influential ears

I recently finished writing a paper titled “Making the Modern Violin: The Influence of Audience Appeal on the Instrument’s Development” for a graduate course at Stony Brook University. Writing papers has never been difficult for me — I attribute any skill in that regard to a genuine love of written word — but the breadth of both information and speculation on this particular subject presented a unique challenge to me as I attempted to offer a new perspective.

Here’s my introduction:

      The violin’s ability to captivate audiences, intrigue scientists, and excite historians has been taken for granted in the modern era for the violin’s Medieval ancestors and ancient relative were far less sophisticated and alluring. The modern violin has been described as having a heavenly sound and branded as the “devil’s instrument, but more curious are the reasons why this instrument rose in status from a lowly dancing fiddle to a work of artistic and scientific mastery capable of dazzling audiences in the present day. To examine the history of the violin, even from its use and function in the Baroque era, is a monumental undertaking which few musicologists have attempted, and their results are more often an overview of form that dabbles in treatise, composition, and performance practice. Certainly, these histories of the violin, writings and accounts of violinist-composers, construction manuals, and accounts of composition and performance are valuable for our understanding of the violin, and a very brief report comparing these writings is presented in the following pages.

More relevant for modern violinists is the social and economic history that emerges from the examination of the violin’s evolution. The violin changed from its earliest models to the modern version we use today due to competition for audiences and prestige in the world of classical music previously held by operatic soloists. Opera was the most popular genre of classical music during the years when capitalism began to shift arts patronage from the aristocracy to the growing middle class. Operas were sung in the vernacular and their stories had widespread appeal, and when audiences filled the vast and beautiful public opera houses, the productions and artists benefited from this financial support. Early violinists could not enjoy the same economic prosperity as their peers onstage at the opera because their instruments had been designed for resonant churches and small chambers, not large halls with little reverberation.

Nonetheless, the violin was more of a professional instrument than any stringed instrument before it, and virtuoso violinists desired prestige for their talents. Luthiers responded to these demands by implementing innovations that would change how the violin looked, sounded, and was played. These changes brought lasting benefits to violinists including a rise in status, but modernizations were not without consequences. By examining the factors that influenced the changing violin, musicians can begin to consider what first attracted audiences to the violin and evaluate how best to rekindle its popularity in today’s soundscape.

I cited thirty-seven sources throughout my paper and consulted another twenty-one, making that –by my estimate — the most reading I’ve done in the span of two months in my adult life! Of those selections, I found the topics of concert hall acoustics,  dendrochronology, and the use of contemporary visual art to confirm structural changes throughout history the most interesting. There book that helped to inspire my topic, The Making of American Audiences: From Stage to Television, 1750-1990 by Richard Butsch, was entirely irrelevant, but I’m glad that I got to glance through it along the way! I’ve also filed away this chart for future reference, perhaps with the vague hope that someday I’ll have the opportunity to experience the sound of one of these makers firsthand:


As with any research endeavor, challenges arise. In this case, I quickly learned to be wary of three areas:

  1. The myth of the Stradivarius. This myth that the violins of Stradivari are unrivaled and incomparable is so pervasive that even reputable books need to make mention of it. Recognizing that Antonio Stradivari was one of the most significant — if not, the most significant — luthier in history is necessary, but perpetuating the idea that his innovative design cannot be replicated or improved upon only reveals willful ignorance in regard to modern makers, performers, and audiences.
  2. Conversions and calculations related to weight and force. No discussion of downward force on the body of a violin can be complete without accounting for the weight of strings, but almost no strings exist from the period preceding the 19th century, and the few examples that may be authentic are not able to be stretched and tuned for accurate comparison. Measurements of string gauge and calculations of the force they exerted vary wildly from source to source even within the same time period, and modern specialists sometimes overlook nuances in conversions. Want a non-musical example? Check out this article by NPR about the kilogram.
  3. Inherent bias in regard to tone qualityWhy is it that musicians need to try out instruments before they purchase them? Why are there some “good Strads” and some “bad Strads”? Why is one person drawn to a violin when another person dislikes playing it? How is a “dark” sound different from a “rich” sound, what makes a “full” sound, are we talking about “clarity” or “projection” or “focus” or sheer “volume”? Why is an E string “brilliant” but a similar quality on a G string makes it “thin”? Are the strings creating an imbalance from low to high registers, or can a soundpost adjustment fix the problem? Bias runs rampant in discussions of tone, and even musicians are terrible at describing what, exactly, they like about one sound compared to another. I had to make decisions about how to interpret historical accounts of tone quality and reconcile those decisions with the shifting preferences of sound in performance.

I stand by my conclusion (The lesson that modern violinists can take from this history is that the instrument’s status is due largely to economic forces imposed during its formative period, but its ongoing success may be more closely linked to the emotional capacity of tone and timbre than its awe-arousing novelty.) though its implication for classical music leaves me more than a bit troubled.


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