- Why are certain violins of more value than others?
- In considering this question, several difficulties present themselves to the inquirer. We are all aware of the infinite diversity of tastes in the first instance, and in the next, accurate judgment is a matter which depends on the union of so many qualities that it is rare indeed to find two opinions completely alike. Nevertheless we do find that there are a few instruments which by universal consent have become the standard of taste. They are "the glass of fashion and the mould of form" in the violin world. An appeal to these famous violins must therefore be of some service in this inquiry, which is of very considerable importance, because its object is to decide what is that tone which confers that immense value which some violins have realised as distinguished from that which possesses only a merit of so inferior a character as to become scarcely valuable in any degree. In other words, what are the distinguishing characteristics of tone of the violins made by Nicholas Amati, Antonius Stradiuarius, and Joseph Guarnerius. These three makers are now the Raphaels, the Titians, and the Claudes of the musical world, and a few thoughts on their works in connection with this subject may help us to a decision on this difficult point, at least to the great bulk of amateurs. We will divide the inquiry into three heads.1. Power.2. Sweetness.3. Purity.In considering the first point, power, the amateur will have to beware of a very possible mistake he may fall into. There is _apparent_ power under the ear, arising from coarseness. This is a species of power which is observable chiefly by the player. The listener, especially if at a little distance, does not hear this power. The tone is clogged and thickened with the resinous particles which have remained in the wood and which perhaps, from its nature may never leave it altogether, and the vibration is not therefore perfect. Another cause of false power is a certain imperfect build wherein the parts are not properly calculated as in the fine Cremona productions. These two classes of instruments are very apt to deceive unpractised ears. But a moment's comparison with one of the genuine great masters will show them in a most unmistakable manner the difference. What then is real power? It is simply musical tone, divested of all adventitious qualities. When tone of this class is heard near, the effect is charming to the ear. When heard afar off, it seems to swell out and become magnificent and telling. Who that has heard a great player on a fine instrument, that has not been astonished at the immense quantity of tone which arises from this exceedingly fine quality. And it is in this way that even the small Amatis, built when great amount of tone was not wanted and would not have been appreciated, are still most delightful as solo instruments. Its purity and fine quality carry it to a much greater distance and produce a greater effect, than would arise from larger instruments of less careful build and euphonic qualities. Herein is discovered the difference between violins of the three great masters named and others of the same name. If a small Nicholas Amati be compared with a large model, it will be found that the quality is similar, but the quantity is greater, and therefore the instrument becomes more valuable. Again, in a Stradiuarius or Joseph Guarnerius of the best period, which are of the flat model and most accurate build, we find a pure ringing and deliciously rich quality, without roughness or coarseness, that finds its way through everything to a great distance, even in a crowded concert room. The differences in the three great makers seems to be now decided to consist in fullness of tone and quantity of power. The Amatis are essentially sweet and vocal. The Stradiuarius - of similar quality, greatly increased in body and of a more ringing bell-like character. The Guarnerius of the best model is even still more powerful. But they all possess that essential purity and richness of tone without which there is no real excellence. On this head we find, therefore, that power, providing it be accompanied by the other essentials of sweetness and purity, confers on violins the greatest value. A Nicholas Amati of the grand pattern - a Stradiuarius of the large flat model, or a Guarnerius of similar characteristics - all of which have been built with the greatest care and attention to the resonant qualities of the wood, and possess all these essentials - are therefore the instruments that have and will always command the greatest admiration.The next essential point in a good instrument we have to consider is sweetness. This combines characteristics which are not essential to power. A violin may possess the latter without the former. The tone may be of a quality which will tell and carry, but not of that soft delicious voice like nature which we call sweetness. The most admirable instruments of this characteristic have been variously compared to a flute or to the female voice. The latter is the best comparison. For the brightest examples of this quality alone we must look to the small violins of Antonius and Hieronymus, and also of Nicholas Amati. They are of the most delicious quality, and for solo instruments cannot be excelled. They respond with the most charming effect to the most touching and passionate expression. A great player can really sing on these with such a delightful effect as almost to compensate for the want of speech.The third point is purity of tone. We may be said to have touched upon this already in treating of the other two. But it is necessary to allude to this also, because it is possible to have purity of tone without sweetness or power. There are many instruments which from age and use have lost all harshness or roughness of tone, but are still of a thin piercing quality. These may be said to be pure in tone, but not possessing the other requisites they fail in commanding attention. What we have to look for in a violin is that roundness and fullness of quality which are combined in the term sweetness. Tone cannot be said to be sweet which is thin or piercing. It lacks one essential characteristic. It is on this account that in the present day many of the Steiner instruments have lost favour. There are a few which possess both sweetness and purity, and they rank with the small Amatis. But the best of them are wanting in power. This characteristic is only heard in perfection in the Stradiuarius or the Guarnerius of Cremona, and the great Brescian makers Gaspar di Salo and Magini. An amateur should look therefore in purchasing an instrument whether it possesses these three characteristics or any or which of them.We have now shown what are the essentials of a fine instrument, but as the genuine productions of these great masters are mostly in the hands of rich amateurs it is scarcely possible to become the happy possessor of one of the perfect instruments. What then shall we do? The reply is simple. Study the characteristics we have described, and you will find in some of the pupils of the Amati, Stradiuarius, or Guarnerius a near approach to this excellence. In fact it is well known that in the scarcity of originals fine examples by the pupils have frequently been sold as the work of the masters themselves. The Dictionary we have compiled will tell the amateur what names will most probably supply the qualities he desires. Care and attention will do the rest.
Violins and Violin Makers Biographical Dictionary of the Great Italian Artistes, their Followers and Imitators, to the present time. With Essays on Important Subjects Connected with the Violin. — London, LONGMAN AND CO., PATERNOSTER ROW.. Joseph Pearce. 1866.
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