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English Report Summaries-Available German Titles


VIOLIN MYTHOLOGY:
A Psychoanalytical Goldmine

 Copyright Fritz Reuter and Sons, Inc. 1986, 1996-2000 All rights reserved
By Fritz Reuter, Jr.

Even the locomotive is not a greater marvel of mechanism
than the violin.
-Gladstone

The "secret" of Stradivarius' sound, as well as the esteem accorded to antique or old instruments by the general public, is largely based on myths rather than on verifiable facts.

2. The true "secret," unfortunately, lies in the manipulation of the marketplace. This report, therefore, like other Focus articles, will disclose the behind-the-scenes maneuvers of the business of selling old, antique violins. By presenting facts which are probably little known to the buying public -- the player; the antique violin collector or speculator -- I hope to provide tools which will prove useful in selecting a violin and, also, in contracting for repairs and restorations. I will illustrate my points by speaking of the violin. But identical considerations apply to the viola, cello, and bass -- and to bows for these instruments.

3. The violin is probably the most romanticized instrument in existence. Much has been written about it from the position of the maker; collector; and player. Little, however; has been said about the dealer's perspective. Most people, inundated with information which excludes the dealer's role, find truth and fiction hard to separate. Much of the fiction is deliberately fostered by certain types of dealers and teachers -- those who seek to turn a profit, grossly inflated, from buyers' understandable ignorance and confusion. For this reason, it is urgent for us to highlight the three major myths which conspire in perpetuating the Great Violin Mythology.
  • MYTH I: The price of an old or antique violin is determined by its sound.
  • FACT: The prices of old or antique violins are highly arbitrary

4. Especially at retail, old antique violin prices are termed "Liebhaber Preise" -- the price unsuspecting buyers are seduced into paying through the secret financial collaboration of sellers and "matchmakers," i.e., teachers and others having pecuniary interests. Among those using "creative" merchandising tactics, the actual sales price is determined by the absolute maximum a buyer can be persuaded to pay. Then the fun begins. From the "Liebhaber Preise" various kickbacks are subtracted, "referral fees" (extending up to 50%) paid to teachers and others for their "matchmaking" services -- as well as an exceedingly substantial profit for the seller The remainder; say 20 to 30 percent of the "Liebhaber Preise," most often exceeds the price for which the same instrument could have been purchased through unrigged channels.

5. Auctions are a quite different matter. Even though often scandalously weighted to favor the house, prices reflect the general range of value for a given object as well as the trend or fashion prevailing among collectors. Experts assess extrinsic values -- authenticity (origin and maker), physical condition (any damage, repairs, or other factors contributing to depreciation) -- and price an instrument with reference to the open-market values prevailing among violin collectors.

6. Thus a violin's actual cash value (not the on-paper value) can only be determined in one of three ways: -- by the instrument's selling price on the open market, regardless of initial purchase price, -- by the minimum cash (not trade-in) value which the previous seller guaranteed, in writing, to the present owner; -- by the insured replacement value, the amount an insurance company will actually pay in cash (not replace in kind) if the instrument is stolen or totally destroyed.

  • FACT: Violins sold at antique auction houses are sold without being played, without any test for sound.
7. These are primarily respectable auction houses (for example: Phillips, Christie, Sotheby's in London). Even so, auction "hammer prices" are payment for extrinsic values, values placed upon antiques by collectors, and are unrelated to the use for which the violin was originally intended. No attention goes to the instrument's intrinsic value. Perusal of a Sotheby's auction catalog will quickly illustrate my claims, however casually one reads.

8. Permit me a few quick generalizations about these matters. Antique items are purchased at auction for various reasons, and this holds for all kinds of antiques: clocks and automobiles, chairs and china, pianos and violins. Museums enter the bidding for one reason, a desire to add to the store of items they exhibit. Collectors purchase because they are making speculative investments -- and, sometimes, because their acquisitions nourish the collectors' own vanity. But the items acquired are not representative of the "state of the art" in a given field -- nor should anyone imagine them to be.

