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The violin - instrument of the year 2020 Seven misconceptions about the violin

01/28/2020 by Antonia Morin

Old violins sound better than new ones. The second violin part is easier than the first. And Stradivari's secret is the paint. Or not? We asked violin makers and orchestra musicians what is really true about the myths about the instrument of the year 2020.

Image source: picture-alliance / dpa

Myth 1: Old violins sound better than new ones

... and violins by Antonio Stradivari are automatically the best instruments? "That is a generalization that is not true," explains Munich violin maker and restorer Eva Lämmle. "There are old violins that sound good and not so good old violins. If you have a bad wine, it doesn't get better just because it's left out for a long time." This also seems to be confirmed by numerous blind tests in which old and new violins are played behind a curtain, for example. The sound of new violins is often rated better than that of an old Italian violin.

Instruments by the Cremonese violin maker Antonio Stradivari are traded dearly. | Source: picture-alliance / maxppp But why do most professional violinists still prefer old instruments despite these test results? For Eva Lämmle, many factors play a role: "Old instruments are not only bought because of their sound, they are also an investment." Apart from that, prestige also plays a major role: "A Stradivarius has already been played by other great violinists, and musicians would like to belong to this prominent series." But there are also prominent counterexamples: the violinist Christian Tetzlaff plays on a newly built instrument by Stefan-Peter Greiner.

Myth 2: The second violin part is lighter than the first

"That depends on the repertoire," says Thomas Reif, first violinist in the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. "In classical music, the second violin part often has an accompanying function. In a technical sense, it is easier, but musically it brings with it different demands." Because while the players of the first violins indulge in cantilenas, the second violinists have to play rhythmically complex and not very catchy accompanying figures. But that changed in the late romantic era, says Thomas Reif. "Especially with works by Richard Strauss or Gustav Mahler, both voices are pretty much equal."

The second violin part has different musical requirements.
Thomas Reif, violinist in the BRSO

Myth 3: Stradivari's secret is the paint

For centuries, scientists and violin makers were on the trail of the big question: What secret ingredients did Antonio Stradivari use to lacquer his violins? In a Paris laboratory in 2009, German and French scientists uncovered the solution by examining five violins from Stradivari's different creative periods. The sobering result: Stradivarius applied two layers of simple oils and resins that were also used by painters of this era. The reddish shimmer of his violins comes from pigments such as iron oxides and an anthraquinone dye. But this lacquer is not the reason for the sound, explains Munich violin maker Michael Jaumann: "Because we know that the original Stradivaris only have about ten percent of the original lacquer on the violin today. Then it can't be the lacquer, otherwise it would The violin doesn't sound that good anymore. " Sounds plausible, doesn't it?

Myth 4: Violinists with thick fingers have the most beautiful tone

Plays with a warm, singing violin tone, despite slender fingers: Jascha Heifetz | Source: picture alliance / Everett Collection "I immediately think of Itzhak Perlman's incredibly warm tone," says Michael Arlt, section leader of the second violins in the Bavarian State Orchestra. "Perlman has strong hands with wide, soft fingertips. When he moves them on the string, it creates a steady, large vibrato." So fat fingers can definitely be a plus. However, there are just as many violinists with slender fingers who elicit a beautiful sound from their violin, says Michael Arlt. "When I think of Jascha Heifetz: He also had a very nice tone. But a slightly faster, slimmer vibrato." His slender fingers were certainly useful for virtuoso passages in the high registers, because there the notes are very close together.

Myth 5: A new violin only sounds good after a while

"I always say: a violin has to sound good right from the start. Otherwise you've done something wrong," says violin maker Michael Jaumann. In his opinion, however, it is true: The wood undergoes an aging process and over the years becomes more and more soft and settles. Yet another aspect is crucial: "The musician means playing the instrument, but actually he only learns to use it better. How he has to tackle it so that it vibrates optimally." So it is not the violin that gets better, but the violinist ...

A violin has to sound good from the start. Otherwise you did something wrong.
Violin maker Michael Jaumann

Myth 6: Left-handed people cannot play the violin

The violinist Thomas Reif is the best example that this claim is completely wrong. Because he's left-handed himself. And he never had any particular difficulties learning his instrument. For fast runs, trills, and intonation, it can even be beneficial to have a strong left hand. For Reif, playing the violin on the right-hand side was never an issue: "As a child, you don't think about that. It's simply because the instruments are designed that way." But he knows of violinists who later had to relearn because of an accident. To do this, the instrument is adapted: Among other things, the sound post is moved inside the violin, strings, pegs and chin rest are attached the other way around.

Myth 7: First violinists earn more than second violinists

Whether first or second Tuttigeige in the BRSO: It makes no difference on the pay slip. | Source: Marcus Schlaf That is of course nonsense, says Michael Arlt. First and second violin players earn exactly the same amount in the orchestra. "And if the payment depends on who plays the most notes, we second violinists in Mozart's 'The Marriage of Figaro' would even have to get more money than the first". Only concert masters or section leaders receive higher salaries. Because they lead their group and also take on solo positions. "The fact that the concertmaster deserves the most of all orchestral musicians is of course justified because he holds the most important position."

Broadcast:"Allegro" on January 29, 2020 from 6:05 a.m. on BR-KLASSIK