Kate Shaw, over at Ars Technica, reported on a recent study suggesting that there is no intrinsic acoustic property of the “best” violins from the time of Antonio Stradivari and Guiseppe Guarneri “del Gesu”, that would naturally attract professional violinists. She does a good job explaining both the methods and finding, and also placing the significance of the research into context.
The upshot of the study is that
… it definitely counters the wisdom that these old, highly valuable violins are unmatched in quality. In many cases, the old and new instruments are equal in quality – in some, the new models are superior to their “golden age” counterparts.
An important point is that this was a double-blind study, where the experimenters and the violinists did not know which violin was being assigned when. Violinists did not do better than chance when identifying the so-called “golden age” violin, nor did they necessarily prefer to older models to the new ones.
As an aside; I once attended a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, played by the string quartet on four such golden age instruments. The thing I remember most from that concert is that a few of the high notes were screeched out. Otherwise, it was a reasonable performance. I am sure we would not have lost anything had we remained ignorant of the provenance of the violins. With that said, sometimes it is not the quality of the tool but its history that gives it value. The fact remains that the human culture possesses this violin that had been made over 300 years, hand-crafted in the master’s workshop, and played by generations of virtuoso violinists. It is a bit of living history, infused by our hands.