BLIND TESTS (AGAIN...) GIVE THE PRIZE TO MODERN MAKERS
The media is buzzing with the latest blind tests that show modern violins performing better than old masters. While not being surprised at these results (our focus has always been to promote the excellent work of contemporary makers), we are delighted to see the subject aired again.
As Alan Coggins outlined in the February 2007 issue of The Strad, these tests follow a predictable course. “The trial compares new against old, ideally including some famous and highly priced classical instruments (the inclusion of a Strad will usually mean mainstream media coverage),” he wrote. “The results show that new instruments stand up very well and often outscore their older, more expensive counterparts. The test is then discredited and dismissed as meaningless by the experts.”
University of Paris experiment 2010
The most recent blind test resuts have came from experiments by Claudia Fritz, a researcher at the University of Paris, which she carried out at an international violin competition in Indianapolis in 2010. 21 musicians were asked to conduct a blind-test on six violins, three of which were modern instruments and three of which were by old master makers (two Stradivaris and a Guarneri). The players wore welders' goggles and were handed the instruments unidentified, and under these conditions most of them preferred modern instruments, with one of the Stradivaris coming last.
BBC experiment 1975
The most famous blind test in recent history was carried out by the BBC in 1975. In a recording studio, behind a screen, a Stradivarius, a Guarneri del Gesu, a Vuillaume, and a Ronald Praill (at that time, a modern instrument less than a year old) were played to violin virtuosi Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman and violin expert Charles Beare. At the end, none of these three had a clue which violin was which. Furthermore, two of them couldn't even tell which was their own instrument.
Texas A&M experiment 2003
In 2003, the Texas A & M University biochemist and amateur violin maker Nagyvary set up a blind test duel between one of his recently finished instruments and a Strad. On the Prokofiev Violin Sonata in D, 57 music experts picked the Strad, 129 were not sure, and 290 picked the modern instrument over the Strad.
European String Teachers Association 2006
In 2006, three modern Swedish violins were compared to a Strad, a Gagliano, and a Guadagnini. The instruments played by two professionals and judged by members of the European String Teachers' Association. A modern Westerlund violin got the top score; the Strad came last.
In experimental conditions, any link between the age and value of violins and how they are rated by players and/or listeners rapidly disappears in a puff of rosin. As Kai-Thomas Roth, secretary of the British Violin Making Association, commented in the Guardian:"There's some myth-making that helps old instruments. If you give someone a Stradivari and it doesn't work for them, they'll blame themselves and work hard at it until it works.
"Give them a modern violin, and they'll dismiss the instrument straight away if it doesn't work for them. That's the pyschology at work. Modern violins are easily as good, but even a good maker can make an instrument that doesn't work out.”
Priced like fine paintings?
It would be silly to pretend that the monetary value of an instrument is purely a matter of its tonal beauty or lack of it. Instruments made by a single named maker and therefore in limited quantities acquire collector's value with age once a maker is dead and the supply has become finite. Such an instrument is priced like a fine painting, the price being a reflection of the market standing of the maker, the physical condition and in certain cases the instrument's history e.g. its previous owners.
Value and cost are also determined by measurable objective criteria such as the qualityof the wood used and the skill with which an instrument has been built. The condition of the instrument is another factor if it is an antique. There are also well-established norms concerning the dimensions and proportions of stringed instruments, which they need to conform to with reference to the angle of the neck, commonly found to be at fault, and the length of the neck, which should be in proportion to the distance from the bridge position to the top edge.
Back to reality
Unless you are a collector, in most cases your instrument is primarily a practical object that you want to play on a regular basis. As Charles Beare said after the 1975 BBC blind test, the difference between a great instrument and a good instrument is what it does for you the player.
Blind tests tell us fairly consistently that when rational citeria are used, good contemporary instruments almost always outscore or match up to old masters. A number of well known string players, Christian Tetzlaff and Elmar Oliveira are two examples, play modern instruments in their concert performances as a testament to this.
Clearly, musicians are as fallible and as likely to fall for myth-making as anyone else. Playing a myth may psychologically work well for some players. Most string players, however, are on a limited budget so do not have the luxury of that choice. Blind tests such as the recent one, are happy reminders that an instrument does not need to cost the earth or be hundreds of years old to make a beautiful sound.
Finally, whether it is new or old, a stringed instrument needs to be properly adjusted (setup) to reach its playing potential, otherwise it can be virtually unplayable.
The bridge's design and fitting; the length and position of the sound post; efficiency and accurate fitting of the pegs; the spacing of the strings at the bridge and top saddle; the proper contouring and preparation of the fingerboard; correct length of the tailon; and several other considerations all have an important bearing on how an instrument will perform whatever the quality of the instrument.