Myth or Merit?

The "Messiah" Stradivarius (1716), Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

The "Messiah" Stradivarius (1716), held in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Is the reputation of famous musical instruments a myth, or do some exceptional instruments just sound better? Legendary Stradivarius violins have been the subject of almost mythological interest. Last year, the recovery of a “missing” Strad sparked interest in London. This brought up many of the peculiarities of musical instruments as objects. While “a violin” is a more or less run-of-the-mill musical instrument, “a Strad” is worth millions and considered to be irreplaceable. (Though not necessarily impossible to replicate.)

So, what are Strads so expensive? Are Stradivarius violins “better” than other violins? Do particular musical instruments have intrinsic, special characteristics that cannot be recreated on any others? These complex questions have been subject to long debate and are the topic of an article by Daniel Wakin in the NYTimes this weekend. Wakin describes the “Strad wars,” which pit the true believers (the players and the owners) against the skeptics (particularly violin makers and players who are not benefiting from a wealthy patron’s largesse) in a “long-running debate over whether the enormous worth of such instruments is rooted in myth or merit.” Although there are powerful ideas about wealth, prestige, and status that make playing a venerated object “valuable,” Wakin also points out that while the “mystique” of the great violin has been subject to profound scrutiny, “it remains powerful in our increasingly digitized and disposable world, where 300-year-old wood objects used to express deep emotion seem ever more precious.” In other words, if the digital world is more ephemeral, something about an ancient wooden instrument has automatic appeal.

A useful FAQ has been made available by acoustics researchers at the University of New South Wales, which takes up the question “What is the ‘secret of Stradivarius’?” They point to a number of complicating factors in answering such a question, notably the highly individual skills and approaches that vary between players. Moreover, since Strads have been used to define optimum sound for multiple generations of players, these instruments have come to more or less define good violins. Would it be possible to do better if they are the standard? Finally, despite what Wakin points out in the article (that these instruments are 300 years old), every surviving Stradivarius and other old master has been extensively rebuilt over the years to the extent that no living person or player really knows what a Stradivarius “really” sounded like. The UNSW lab also points to other studies that have investigated the varnish of the instruments and other theories that have been advanced to explain the Stradivarius phenomenon. (Read their statements here.)

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