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Are Old Violins Better Than New Violins?

For the last two hundred years or so, there has been a controversy about the qualities of old and new bowed stringed instruments. It is one of the hottest issues today especially as the prices of the older Italian and French instruments have gotten unaffordable to most string instrument players.

It is hard to assume that the old violin, viola, cello and bass makers possessed all the secrets associated with their profession. It is very well known that they were constantly experimenting with the size, proportions, contours and thicknesses of the instruments they produced. Most of these instruments have since been altered with the intent of improving their sound. I say intent, as many were worse off after these experiments. Instrument makers today have before them some of the finest works of old masters as examples for their examination and study. And they have the accumulated experience of all who have come since. Isaac Newton once said, “If I have reached great heights, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”

Quite often, string players who have done a lot of comparison shopping conclude that they would have to spend well into the six figures on an old Italian or French instrument to equal the sound they have found in a good new instrument. Quite often the new instrument sounds better. Jaime Laredo, a very famous violinist is quoted in a 1991 New York Times article as saying, “I’ve been shocked when students have asked my opinion of old Italian or French fiddles that cost $50,000 to $60,000. Often, they’re just pieces of junk.” Isaac Stern, in the same article comments, “If musicians can’t spend at least $250,000 on a stringed instrument, they’d do better with a fine new one, provided they take the time to test it under battle conditions in a good concert hall.”

“Old as opposed to new” comparisons have been going on for many years. The results are most often the same, with the modern instruments comparing very favorably if not better to the old ones. An example is the comparison which was organized at the Fourth American Cello Congress. An audience of around 135 cellists judged the sound of 12 cellos, six new and six old.

The new cellos were the work of contemporary cello makers. The old cellos represented quite an impressive selection: A Gagliano; two Goffrillers; a Montagnana; a Stradivari; and a Tecchler. To keep the comparison as free of prejudice as possible, the player was blindfolded, and a large screen was placed between the player and the audience. When the audience handed in their ballots, the top scoring cello was old; the second, third, fourth and fifth top scores were by newer cellos; sixth and seventh were old; 8th-new; 9th-old; 10th-new; 11th-and 12th-old. Although an old cello got the highest score, the famous old cellos got the two lowest scores. As a group, the modern cellos scored much higher than this collection of famous old cellos. The question is now, why do many string players still act surprised?

Things are improving though. A recent survey by Strings Magazine, the leading American magazine for string players, found that 58 percent of their readers who responded to a poll on this subject felt the sound quality of modern instruments to be equal or even better than the older cellos, and that 71 percent found the craftsmanship of modern instruments to be equal or better than the old cellos.

A growing number of top string players, who can afford to play whatever they want, are choosing modern string instruments.