The Antiques of The Future?
Pine, maple and ebony – these types of wood have, for centuries, formed the basis of that acoustic miracle, the violin. The combination of pine for the belly, maple for the back, sides and scroll, has been surpassed by no other combination; even the technology of the 20th century has produced no miracles which equal the acoustic and enduring qualities of this ingenious choice of woods! As far as the construction of the violin is concerned, nothing has radically changed over the centuries.
The experience of the old masters was usually passed down from father to son and from master to apprentice. This ensured that the traditions of the profession have always been maintained and, although the violin makers of the past and of today often worked and work according to their own design, the basic form of the violin has remained the same. Good preservation of the old master instruments means that a large number of wonderful instruments have survived, instruments of inestimable value to succeeding generations of violin makers. Indeed, they provide a continuing source of inspiration for the makers of new stringed instruments. Good preservation, however also shows that besides wonderful instruments, less successful models, in both acoustic and artistic aspects, were made.
Every period has produced both very beautiful works of art and lesser or bad pieces of work: this was true in the past, just as it is true today. Preconceptions often play a role in modern-day comparison between old and new instruments of the violin family. This, too, is not a recent phenomenon: when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wanted to purchase a new violin, and asked his father for assistance, Leopold made it a condition that his son should not buy a modern (Stradivarius(!) violin, seeing that these were so loud and large in tone, but preferably a Stainer, which had a lovely, soft sound. In serious comparison it is generally agreed that, as long as similar instruments are used, there is not a great deal to choose between old and new violins.
The preconceptions that new instruments which sound good will not sound good after a few years is usually incorrect: after all, old instruments were once new, and considering that the violin making tradition has remained healthy, there is no reason whatsoever why new, well-made instruments will develop any differently. One advantage could be that the living master violin maker will always devote the greatest care to his own creation; after all, it is a part of himself. Both old and new instruments need time before they are at their optimum; the player must become accustomed to the instrument and then learn to control it.
If the basis for the sound is present, the instrument will give increasing satisfaction after the player has become accustomed to it: the player and the instrument become one. If the instrument does not sound good from the beginning, it will not sound good after it has been “played in” for 25 years. There is something wrong with it, whether it is old or new, and something must be changed. With old instruments a disappointing experience will not, as a rule, lead to that person never trying another old instrument. With new instruments a similar experience soon leads to people lumping all modern instruments together. If people are prepared to try a number of instruments made by today’s violin makers, they will find, just as with the old masters, that there are good and less good instruments.
Many old instruments have been carefully kept in good condition by players and restorers so that they can continue to be played, whilst when they were new they were played by great virtuoso such as Corelli, Vivaldi, Tartini, Viotti etc. Luckily, beautiful modern instruments also find their way into the hands of the soloists. If these instruments are as carefully handled by players and violin makers as the old master’s instruments are, then in years to come the better modern instruments, as the “antiques of the future”, will fulfil the same role that the old master instruments do now.
Jaap Bolink masterviolinmaker