the first study, Laurie Niles, wrote a blog entry describing her experience. Although she ultimately picked an old violin by Guarneri “del Gesu,” she recognized that violinists “are just as impressed with the tonality of great [new] instruments as with the tonality of great old ones.” She nevertheless maintained that there is something special about old violins: “This object made by an artist from centuries past not only has survived in body, it has survived in soul… we are artists, and history and imagination are part of it.”

Fritz’s study may have proven that new violins sound just as good old ones when we are unaware of their age, but in reality no violinist plays in such blind conditions, and most concert programs will inform audiences if the soloist is playing on a priceless antique. We do not play or listen to music in isolation: anything from the concert venue, the time of day, to knowing that the soloist is playing on a centuries-old instruments affects our response. The staunch defenders of Stradivarius’s superiority illustrate that we still find something special in the long histories of old violins. Our romantic obsession with old objects and the stories that surround them continues, meaning there is little more that science can do to dispel the Stradivarius myth. ¶