This week’s feature has been supplied by Gerald Elias, author of PLAYING WITH FIRE.
Did you know that the violin was invented more than 400 years ago? In the city of Brescia, Italy, a master luthier named Gasparo da Salo created an instrument that surpassed all previous families of string instruments regarding the quality of tone production. Unlike the viola, cello, or string bass, all of which can have a radical range in size and shape, the dimensions of the violin Gasparo crafted have remained the standard to this day.
Between Gasparo and his students, Brescia quickly became the violin-making capital of Europe and remained so until fate intervened. The plague struck Brescia in 1630 and nearly wiped out the city. Nearby Cremona miraculously escaped the epidemic, and there the craft of violin-making reached even greater heights. Astonishingly, the quality of the Cremonese violins made by the Guarneri and Amati families, and by Antonio Stradivari in the late 1600s and early 1700s, has never been surpassed.
Many makers have attempted to copy the instruments of the great makers; most out of reverence and to improve their own craftsmanship, but others in order to profit by pawning off fakes as original Stradivaris, which is not so surprising when one considers that the most expensive instruments can sell for more than $10 million. As similar as violins might appear to the lay person, no two violins are identical, so identifying the hundreds of makers of instruments that may be centuries old is a finely honed skill, and there are only a handful of experts in the whole world whose opinions are universally recognized.
Most people would think that the paramount consideration when calculating the value of a violin would be its sound. That is certainly important for the musician who plays it! But in terms of market value, the primary considerations are: who the maker is, how sure we are about that, and what condition the instrument is in. If the instrument were previously owned by a famous violinist or public figure, that would also add to its value. Though how it sounds is a much more subjective consideration, there’s no doubt of the amazing ability of such a small, acoustic instrument to create a sound that can fill an immense concert hall with the most beautiful tones ever devised by man!