Violins & Voices – Part 1

Violins & Voices – Part 1

Detail of the "Leonora Jackson" Stradivari, 1714

Detail of the “Leonora Jackson” Stradivari, 1714

Players and makers often talk about differences in tonal character between Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu violins. Here is Yehudi Menuhin on the subject:

. . . my Khevenhüller Strad delivers a sweeter tone than my Soil Strad yet does not quite match the Soil’s power to ring out above a symphony orchestra. Transcending such idiosyncrasies, however, is a generic temperament . . . which must, I feel, reflect the hand that carved them.

  . . . [Stradivari] made brilliant, burnished sound that conveys, for me at any rate, moral notions of loftiness. One must rise to a Strad before it will speak from its craftsman’s soul. It spurns the man who lets his hand exert too much pressure or his finger fall ever so slightly wide of its mark.  As master, there is ultimately no pleasing him except by faultless workmanship, for he shines upon one’s blemishes. As mistress, there is no winning her except by incessant victories over oneself, by demonstrations of perfect control.

. . . the Guarnerius, whose earthier voice belies the fact that it is often slightly smaller than most Strads, sings through its pores and sings de profundis. One need not rise above oneself, for it appeals to the natural man. Although Strads have been the dominant instrument of my life, at regular intervals I have played Guarneri; finding the first gold while the second brings to mind the red of Sainte-Chapelle stained glass.

 “Unfinished Journey,” pages 296-297

 Menuhin was a great violinist, an eloquent writer, and a highly cultivated man, so it is hard to imagine anyone better qualified to speak on this subject. It is not clear, however, how obvious the differences he describes might be to the rest of us. Should any interested listener expect to hear them by, for example, comparing recordings of Strad players like Menuhin, Milstein, and Oistrakh with those of Guarneri players like Heifetz, Stern, and Zukerman? Or can the differences be heard only by expert listeners, or by the players themselves?

The dull fact of the matter is that numerous listening tests have shown that even expert listeners have trouble telling nominally very different violins apart. Take for example a blind-test organized by BBC radio in the mid-1970s. Violinist Manoug Parikian stood behind a screen and played the opening of the Bruch Concerto and an excerpt from Bach’s Chaconne on each of four violins: a Stradivari, a Guarneri del Gesu, a Vuillaume, and a Ronald Praill that was barely a year old.

Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zukerman, and the British violin expert and dealer Charles Beare were each asked to guess which instrument was which. No-one correctly identified them all. Stern and Beare did best, getting two out of four correct. The Praill violin was mistaken for both the Strad and the Guarneri.

It goes without saying that a healthy skepticism should be reserved for test results that seem to disprove the existence of the actual. In this case, the panel (before giving their answers) spent some time pointing out the test’s deficiencies: The excerpts were too short and too limited in tonal possibilities; there was no chance to revisit each instrument for extended comparisons; the studio represented only one of many possible listening environments, and so forth.

It is true that the BBC test was not undertaken with sufficient rigor for the results to stand as scientific evidence. This does not mean there is nothing to be learned from it, or from other informal experiments. And yet, fairly or unfairly, listening tests have had little apparent effect on prevailing beliefs about violin sound. Rather than speculating about why this may be the case, I would like to consider a very general question: What kinds of sounds are humans good at recognizing and comparing – and are the sounds of individual violins among them?

As a point of reference, imagine three widely-familiar voices – those of U.S. presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. How clearly you can hear each of them in your mind’s ear probably depends on what kind of mind you have, and what kind of ear. Imagine however that you have been blindfolded and then, after listening to each president say the same simple phrase, are asked to identify which voice is which. Would you feel nervous?

Probably not. Humans and many other species are adept at recognizing each others voices. Bats, for example, can find their off-spring among millions of other baby bats, all crying out simultaneously in a light-less cave. Not only do we recognize the voices of people we know, we recognize general qualities in the voices of strangers – an Irish accent, for example, or the effects of a common cold.

The violin (or viola or cello) is often said to be the instrument closest to the human voice. Is it therefore reasonable to suppose that the sound of an individual violin is as distinctive and memorable as that of an individual human?

Well, imagine the sound of a Stradivari violin. What do you hear? Let’s  be more specific: imagine the sound of a particular Stradivari, the Soil of 1715. This was Yehudi Menuhin’s principal instrument; it is now played by Itzhak Perlman. Perhaps you can call to mind a passage from one of their recordings, or remember how the violin sounded in a live concert. But now imagine you have been blindfolded and asked to identify the Soil from a line-up of five other violins, having heard the same brief passage played on each. Would you feel nervous?

You should. Notwithstanding everything said and written about the differences between various kinds of violins – old, new, Italian, French, German, English – these differences have been surprisingly difficult to pin down. This does not mean that they don’t exist. Variations among individual instruments of the same type can be relatively large, while general differences between types may be quite small – meaning one would need to compare a very large number of violins in order to draw conclusions. It could also be that some kind of specialized perceptual training is needed to facilitate discrimination between instruments. Consider, for example, that tiny differences between bird-calls may be obvious to ornithologists who have spent hours listening to recordings of them played half-speed.

From all the above, we can at very least conclude that violins are harder to tell apart than presidents. Just why this is so will be the subject of Violins & Voices, Part 2.



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