Why does the sound of a great violin played by a gifted artist have so much influence over the human soul? My mother often explained that the sound of the violin is more similar to the human voice than is the sound of any other instrument. For variety alone it would seem that this comparison must hold true; what other instrument is capable of producing such a variety of sounds and of expressing through music the full range of human emotions?
The sound of a violin has been known literally to draw tears, to inspire awe, to enthrall, to express fiery emotions, to whisper, to soothe…to express that which words cannot.
Yet what is this nebulous thing, sound? Many musicians seem to struggle to describe just what kind of sound they are looking for. What, then, distinguishes good sound from great sound from magic sound? The following ideas are entirely my own and are not based on any research, empirical or otherwise. I hope this descriptive material will prove helpful to two groups of people: the uninitiated who are just beginning to learn about the differences in the sound of master violins, and the experienced who nonetheless would like to find a more effective or informative vocabulary for describing and comparing the sound of different violins.
When I mentioned to a few people that I was planning to try to discuss the sound of the instruments of the violin family in this edition of the newsletter, the reactions ranged from “good luck” to “impossible” to “if you’re prepared to write a book” to “nobody agrees….” The comment which I found most apropos was “there is no language poetic enough.” While there is truth in all these comments, it is also true that many people have described to me enough aspects of the sound they were looking for that I have been able in turn to help them find an instrument with that sound. It is also true that while there is a great deal of disagreement about the sound of many violins, there tends to be a great deal of agreement about the greatest instruments. Who ever has been heard to comment that the instruments played on by Oistrakh, Heifitz, Primrose, or Jacqueline Du Pré didn’t sound good?
My premise, then, is that it is the lesser instruments upon which there is the greater disagreement. The potential limitations of lesser instruments prevent the artist from fully expressing, in one parameter or another, some aspect of the music in question. Therefore, the dispute may often be about which of the shortcomings should be given precedence over the others. Rather than presume to pass judgment on any of this, I will attempt briefly to describe the ten parameters I consider when evaluating an instrument’s sound.
Balance - is the evenness of tone production from the open note on the bottom string to the highest note on the highest string. Here, the ideal would be equally good volume, texture, clarity, and projection with the same degree of bow pressure at all pitches and on all strings. I believe these first four to be empirically measurable. I believe also that there will tend to be a relatively high level of agreement among musicians as to what aspects of each is good and what is bad. Qualitative judgements on the remaining parameters tend to be far more subjective, however. Here the fun begins.
Some sounds seem to be like satin, others like velvet, others gritty like sandpaper. Some are creamy and others are buttery. Please remember, some very fine music may call for the ability to produce textures that may seem bad when described alone but are good when heard in context
Some might also use the word flavor. Since we neither see nor taste sound in any literal sense, it is here that the most imagination may be required. Yet there is an aspect of sound which seems best to lend itself to a choice of vocabulary including words such as silvery or golden, nutlike, or just plain delicious. A sound may be said to possess one particularly appealing or rich color or flavor or a combination of a great many
It is difficult to explain, but the sound of different violins seems to come from different locations on the instrument. The sound of some instruments may seem to be delivered right from the top or table, while with others the sound seems to come from a spot dead-center and inside, between the top and back, right under the bridge. With others still the sound may 7 seem to come from the back of the instrument, or another place.
I believe that distinctions between student-quality violins, professional-quality violins, and those truly worldclass instruments heretofore described as “magic” are readily apparent, at least to the musician, if not to the audience, as well. Here I would like to explore briefly some of the differences by drawing upon some of the aforementioned imaginative vocabulary. Simply put, even an inexpensive student instrument (€800–€1,800) can sound quite good if it is professionally set-up and adjusted and played well. Inevitably, however, these instruments are extremely limited in several, if not most, of the parameters of sound. Such instruments usually sound good in only one range of volume and rarely, if ever, are capable of the volume needed to be heard over an orchestra; they rarely produce a beautiful sound (as compared to much better instruments) when played at extremely low volume levels, yet many sound quite nice at medium levels. They seldom possess the projection required to be appreciated in a large hall, although in a small room they may sound very nice indeed. They usually produce only one tone quality or color rather than a palette of tone colors, and thus they are limited or much less versatile than better or more professional instruments. Therefore, as a student advances and is capable of doing more, he or she requires an instrument with increasing possibilites.
Let us try to imagine now an ice cream sundae or some other delicious food with many layers of increasingly rich and perfectly blended flavors. The deeper one reaches with the spoon, and the harder one works, the richer the flavor of the next layer and the more perfect the blend. Assume the spoon is a flavored, edible spoon that becomes a part of the perfect gourmet recipe, and the analogy is complete. Such a spoon would be like the bow, which is indeed a critical part of the violin’s tonal production. A dessert composed of one layer of ice cream would be akin to the student violin, and so on.
But I have digressed. The student-quality violin may respond well and easily to the player in the lower positions but rarely responds easily and resonates freely when played at the highest position. The student instrument may have a soft or mellow texture, or a harder, more aggressive one, but rarely will it be capable of achieving both. And the story goes on.
Obviously I have used three distinct categories for the sake of simplicity, whereas in actuality there exists a continuum of sorts from the simplest of instruments to the rarest and finest. While beautiful sounds can be made on even the simplest violins, it is the vast range of possibilites available to the musician on only the finest instruments that makes these so sought after.