Cars, horses and why Stradivaris (may) sound best.

During my time at Christie’s the fine musical instruments and classic car departments shared the same office. Over time I realised I was using way too many car analogies for violins, but to my relief, the car specialist seemed to be picking up an equal number the other way. I’ve found them incredibly useful ever since, so on the subject of whether Stradivari violins sound better than others, Benjamin Hebbert becomes a petrolhead. 

“To perfect that wonder of travel, the locomotive, has perhaps not required the expenditure of more mental strength and application than to perfect that wonder of music, the violin.”

William Ewart Gladstone, written before cars were invented.

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Carl Benz’s Patent Motor Car of 1885, invented around the same time that the claim that Strads sounded best became widely expressed in literature. What a coincidence.

I would rather gargle bleach than read another scientific study pitching modern violins against Stradivaris. Our world is far too complex than the simple metrics that fine-slice the responses to particular instruments. Are Stradivari violins the best sounding violins in the world? Well, think about it. When did you last turn on the radio and decide that a violin sounded so much better and hence so different from the violin in general that it must be a Stradivari? Never? I mean, if they are valued so much above other violins, there has to be some detectable difference, right? Do you need to get your ears tested? Nope. Is this like wine tasting when you are already three sheets to the wind? Yadayada… Or finally, is that because you are judging by the wrong metrics? The answer is very likely yes.

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Let’s put it this way. If you stand by the side of the road with the intention of observing vehicles driving along at a steady 60mph, it would be difficult for you to differentiate between a truck and a motorbike if sustained speed is the one metric you are looking for in isolation of all others. One car might be the latest Ferrari which moves so effortlessly that it barely feels like it’s being driven at 60mph, the other a 1970s mini with an 850cc engine straining to get the very last bit of speed as the accelerator pedal slowly eases itself through the rust patch in the floor. There are a million and one metrics that would differentiate them, from the efficiency of the engine to the comfort of the driver’s seat, but constant speed on a straight road isn’t one of them, in fact it is probably the one metric you wouldn’t use when deciding to buy the car. Yet, probably the most commonplace scientific tool you are likely to find to quantify the observable driving experience of a car is a speed camera. Listening to a violinist playing a concerto is after all no different an experience from watching a driver obey a set of preset instructions in the course of driving from A to B.

Now that we are thinking along the lines of a car’s performance, we can begin to understand what makes one violin more desirable than another. It’s not the way it sounds: There are good sounding violins and bad, and there are variables in sound. Instead, the way it accelerates; the way the tyres grip the road on a tight corner, the comfort of the driving seat the suspension, the brakes. These more than anything – the responsiveness and the projection, contribute to a soloist’s confidence, the sense of clarity, the ability to tackle incredibly difficult passages without feeling that the violin is against you. More than that, the ability to push the limits of the violin in every possible direction without feeling that there are boundaries to what you can achieve as a player. Even the sensitivity of the violin means that you can work with the violin to develop your own sense of sound as you understand how it works -one reason why a violinist may sound surprisingly similar on a range of violins, and why two different violinists playing the same instrument may retain their distinctly different characteristics.

What you can’t hear or measure is how hard a musician has to work with each different violin if they seek to obtain a similar concept of sound from both. Since we entered the recording era, that sound itself is increasingly derived from a lifetime of listening to the sounds made by the finest violinists playing the finest instruments available to the on the best recordings available, so the sense of quality comes down to how easily the tool works for the musician, given the musical instructions that they are set to follow. Just as driving at 60mph on the same road but in a different car can be a transformative experience, but difficult to quantify from an outside point of observation, it is just simpler to tell the masses that a Stradivari sounds best. It’s just a pity that generations of scientists have got stuck on this lazy answer, and have been asking the wrong question of “how” Stradivari’s sound best, not “why” they are thought to.

It’s just a pity that generations of scientists have got stuck on this lazy answer, and have been asking the wrong question of “how” Stradivari’s sound best, not “why” they are thought to.

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Honestly, nope.

There are of course levels of quality, and broad definitions. If your daughter plays the harp, you are destined to own a Volvo Estate regardless of what else you would like to drive. There are violins whose broad luxuriant tones give an experience that is tantamount to driving a Rolls Royce down the winding drive of a stately home, but perform as well in front of an orchestra as a Silver Ghost would do at Le Mans. On the other hand the responsiveness of a great violin doesn’t necessarily make it easy to play until you know how.

The same could be said of jumping a racehorse when you’ve only ever ridden donkeys on the beach, or being handed the keys to a Formula One racing car and expected to do a lap of the Monaco Grand Prix. At best, presumably an utterly terrifying experience, and at worst you’ll just stall and grind the gear box if you can get the car to move at all. Hence, when we talk about Strads or other great instruments, there is always that one musician who perks up and labours their experience of playing the truly dreadful Strad (forty years ago and they’ve been dining off it ever since). They seem absolutely religiously fixed to the affirmation that the experience gave them and you really can’t shake it. Maybe it wasn’t set up properly?  maybe, the humidity in the air wasn’t right for it? Maybe, you just couldn’t play something that responsive – or if you could, not in a break in the rehearsal with Maestro such and such breathing down your neck.

Everyone knows one of those veteran musicians who played a ‘bad Strad’ forty years ago and has defined their whole view of fine violins by that single experience. Oddly enough, really good musicians seem to encounter the bad Strads less often. It’s always worth considering the broader factors that surround an encounter with a capricious and responsive violin.

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My (beloved) donkey of a student violin.

As a luthiery student in the 1990s when Strads were fairly commonplace at auctions we would go and gawp at them, and my classmates would insist I wielded a bow in their direction to see how they sounded – goodness was it a waste of time, so much so that I quickly swore off it. I sounded perfectly dreadful on the things because the only violin I’d really played at the time was my own (beloved) donkey of a Caussin – think Citröen Deux-Cheveaux.

But more than that, it is the same experience as jumping onto that racehorse for the first time and falling off as it gallops towards the first fence, or the inevitable bunny hop and hard stall with the accompanying stench of burning engine oil if I ever take a Formula 1 racing car for a lap and wreck its gearbox after a meter: “Well that car wasn’t any good”. It sure says something when you sound like a total schmuck – as I once did – on what seemed a jumpy, capricious, and fearsomely harsh violin that Maxim Vengerov paid a world record price for the following day… this one.

Some things go full circle. Here’s the double bass I made for the BBC documentary, Scrapheap Orchestra back in 2011, whose principal component was the bonnet of a Jaguar. It performed beautifully at the Proms.

Scrapheap Orchestra
Coincidentally, I once made a double bass from a Jaguar car bonnet for the BBC documentary, Scrapheap Orchestra. The white smudge is bird poo that we just couldn’t clean off.

 

 

 

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