9. If one wanted an automobile embodying "state of the art" engineering, he would purchase some famous semi-custom model... and the most recent one. One would not buy a classic Duesenberg! There are good reasons for buying a Duesenberg: historic stature, rarity, condition, etc. No one, however; imagines that this car represents the height of achievement in today's automotive engineering. No one, in short, purchases the Duesenberg because of its having the kind of value I am calling intrinsic. Yet, quite amazingly, people will purchase an antique violin and simultaneously delude themselves as to its "state of the art" stature. For they choose without reference to an objective standard.
  • MYTH II: Old, expensive, antique violins sound better than less expensive violins crafted by twentieth-century masters.
  • FACT: The beauty of sound of a violin has NO necessary relation to the price or age of the instrument.

10. Writing in Forbes magazine (30 January 1984), Robert Teitelman reported on efforts to probe the "mystery" of Stradivarius. Only a few months later; the Reader's Digest (June, 1984) made Teitelman's report available to an even wider circle of readers. As printed in The Digest, his conclusion could hardly be improved:

11. In the end, many experts believe, this research could prove that Stradivari's secret is not completely a matter of technology but what scientists call "psychoacoustics." What a violinist hears and feels when he plays is as subjective as the perfume of a rose. Violinists report that they have to "break in" even a reportedly great violin -- fiddling with it until the tone suits their own ear. In effect, they are being broken in by their violin.

12. Stated even more bluntly: Stradivarius' "secret" sound is based upon a hypnotically induced condition of the mind! Especially after one has spent a fortune, one's mind concludes that the sound is unsurpassably beautiful. . . and, if it is not, it had better be!

13. On the matter of sound and price, consider the following. Vuillaume's "Messiah" (today exhibited at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England) is probably the most expensive violin in existence. Being played infrequently keeps the instrument in pristine condition. But note the conclusion to which this forces us. The violin's sound -- rarely produced, seldom heard -- can not possibly account for the monetary value of the "Messiah." All alone, the name and condition do!

  • FACT: With any violin, the production and reception of sound is always the result of collective interactions among four basic components:
    1) the player, 2) the violin, 3) the bow, 4) the environment

14. Changing any one of these four basic components will inevitably change the sound of "the violin itself." Furthermore, there is an additional complication we must note. Each of the four basic components can change in more than one way, can, so to speak, be divided into subcomponents -- thus opening the way to thousands of possible variables affecting tone.

15. 1) The player is always unique. Every player demonstrates a degree of left and right hand technique, as well as a degree of musicianship, which is his or hers alone -- which is utterly individual. Hence a particular violin may be to the liking of one musician, but not another. Moreover; the specific musician may be especially influenced by and committed to the sound requirements of one kind of music: chamber music, jazz, bluegrass, orchestral literature, etc.

16. 2) The violin itself can be altered tonally, and in hundreds of different ways. But it is important to understand that some of these changes are ethical, some not. Unethical changes are changes which destroy the fundamental architectonics of an instrument and thereby its collector's value. They include various kinds of rethinning: of the top, back and/or ribs of a violin for the sake of strictly temporary increases in responsiveness and loudness. Such changes amount to "gutting" (the usual term) a violin's internal graduation pattern; these alterations, and their effects, are treated more fully in the Summer; 1985, issue of REUTER'S FOCUS REPORT. Recutting the F-holes will also change the instrument's sound, but -due to the effect upon basic design - such enlargement is considered unethical, along with "gutting." Ethical changes, in contrast, respect basic architectonics or design. Most common are: resetting the angle of the fingerboard; changing the kind and gauge of strings; fitting a new bridge and/or sound-post; resetting the neck, mensur; bassbar; endpin hole, etc. And, regardless of whether a change is ethical or unethical, every alteration is itself susceptible of almost infinite variations -- all with unique consequences for an instrument's sound.

17. 3) The bow is as unique as the player and the violin. Each differs in weight, balance, flexibility, and resilience -- and every difference affects sound production. One bow may have the all-around qualities required by a particular player (with particular interests, intentions, and abilities) yet not be suitable for another. Certain bows may be especially well adapted to the demands of particular kinds of music --even of particular composers or compositions.

