When is a fiddle a violin?
One day late last year, 17 experienced violinists gathered in a hotel room in Indianapolis to tackle the question. Each one in turn was blindfolded and played a few bars of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto on six violins — two made by Antonio Stradivari, one by Bartolomeo Guarneri del Gesu and three by modern violin makers.
The challenge was to distinguish the three old master violins. According to the results of the experiment published in the January issue of the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, only three of the 17 guessed right.
Joseph Curtin, a violin maker from Michigan who helped prepare the test, told reporters, "There was no evidence that people had any idea what they were playing."
So much for the celestial tone of the Stradivarius, and the golden voice of the Guarneri del Gesu.
No other musical instrument is so dominated by a handful of historic craftsmen as is the violin by a handful of master luthiers (fancy word for violin makers or repairers) who flourished in Italy in the 18th century — the Stradivari family, especially Antonio Stradivari, Guarneri del Gesu, and the Amati family.
What is better than owning one Stradivarius violin? Clearly, owning two of them. Top concert violinist Anne Akiko Meyers thinks so. She recently bought at auction her second "Strad."
Why two Strads? A concert pianist finds the piano waiting onstage, but a concert violinist is expected to come equipped with his or her own high-quality fiddle. In the musical world, the Stradivarius is a status symbol like no other.
"An old master is a trophy to possess," says Philip Scott, head of the music department at Bonhams, the London and New York auction house.
Every one of the surviving 512 violins made by Stradivarius (an estimated one-sixth of his original output) has become a musical legend in its own right, usually with its own name and — many believe — its signature sound.
Some credit the varnish used by Stradivarius, others the genius of his design, others the quality of the wood. Revered in the musical world, each Stradivarius is seemingly perfect; yet each is unique.
Ms. Meyers has said her newest acquisition, known historically as Mollitor and made in 1697, has a "feminine sound." She refers to the instrument as Molly. "It was love at first sound," she says of her decision to buy it.
Her earlier Stradivarius, called "Royal Spanish" because at one time it was owned by the royal family of Spain, has a more robust or "masculine" timbre, Ms. Meyers says. Her recent recording of Bach's double violin concerto, playing both solo parts on each her two violins, captures this difference.
But legends cost money. Ms. Meyers paid $3.6 million for hers in October 2010 — a record until June a year later, when Lady Blunt, another Stradivarius, fetched $15.89 million for Japanese earthquake and tsunami disaster relief.
The Stradivarius mystique tends to overshadow the fact that the violin crafting tradition is far from dead. Several contemporary makers seem to be heading for immortality in their own right — some in Cremona itself, the Italian home of the old masters, but also elsewhere. Would you believe China?
It takes occasional experiments in unlikely places such as Indianapolis to remind us that — at the highest level — it is often hard even for professionals to distinguish between the old and the new.
For example, Isaac Stern used two Guarneris in preference to a Stradivarius. But Stern's widow, Linda Stern, recalled Wednesday that the great violinist also would perform on two other violins, both made for him by the contemporary New York maker Samuel Zygmuntowicz.
Mrs. Stern said he considered his modern violins of equally high quality as his Guarneris, and "he liked to see if people could tell the difference." They usually couldn't.
All very well, says Mr. Scott, but "the market seems to prefer to listen to and play on the old masters rather than the modern violins."
What a Stradivarius has on its side is its durability. Modern instruments are copies of the old ones, so let's see how they will perform 300 years hence, he adds. "There are very few things in humanity that have not evolved, but the violin is one of them. It has remained static."