In Search of the Perfect Violin…

Every few years I get the urge to try out a new violin.  So this spring I ordered a Ming-Jiang Zhu 2013 violin, Guarnerius model.  The recipient of many awards, Ming-Jiang Zhu has acquired something of a cult status in the couple of years since his death, and his violins are becoming a bit harder to find.  However, I was able to obtain one – with a certificate of authenticity, even- from my colleague Rhiannon Nachbaur, at Fiddleheads violin shop in Kamloops, B.C. ( This is an excellent choice for online shopping, by the way.  Rhiannon carries a very extensive product line, and gives personal service like a champ). Along with the violin, I purchased a braided carbon fibre bow, which seems to be of very good quality, but just in case, I went to Toronto and bought a top grade American-made Coda bow (also made of braided carbon fibre) along with a good quality Pernambuco wood bow, manufactured by Knoll in Germany.  I want the tests to be of the violin, and not of the bow, so I am using a variety of quality bows put out by manufacturers with whom I am familiar.

Now I have only had this violin for a few weeks, and although I am very favourably impressed so far, it is much too soon for me to formulate any real findings (I’ll let you know in a year or two).  But I thought it might be fun just to speculate on the concept of perfection in the violin world, and see how the idea has evolved over the last hundred years or so.  Still, I would like, at the outset, to draw attention to something that the composer Walter Piston wrote many years ago, concerning the ongoing evolution of our modern instruments.[1] While referring specifically to the viola and its “as yet unfinished evolutionary process”, Piston also reminds us that “we cannot assume the evolutionary process to be completed in the case of any of our instruments”.  So obviously, if we accept Piston’s hypothesis, no perfect violin as yet exists, or the “evolutionary process” would have come to a screeching halt…..but still, it’s nice to dream.  Of course we all know what the perfect violin would be like: self-tuning, able to automatically compensate for changes in the weather, self-adjusting to the player’s moods, so that it would always play beautifully no matter how poorly we slept the night before.  Anything else?  Well, sure, how about some little indicator lights on the belly to let us know when the strings need changing?  That would be nice.  And of course it should be available on Amazon at a very reasonable price….Well let’s not hold our breath.

Of course, like anyone who has ever handled a bow, I know that the old Italian instruments, especially those made by Antonio Stradivari, represent the gold standard of violin making. Then again, this received idea has been challenged many times, on many grounds, by writers more knowledgeable than I am.  I have referred before to those blind tests in which old Italian instruments have scored no more favourably than brand new instruments made in British violin shops, some of which had not yet even been varnished at the time of the test (well, so much for the secret of the Italian tone being found in the varnish!)  Then again, how much of a still existing, old Italian violin actually goes back to the original luthier (originally a maker of lutes, now a manufacturer of any stringed instrument)?  All of these instruments have been repaired and remodelled countless times since they left Cremona, and we may well question whether or not the original makers would even recognize these violins as their own.[2]

Anyway, to get back to the twenty-first century… like many people, I accept the idea of “love at first sight” when shopping for a new violin.  I think that the first impression we formulate when trying out a new instrument will be the one that remains. I do not believe that a violin will “bring its own love”, as the saying goes, and I do agree with the wise soul who advised never to buy a violin that left an unfavourable first impression.  And there is an additional proviso: violins are not like automobiles, for example.  Even though a particular Ferrari may be exactly the same as any other model of its kind, the same will not be true of violins.  I have played violins that came from the same workshop that differed radically in matters of tone and playability (this is what matters, after all!) from their siblings.  When you get down to basics, violins are made from trees, no two of which are identical. They are made by people, again, no two of which….. well, you get it. When shopping for a violin, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”, as the saying goes.   So how about price, is it a factor in buying a violin?  Well, obviously what you can afford to pay is a variable that you alone can decide on, but I do not believe that it is an overriding concern.[3]  One of my very favourite violins cost the princely sum of $300.00.  I bought it to tide me over when one of my regular instruments was being repaired many years ago. In general, I think the best quality, reasonably- priced, instruments available today come out of the Czech Republic.  The closest competitors, again in my opinion, are from China.  But these are only my opinions, and as always, “the proof of the pudding”…