18. 4) The environment, the acoustical and climatic surroundings in which a violin is played, inevitably influences the way it sounds. Moreover; the reception or effect of the "sound" -- qualified by its particular environment -- will be experienced by the player in one way, by the audience in another What are the most telling differences? The player receives acoustical and mechanical impulses, whereas the audience receives the acoustical impulses only. Nor is this all. Every sensation we experience with our senses (hearing, sight, taste, etc.) is measured subjectively, by the individual's frame of reference. A sound is "pleasant" or "unpleasant," something I like or do not like. It is not, in any simple or even "scientific" sense, truly "good" or "bad." To scientifically label a violin's tone as "good" or "bad," one would have to establish --and elicit public agreement upon -- an objective, measurable criterion for tone quality (a criterion from which one could then demonstrate precise degrees of deviation).

19. However this may be, I would like to close out this section of our "mythology" with a suggestive analogy. Suppose one went to an art fair or gallery to buy a beautiful painting. Suppose, too, that one were truly seeking visual beauty -- paying NO attention to painters' names, price tags, or the seeming "prestige" of the surroundings. Any of us might well choose, and be most deeply gratified by, the least expensive canvas!
  • MYTH III: The secret of making violins -- i.e., making them as Stradivarius made them -- has been lost; it is a mystery.
  • FACT: The knowledge of how to build a violin, traceable back to the physical laws and architectonic principles which Stradivarius embodied in his remarkable creations, has been openly available (in both practical and theoretical dimensions) for generations.
20. Here, I can explain my position in rather simple fashion --merely by reference to the dictionary. Let us consider what is meant by references to the "secret" of making violins, the "secret" of Stradivarius, and the like. Webster's, the "Third New International Dictionary," explains the word secret in three ways:

1a.: Something kept hidden: an unexplained or inscrutable process or fact.

1b.: Something kept hidden from the knowledge of others, concealed as one's private knowledge, or shared only confidentially with a few persons.

1c.: A method, formula, or process used in an art or manufacturing operation and divulged only to those of one's own company or craft.

21. Those who make much (often a considerable profit!) from the "secret" of Stradivarius, etc., are clearly committed to one, or both, of the first two definitions -- at the very least, to inducing others to believe them. "Hidden" and "inscrutable" are, after all, powerful words. But the third definition (1c.), allowing for the slightest modification, will demystify and clarify what is truly "secret" in the "secret" we associate with Stradivarius. This secret is: "a method, formula, and process used in an art or manufacturing operation and understood primarily by those of one's own company or craft". The "secret," in short, is a complex art -- an art transmitted from masters to apprentices, from generation to generation, largely through the guilds. And the master; let us remember; would not be a master were he not master of an art -- and, moreover; its master in practical and theoretical senses, both.

22. In conclusion, I should like to expand upon this point. Violin makers actually fall into two distinct categories, imitator and creator.

23. (1) The imitator is in fact a model maker; one who copies a created prototype in detail. He attempts to replicate the prototype's material, measurements, design (architectonics), and appearance -- since many people, potential instrument purchasers included, lack certain basic understandings. Quite wrongly, they imagine that things which look alike must function alike. Now the imitator; the maker who depends upon the public's lack of understanding, is himself usually deficient in understanding too -- most dramatically, in the understanding of critical theoretical matters. He does not comprehend in detail the dynamics and mechanics of a violin's functioning. (He is something like an auto mechanic, so-called, who understands only that car engines require oil and that transmission fluid must stay at a certain level.) How does such a maker conceal his deficiencies? By psychological appeals to the "secret," "mystery," and mystique of old, antique violins.

24. (2) The creator is authentically a builder; defined by an understanding and mastery which are theoretical and practical. One need not "hype" a creator's work by reference to nonsensical "mysteries." The work itself, guided by the artistic and ethical imperatives which define the craft of a true maker; is enough. For the true maker understands and embodies the critical physical laws and architectonic principles in every violin he creates. He thus brings forth an instrument which "speaks easily" on all strings and in all positions, which is balanced, which modulates and has a roundness of sound. And, finally, he crowns every such creation with his mastery as a wood carver.

25. Is it not obvious that the facts of violin making are far more substantial than the preposterous fables and alleged "secrets" sometimes put forward in their place -- that the Great Violin Mythology, however appealing to that capacity for gullibility which all of us share, is far less wondrous than the enduring realities of the violin maker's patient, venerable art?

Copyright Fritz Reuter and Sons, Inc. 1988, 1996-2000 All rights reserved
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