The controversy surrounding the relative merits of old and new instruments has been going on for years. The following is an excerpt from a treatise on ancient and modern violins and bows by an instrument maker named Andrew Hyde. It is included not as a statement of my position, but for your amusement, and to illustrate that the issue was hotly contested nearly a century ago.
"Besides all this, the cost of a good new violin is not unreasonable in comparison with that of many a dirty looking dilapidated old tub that for sanitary reasons, if no other should have been buried years ago. How disgusting to see a beautiful and fastidious lady violinist hugging to her breast one of these filthy relics of a past age. It is horrible to think where it has been the past two centuries. Who has used it, and where? Who can tell its story? Held under the chin, breathed into, saturated with the sweat, filth and odor of cripples and tramps, street and gutter musicians that have perhaps used it for centuries. Played in dens, dives and brothels. A receptacle for foul and malignant diseases, rotting with accumulated grime and poisonous moisture, a hideous thing indeed to contemplate."
Seriously, it is inaccurate to assume that the old violin makers, viola makers and cello makers possessed all the secrets of value associated with their craft. It is well known that they were constantly experimenting, changing the size, proportion, contours and thickness of the violins they made. And most of these instruments have since been altered to improve their performance. Instrument makers today have before them the finest works of the old makers as examples and inspiration, for their examination and study. And they have the accumulated experience of all who have come since.
Frequently, musicians who have done extensive comparison shopping conclude that they would have to spend well into six figures on an antique instrument to equal the sound they have found in a good new instrument. Jaime Laredo 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 states, "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."
In an interview published in the FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE on 1/30/87, Henryk Szeryng has this to say:
"What are the problems concerning antique violins? I have talked at length with experts. The result is extremely simple. The material seasons and ages. With time the wood becomes more venerable... but ultimately ... too old. It does not exactly decay, but certainly does not improve, and loses elasticity. I mostly play one of my two modern violins. With all due respect, we must not forget that the finest classical violins are at least 250 years old. I am an incurable optimist, but I'm convinced that the Stradivaris, the Guarneris, the Amatis, the Grancinos, the Ruggeris, the Gaglianos and the Stainers will not be "playable" much longer unless they are completely restored. This then gives rise to the problem of whether such an instrument can still be considered antique and original or whether instead it is the restorer who has bestowed upon that violin its balanced timbre and sonorousness, rather than the violinmaker who made it. Consequently, the question arises of whether it is not more practical to resort from the beginning to a new instrument."
"Old versus new" comparisons have been going on for years. The results are usually the same, with the modern instruments comparing very favorably with the old ones. An example is the comparison which was organized at the Fourth American Cello Congress. An audience of about 140 musicians judged the sound of 12 cellos, six new and six old.
The new cellos were the work of contemporary cello makers, one of them a Burgess. The old cellos represented quite an impressive selection: A Gagliano; two Goffrillers; a Montagnana; a Stradivari; and a Tecchler. To keep the comparison as objective as possible, the player was blindfolded, and a large linen screen was placed between the player and the audience. When the audience of cellists handed in their ballots, the top scoring cello was old; the second, third, fourth and fifth highest scores were by new cellos; sixth and seventh were old; 8th-new; 9th-old; 10th-new; 11th-old; 12th-old. An old instrument got the highest score, but famous old instruments also got the two lowest scores. As a group, the modern cellos scored much higher than this collection of famous old cellos. Why do some people still act surprised?
We're making progress though. A survey by Strings Magazine found that 58 percent of their readers find the sound quality of modern instruments to be superior or equal to vintage instruments, and that 71 percent find the craftsmanship of modern instruments to be superior or equal to old instruments.
A growing number of top musicians, who can play whatever they choose, are choosing modern instruments.
For more information about Burgess violins, violas and cellos, contact David Burgess at:
1510 Glen Leven; Ann Arbor, MI 48103 U.S.A.
Phone: (734) 668-7803
Burgess Violin Maker Main Web Site: http://www.burgessviolins.com
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