The Enigma of Violins

The Enigma of Violins

Posted in [Violins] By James Robinson

Violin family instruments sometimes approach the status of a mere commodity, in regard to the millions of mass produced student instruments, and sometimes have the status of collectible art objects. Some violin family instruments, particularly if they are in a superb condition and happen to have a very good sound might have 3 distinct values; for the collector, for the player because of its tonal potential and a third for an investor.

More violins are made today than any other time in history. Yet even modern violins made by master violinmakers, in the perception of many players, lack the mysterious qualities found in the voices of the great old instruments - brilliance, richness, and elusive elegance. As one violinist describes it, "there needs to be an edge, cut, the ability to get over to the audience, personality, there has to be a Hamlet in there someplace even when playing Mozart. Somewhere behind it there has to be another spirit." Perhaps these are very romantic notions or perhaps this allure is in the ear of the beholder.

The origins of these instruments are a mystery. A fresco painted in 1530 in Sarono, Italy is the earliest record of an instrument that looks very much like a violin. The source of its unique design is unknown. The maker of the first violin is unknown.

Among the oldest existing violins are those made during the 1560's by Andrea Amati. He taught sons and grandsons. For 150 years, Cremona, Italy was the home of the greatest violinmakers in history. The most well known is Antonio Stradivari. It is believed he started as a woodcarver and then began his training with Andrea Amati's grandson, Nicolo. He changed old patterns and old ideas about the violin. He developed and refined his designs throughout a career that span ¾ of a century. He gave the violin its final form. At the age of 93 Antonio Stradivari died, and within a few years all the other great violinmakers were dead.

It seemed that their secrets had died with them. By the end of the 18th century the golden age of violinmaking had come to an end. He left behind some of the forms for his instruments and tools. Many violinmakers have tried to copy some of those violins exactly, hoping to duplicate their alluring sound. Every part was carefully measured and every design feature was carefully noted in the hope that the secret of the great masters lay in some blueprint that could be followed. Close examination of many instruments soon revealed the complexity of the task. The violins of each master of the golden age have unique design features. Even the size, shape and position of the F holes is distinctive. These violins share a special sound quality yet each one has a voice and personality all its own.

Of course, some of this is controversial and there are sceptics. Our perceptions define our reality and there is much more to this story of an enigma.

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