Old Italian violins are routinely credited with playing qualities supposedly unobtainable in new instruments. These qualities include the ability to project their sound more effectively in a concert hall—despite seeming relatively quiet under the ear of the player—compared with new violins.
Although researchers have long tried to explain the mystery of Antonio Stradivari’s sound, it is only recently that studies have addressed the fundamental assumption of tonal superiority. Results from two studies show that, under blind conditions, experienced violinists tend to prefer playing new violins over Old Italians. Moreover, they are unable to tell new from old at better than chance levels.
In two separate experiments, three new violins were compared with three by Stradivari. Projection was tested both with and without orchestral accompaniment. Projection and preference were judged simultaneously by dividing listeners into two groups.
The results were unambiguous. The new violins projected better than the Stradivaris whether tested with orchestra or without, the new violins were generally preferred by the listeners, and the listeners could not reliably distinguish new from old. The single best-projecting violin was considered the loudest under the ear by players, and on average, violins that were quieter under the ear were found to project less well.
This according to “Listener evaluations of new and Old Italian violins” by Claudia Fritz, Joseph Curtin, Jacques Poitevineau, and Fan-Chia Tao. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 8 May 2017).
Above, detail from Antonio Stradivari in his atelier by Antonio Rinaldi; below, a report on one of the experiments, including excerpts from interviews with Fritz and Curtin.
Although the Conn firm is best known as a maker of brass instruments, it produced violins, violas, and violoncellos for 30 years.
In 1897 Charles Gerard Conn engaged the Italian violin maker William V. Pezzoni to manage the new venture, and advertisements for the Wonder violin appeared even before production began.
Over a period of 18 years, more than 1200 Wonder violins were produced. However, when Carl D. Greenleaf bought the firm, he discovered that they were the slowest selling items in stock. By 1927, the obsolete and unprofitable manufacturing process was phased out and the overstock liquidated; advertisements announced that, due to technological advancements, the Wonder violin could now be sold for only $50.
This according to “C.G. Conn’s Wonder violin: The best violin on earth?” by Margaret Downie Banks (America’s Shrine to Music Museum newsletter XXIV/4 [August 1997] pp. 4–5.
Above, an original Wonder violin with its bow and case; below, a Wonder violin transcription.
Related article: The Hill bow
In the late 17th and early 18th century the great violin maker Antonio Stradivari used a special wood that had grown in the cold period between 1645 and 1715. In the long winters and the cool summers, the wood grew especially slowly and evenly, creating low density and a high modulus of elasticity. Until now, modern violin makers could only dream of wood with such tonal qualities.
Similar wood can now be made available for violin making. The fungus species Physisporinus vitreus and Xylaria longipes can decay Norway spruce and sycamore—two important kinds of wood used for violin making—to such an extent that their tonal quality is improved. Unlike other fungus species, they gradually degrade the cell walls, inducing thinning; but even in the late stages of decomposition a stiff scaffold structure remains through which the sound waves can still travel directly.
The implementation of such biotechnological methods for treating soundboard wood could make it possible one day for violinists to afford instruments with the sound quality of a Stradivari.
This according to “Production of superior wood for violins by use of wood decay fungi” by Francis W.M.R. Schwarze, et al. (Journal of the Violin Society of America XXII/1  pp. 116-124). Above, a Stradivarius at the Palacio Real de Madrid. Below, a brief documentary on the process described by Schwarze.
In 1892 Alfred Hill, of the London violin-making firm W.E. Hill & Sons, got into an argument about Irish Home Rule with one of his employees. The argument escalated until the employee became enraged and walked out.
This confrontation had considerable consequences; the employee was the firm’s only bow maker.
At a loss, Hill took two men from the case-making department and told them to start making bows. Neither William Napier nor William Retford (inset) had any experience as bow makers—but they went on to revolutionize the art of bow making, developing the fine and reliably consistent product that the violin world now knows as the Hill bow.
This according to “Industry meets art: The history of the iconic Hill bow” by Philip J. Kass (Strings XXV/4:187 [November 2010] pp. 61–64).
Related article: The Wonder violin
A close reading of the canonical texts yields conclusive evidence that the celebrated sleuth was not a superb violinist—he was a superb violist.
The mistake was likely perpetuated by an early printer’s error. After all, Watson was a doctor, which means that even at best his handwriting was nearly illegible; he undoubtedly wrote “viola”, not “violin”. References to Holmes’s playing such as a “low, dreamy, melodious air” and “low melancholy wailing”—as well as to his habit of playing it “thrown across his knee”—clearly indicate that his instrument must have been a viola.
In fact, further textual references point to a historical mystery solved. Holmes referred to his instrument as a Stradivarius bought from a shady broker for only 55 shillings; surely this was the one Stradivarius viola, dated 1695, whose whereabouts has eluded instrument historians.
This according to “Quick, Watson, the fiddle” by Rolfe Boswell (The Baker Street journal, October 1948; reprinted in Journal of the American Viola Society online 26 [summer 2010] pp. 14–18).
Above, a classic depiction by Sidney Paget, Conan Doyle’s original illustrator; below, Jeremy Brett holds forth.
Related article: Dickens and music
While the composer of iconic marches is famous for directing the U.S. Marine Band and his own world-famous ensembles, John Philip Sousa’s early life as a violin prodigy is relatively unknown.
A sickly child, Sousa was home-schooled, and from the age of six his studies included lessons with an Italian violin teacher. He showed tremendous promise, and his father, a trombonist in the Marine Band, enlisted him as a Marine apprentice when he was 13; there he studied academics and several instruments.
Sousa went on to play the violin in orchestras and chamber groups, where he developed a taste for cutting-edge art music that he never lost; for example, his band performed excerpts from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger ten years before the opera’s first U.S. production.
This according to “John Philip Sousa’s violin: An American original” by Erin Shrader (Strings XXV/4:187 [November 2010] pp. 53–56). Above, Sousa’s childhood violin before (background) and after it was restored by John Montgomery. Below, Sousa’s Band performs Carl Friedemann’s Slavonic rhapsody.
Related article: Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project