Dealers And Stealers

There are violin dealers out there who scour the schools and prestigious music festivals in search of innocent young very promising string players for the purpose of cultivating a prospective sale of one of their fine instruments that they may own or have “on consignment.” This I have no problems with since, as a string player, one of the great joys of a life in classical music is to own a great instrument from one of the masters of the Cremonese or Venetian or Brescian periods.

What I take issue with is the implied necessity of one of these priceless masterpieces in making a career. So a young player before he/she is near full potential musically or technically or earning power is led to believe that without that Stradivari or Guarneri they will not be able to compete and their very career will be in jeopardy. Throughout the entirety of my more than 50 year playing career I have yet to encounter a string player under the age of 20 with enough knowledge, musicality, and technique to bring everything out of a master instrument.

Assuming they were able to accomplish these tasks, I doubt that more than two percent of any given audience would be able to decipher the difference in sound between a contemporary instrument and one from the master era. Even Jascha Heifetz, who I believe to have been the greatest single performer on a string instrument in the last 100 years, used a Tononi violin when he made his Carnegie Hall debut in the early 1900’s.

What comes into play more often than not these days is so much prestige that dealers have when they sell a great instrument that maybe has a significant provenance has nothing to do with the artistic value of the new owner. To assume that one must have a great instrument that sells for $2,000,000, (Aaron Rosand, in his late 80’s, just sold his violin for $10,000,000) instead of a fine new instrument made in the last 20 years, is ridiculous.

The best new instruments are in many playing points superior to all but the most exceptional old instruments. Moreover, the cost is often laughably less expensive. The price range of $5,000- $50,000 will yield superb instruments. The renaissance of great new makers in the last 20 years proves this. It is therefore folly to assume at the onset of a career that one must have an old instrument to succeed. What succeeds is musical and technical brilliance.

The young players should play new instruments until their musical personality has fully developed. Only then should they even think of searching for a great old instrument to own and play as his/her primary instrument.

12 Responses to “Dealers And Stealers”

  1. Barry November 19, 2009 at 6:53 am #

    Bravo!! You have done more than most famous players to now promote the great young makers of violins and cellos. I have had the opportunity to plany a number of great cellos over the years as artists come through, and I do dearly love the sound and feel of a great master instrument. But, as you say, with my limited (amature) abilities, I’m recognizing maybe 30% of the potential of the instrument. And
    young players as you well note can maybe recognize 50% of the potential. I’m reminded of the famous Heifetz story where a well wisher said after a concert “your
    violin sounded great tonight.” and the master put it to his ear and replied “funny,
    I don’t hear a thing.” Stern and a host of others made their great recordings, and
    played for decades on “copies” of their great instruments.

    We are probably living in the great second “golden age” of instrument making, as you well note. We need to explore and enjoy the modern makers.

    Barry

    • Lynn Harrell November 19, 2009 at 1:06 pm #

      Thank you for your comment. I am pleased to be able to witness the emergence of a number of great luthiers, as well.

  2. Dwight November 19, 2009 at 4:19 pm #

    I am of the opinion that a fine instrument by a living maker would work well for almost anyone. Time and time again double blind tests show that new instruments are worthy. Many famous players have exact \bench\ copies made of their fine old italians, even Paganini had the Cannon copied by Vuillume. I am not in any way a great player, but I do enjoy my new instrument and bows and I do not feel at any disadvantage. There is really nothing to loose except ego.

    DLB
    FKWG

  3. Lynn Harrell November 21, 2009 at 5:23 am #

    Thank you for your comment. I didn’t know that Vuillaume had made an instrument for Paganini. Where is it now?

    • Dwight November 22, 2009 at 8:06 pm #

      I’m not sure where the copy of the cannon is (I will try to find out) I am a bit mortified that I mis-spelled Vuillaume though..

      DLB
      FKWG

  4. David November 22, 2009 at 8:12 am #

    Thanks for this. I remember hearing Raphael Wallfisch several years ago on his excellent cello (not sure of maker). Certainly the musician in in command of his art is the most important ingredient for a career.

    David

  5. Peter Chun November 24, 2009 at 8:55 am #

    Thank you for this insightful entry. I agree wholeheartedly on the extremely high-level of violin making that we’re seeing. While it’s true that even lesser known old instruments can often sound better than new ones, I firmly believe that it’s only because of the age and usage of the particular instrument, not necessarily because of the quality. The newer instrument of high quality, w/ enough playing by a good player, will eventually sound as good, if not outperform the older one.

    I’m curious Mr. Harrell, as you must have had access to some high quality instruments even when you were young, because of your level of achievement at a young age, as well as due to your exposure to the professional musical world you must have had through your father (whose recordings I’ve heard and have extremely high opinion of his magnificent voice). Did you come to this conclusion from your own experience, or more from observation through your many years of teaching?

    Peter

    • Lynn Harrell December 1, 2009 at 7:08 pm #

      Dear Peter:

      Yes, I have come to this point of view over many years. But mostly from my experience , a bit from my teaching. But I do remember thinking that Slava had such an effect of huge tone, multi colored and that his instrument was not of the top rank. That convinced me that how it is played is absolutely primary. However, it is also essential that the instrument have a strong and healthy full sound which slava’s did, maybe even a bit brash! Any instrument with a weak string or two , a dark covered quality of sound, unevenness, etc. will be hopeless in the end. Even when the “quality” of sound excites one.

  6. Lynn Harrell December 1, 2009 at 6:55 pm #

    I know that Salvatore Accardo has spent some time with the Canon. He told me that it took a few WEEKS to \wake up\ but that it was SO incredible that he then subscribed to the notion that Paganiniwanted no one else to play it. And they would’nt if it was in a museum! He did not say if he played the Vuillaume as well, however. Even if Salvatore did, he would not have been as interested in it as much as the Del Gesu no one would be, particularly if it had to be \broken in\…. And I believe that the best new makers are closer to the originals than even Vuillaume. I know of no Vuillaume cello that can match my one piece back Christopher Dungey Pocatello Idaho 2008 cello.

  7. toni January 24, 2010 at 10:40 pm #

    Hi there,

    I loved this article and was gob-smacked by the article it inspired from The Strad. (latest issue)

    I cannot understand how the new vs old debate continues. It implies that the vintage of instruments are a type – like a race of people.

    I recently acquired the instrument of my dreams. It’s tone has unimaginably fine quality, character and depth and I feel priveleged to play it. It is also distractingly beautiful to look at.
    This cello is 18 months old. It is a fine instrument because of the brilliant luthier who made it and his access to the finest materials.

    It would be insincere of me to promote modern instruments simply because the instrument I love is new.
    There are plenty of ordinary new instruments out there, (sadly, giving new ones a bad name). There are also plenty of ordinary instruments which are hundreds of years old.

    No string player can risk making one of the largest decisions of their life with the distortion of prejudice.

  8. Robcelloholic September 30, 2010 at 8:51 pm #

    Hi everyone,
    just an input on Villaume copy of Paganini’s “Del Jesu”, this instrument is now played by Hilary Hann.

    and thanks to Lynn for sharing your experience in the musical and cello world…

    gretings from Chile…

    Roberto.-

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