Watch Priceless 17-Century Stradivarius and Amati Violins Get Taken for a Test Drive by Professional Violinists

Mate­ri­als like car­bon fiber and Lucite have been mak­ing their way into clas­si­cal stringed instru­ment design for many years, and we’ve recent­ly seen the 3‑D print­ed elec­tric vio­lin come into being. It’s an impres­sive-sound­ing instru­ment, one must admit. But trained clas­si­cal vio­lin­ists, luthiers, music his­to­ri­ans, and col­lec­tors all agree: the vio­lin has nev­er real­ly been improved upon since around the turn of the 18th cen­tu­ry, when two its finest makers—the Amati and Stradi­vari families—were at their peak. A few stud­ies have tried to poke holes in the argu­ment that such vio­lins are supe­ri­or in sound to mod­ern makes. There are many rea­sons to view these claims with skep­ti­cism.

By the time the most expert Ital­ian luthiers began mak­ing vio­lins, the instru­ment had already more or less assumed its final shape, after the long evo­lu­tion of its f‑holes into the per­fect son­ic con­duit. How­ev­er, Amati and Stradi­vari not only refined the violin’s curves, edges, and neck design, they also intro­duced new chem­i­cal process­es meant to pro­tect the wood from worms and insects.

One bio­chem­istry pro­fes­sor dis­cov­ered that these chem­i­cals “had the unin­tend­ed result of pro­duc­ing the unique sounds that have been almost impos­si­ble to dupli­cate in the past 400 years.”

Know­ing they had hit upon a win­ning for­mu­la, the top mak­ers passed their tech­niques down for sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions, mak­ing hun­dreds of vio­lins and oth­er instru­ments. A great many of these instru­ments sur­vive, though a mar­ket for fakes thrives along­side them. The instru­ments you see in the videos here are the real thing, four of the world’s old­est and most price­less vio­lins, all of them resid­ing at The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art. These date from the late 1600s to ear­ly 1700s, and were all made in Cre­mona, the North­ern Ital­ian home of the great mas­ters. At the top of the post, you can see Sean Avram Car­pen­ter play Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor on a 1669 vio­lin made by Nicolò Amati.

The next three videos are of vio­lins made by Anto­nio Stradi­vari, per­haps once an appren­tice of Amati. Each instru­ment has its own nick­name: “The Gould” dates from 1693 and is, writes the Met, “the only [Stradi­vari] in exis­tence that has been restored to its orig­i­nal Baroque form.” We can see Car­pen­ter play Bach’s Sonata in C major on this instru­ment fur­ther up. Both “The Gould” and the Amati vio­lin were made before mod­i­fi­ca­tions to the angle of the neck cre­at­ed “a loud­er, more bril­liant tone.” Above you can hear “The Francesca,” from 1694. Car­pen­ter plays from “Liebesleid” by Fritz Kreisler with the pianist Gabriela Mar­tinez. See if you can tell the dif­fer­ence in tone between this instru­ment and the first two, less mod­ern designs.

The last vio­lin fea­tured here, “The Anto­nius,” made by Stradi­vari in 1717, gets a demon­stra­tion in front of a live audi­ence by Eric Gross­man, who plays the cha­conne from Bach’s Par­ti­ta No. 2 in D minor. This instru­ment comes from what is called Stradivari’s “Gold­en Peri­od,” the years between 1700 and 1720. Some of the most high­ly val­ued of Stradi­varii in pri­vate hands date from around this time. And some of these instru­ments have his­to­ries that may jus­ti­fy their stag­ger­ing price tags. The Moli­tor Stradi­var­ius, for exam­ple, was sup­pos­ed­ly owned by Napoleon. But no mat­ter the pre­vi­ous own­er or num­ber of mil­lions paid, every vio­lin cre­at­ed by one of these mak­ers car­ries with it tremen­dous pres­tige. Is it deserved? Hear­ing them might make you a believ­er. Joseph Nagy­vary, the Texas A&M pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus who is dis­cov­er­ing their secrets, tells us, “the great vio­lin mas­ters were mak­ing vio­lins with more human­like voic­es than any oth­ers of the time.” Or any since, most experts would agree.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Does a $45 Mil­lion Vio­la Sound Like? Vio­list David Aaron Car­pen­ter Gives You a Pre­view

What Makes the Stradi­var­ius Spe­cial? It Was Designed to Sound Like a Female Sopra­no Voice, With Notes Sound­ing Like Vow­els, Says Researcher

The Art and Sci­ence of Vio­lin Mak­ing

Why Vio­lins Have F‑Holes: The Sci­ence & His­to­ry of a Remark­able Renais­sance Design

Behold the “3Dvarius,” the World’s First 3‑D Print­ed Vio­lin

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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