Last of all, has there ever really existed a perfect violin?  Well, maybe, maybe not, though we can at least confirm the idea that many people have believed that such a violin exists. And perhaps in that sense the belief is the reality.  I am referring, of course, to the “Messiah” violin by Antonio Stradivari,  This violin was first brought to the attention of the violin world by one of music history’s most eccentric characters, Luigi Tarisio, in the mid-nineteenth century.  Originally from Milan, Tarisio was a collector and wanderer who travelled around Italy on foot, collecting old violins.  These he would sell in France to reputable dealers, a practice he carried on for more than thirty years.  One violin, in particular, stood out from the rest of Tarisio’s collection, a Strad “so wonderful that one must adore it in one’s knees”, he is reported as having said.  For twenty years Tarisio raved about this particular violin, which “had never been played”- or so he said.  Finally one of the French dealers, Jean Baptiste Vuillaume, himself a very skilled violin maker, remarked to Tarisio “I suppose you want us to wait for that violin as the Jews wait for their Messiah”[4].  And the name has stuck ever since.  And so, what about the Messiah violin?  Well, Tarisio himself brought it to London on one occasion, before taking it back to his farm, just outside of Milan.  Following his death in 1855, Vuillaume purchased Tarisio’s collection of instruments (numbering over 140 violins, violas and ‘cellos) and brought them to France. In 1890 the violin was purchased by the Hill family in London (a very important family of British violin makers and dealers) for £2,000, on behalf of a wealthy Scottish collector.  The Hill family repurchased the violin on two subsequent occasions; the last time was in 1928, when the violin was estimated to be worth £10,000,000.  In 1940 the Hill family made a gift of the violin to the British people, and it has been housed ever since in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.  I have never seen the violin, as access is very strictly limited, however, it is reported to be in its original, brand-new condition to this very day.  Kind of a sad non-life for a violin, don’t you think?

Concerning the violin itself, it dates from Stradivari’s “mature” period, which would be putting it mildly, as he as 72 years of age when he made it.  (For those who do not know, Stradivari lived to the ripe age of 94, and was building violins right up until his last day.)  Throughout violin history, the Messiah or “Messie” violin, as it is sometimes known, has served as the benchmark against which all other violins are measured.  When the standard dimensions of the violin are quoted it is frequently the Messiah that serves as the model. The oil varnish employed by Stradivari in its manufacture was the best oil varnish available at that time.  The Messiah represents Stradivari’s final form and shape for the violin, etc., etc.  Of course, as with any other fabled object or story, there are naysayers, and the Messiah violin is no different. In the last few years it has become fashionable to doubt that Stradivari was in fact the maker of the instrument (Obama was born outside of the United States, guaranteed).  Supposedly, carbon dating has shown us that the wood used to make the violin was harvested after Stradivari had died, etc.  (And Shakespeare didn’t really write Romeo and Juliette, either).  Well, whether much of what I have just reported to you is true or not, you must admit, it makes a very good story!

In closing I would like to offer my own thoughts of the “perfect violin”.  Well, I don’t personally believe that such a creature exists.  One violin may have a great sounding G string, while another is strong on all strings except the G.  A third violin responds beautifully in the lower register but is weak in the higher reaches.  Perhaps still another violin has a great overall tone, but its harmonics are weak, and so on, and on, and on.  My experience would indicate that a violin is either of good or poor quality on the day it is made.  I don’t believe that violins improve with playing (called “playing in a violin”), although I do imagine every player becomes accustomed to his or her particular instrument over time, something that probably improves the performance of the violin.[5]  So my final thought: if you don’t like the violin you have, trade it in for something else.  If possible, arrange for in home trials of prospective violins, offered by most large violin shops, or take a violinist-friend with you, and try playing prospective violins to each other (remember they sound different when under your chin, that they do in real life.)  And take your time!!!! (Remember the English saying “Marry in haste, repent at leisure”). Persevere, and I am sure you will find your own “Messiah” violin.

[1]            Walter Piston, Orchestration, published by Norton, 1955, Page 65

[2]            While poking around in Cremona last year, I came across an exceedingly interesting book that deals with this subject in great detail: The Antique Violin, an Untouchable Fetish? by Giorgio Finale Montalbano.  Available from the Studio Stradivari in Cremona,

[3]            “Fiddlerman” has a very interesting video on Youtube in which he reviews a $100.00 violin in his Florida violin shop.  I would recommend you take a moment and look it up.

[4]            All of this dialogue, which we may consider as invented (and very amusingly so), is reported in Franz Farga’s Violins and Violinists, a book long out of print, unfortunately.

[5]             This is not to deny that many, very ordinary factors may inhibit the production of a good tone.  The most obvious might be a misplaced or unsuitable bridge or sound post, strings that are of poor quality or worn-out, a bow that is stiff or unresponsive, or that needs rehairing, a seam that has opened up, or maybe just an unlucky day!  As always, if you suspect there are problems with your violin, consult an actual working, qualified luthier.  Violins are not the kind of thing we can assess or repair ourselves.