This weekend I had the great opportunity to travel to New York City and spend time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was especially excited about their wing dedicated to musical instruments with some incredible stringed instruments on display, including original violins by makers Stradivari, Amati, and Guarneri as well as other 16th century violins from the Cremona school in Italy.
Evolution of the Modern Violin
The Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari families actively produced instruments between 1550 and 1744 in the same region of Cremona, during which time the modern violin as we know it came to life. While string instruments have evolved over time with various body shapes and string counts, very few changes have been made to the violin that was standardized during this time as a four-stringed instrument with its signature shape and size, strung in perfect fifths (E, A, D, G).
You may notice slight differences in design between the Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivarius violins, but they are clearly instruments in same family with the same tuning, string count, and contours. These violins seem so familiar because they are; almost all violins today are made with Stradivari, Amati, or Guarneri body designs.
For example, if you take a look at all the violins we carry at Kennedy Violins, you’ll notice that they are all made with the same standard measurements (body length, string length, string height, fingerboard length and so on—take a look at our violin measurements chart) used by luthiers today. Most are made and shaped with an original Stradivari design.
Preserved Historical Violin
As you may know, some instruments preserved from these hundreds of years ago are still in use. Most notably, there are 650 Stradivari violins still in existence, ranging in value from between hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars. In 2010 a Stradivari violin sold at auction for $3,600,000, a record high.
Updating to a Modern Setup
Even though these 16th, 17th, and 18th century violins are in tact and in use, the ones in performance today have actually been modernized with fittings that make them playable by today’s standards.
I found the diagram below so fascinating. From it we learn that a Stradivarius violin in performance today has been OPTIMIZED to compete with modern violins to catch up with the evolution of the violin that has taken place over the centuries. These evolutionary changes in setup have made the violin more easily playable with more projection and better sound quality.
Updates from the Baroque setup to the modern setup include
- a new neck that angles back
- a longer fingerboard that allows performance in higher octaves
- a modern bridge
- new strings, often synthetic with metal winding instead of strings made from animal gut
- a modern tailpiece
- a longer bass bar in the interior of the violin
What’s the Same?
What remains “untouched”? Essentially, the body of the violin (back, face, and ribs) and the scroll/pegbox. This may not sound like much, but it’s the body of the instrument that most greatly affects the sound. The quality of wood and the precise gradations in the carving and thickness of the plates make these instruments sound like they do.
In this sense, the restored Baroque instruments retain their authenticity because no one can replicate the carving of the plates done by the original masters themselves.
The Legacy Lives On
If you get a chance to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art or other museums throughout the world with string instruments on display, definitely take the opportunity to see these preserved treasures. Better yet, you can hear a Stradivarius performed live (or on record) by modern violinists including Joshua Bell and Itzhak Perlman.
To see and hear these pieces of history alive is truly a privilege as we remember the master makers who brought to life music as we know it today. Here’s to the continuation of their legacy through the practice and performance of music forever!
- “Stradivarius in the Attic?” by Rachel Davis
- “Itzhak Perlman: An Inspirational Virtuoso” by Marisa Kobilan