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Geoffrey J. Seitz,
Violinmaker  
4171 Loughborough
St. Louis, Missouri 63116

Phone: 314-353-1312

 

The Violin - Some Myths and Facts

The glorious violin, sometimes called the queen of instruments (the piano being king) is so loved, so hated, so misunderstood, so mythical and so mystical. Here are a few tidbits about this wonderful instrument.

Early Violins
It is now agreed that the first violin as we know it today was created by Andrea Amati born about 1535 died after 1611, in Cremona, Italy. He was the founder of the great Amati family of violinmakers. The grandson of Andrea was Nicola Amati b. 1596-d. 1684, the greatest artisan of the family and the teacher of the renowned Antonio Stradivari b. between 1640-1650-d. 1737.

Stradivari took the violin, already an established instrument and brought it to its peak of artistic and acoustic perfection. At this time there were a number of makers in Cremona, Italy, constructing violins of noble work.

Stradivari's Fame
Oddly enough, although Stradivari was very successful in his time, after his death his violins fell from favor and were not of particular desire until the 1800's. This was due to a number of reasons. In the late 1700's and early 1800's, large concert halls were constructed in which the Stradivarius excelled in power and sonority. There was an emergence of the violin trade as a big business involving the promotion of particular antique instruments. The violin players were gaining more technique and demanding more from their instruments, to which the Stradivari and other Cremona violins responded readily.

Prior to the late 1700's violins by Jacob Stainer, b. 1621-d. 1683 Absom, Tirol, which are first rate violins in their own right, were popular because of their sweet tone, well suited to smaller rooms and chambers. In fact, many violins made between the death of Stradivari and the late 1700's, including Italian violins, are copies of Jacob Stainer.

Authentic Stradivari Violins
One of the most common questions asked at my shop goes something like this, "Is my violin a real Stradivari? It has a label that looks authentic, (I looked it up in the library or on the Internet) and it says 1715." Well, unfortunately, unless a violin already has a certificate of authenticity from a renowned appraiser, I'm afraid it's a copy.

The chances of randomly finding a real Stradivari, or Amati are so slim that one has a better chance of being struck by lightning. To my knowledge, a Stradivari hasn't been discovered in the U.S. and the last one discovered turned up in Italy in the early 1960's.

Fake Labels
Many violins have labels that are duplicates of the originals. Why?...When makers copy a certain instrument they may copy it down to the last detail, including the scratches, worn varnish and the label. Stradivari used different patterns throughout his life and a date inside a violin may indicate which particular pattern was used as a starting point.

Most often, though, the following is the case: There was a proliferation of violins made in Germany in the late 1800's to the early 1900's. Often these violins have authentic looking labels. These instruments were exported to various countries, especially the U.S., and companies offered violins through their mail catalogues. A violin touted as a "beautiful Stradivari model" looked appealing to the prospective buying public.

No doubt, an element of mysticism was involved to connect this common instrument to the treasures from Stradivari's hands. And lets face the fact that many devious dealers have misled their clients by inserting false labels in violins, an operation that is about as simple as putting a postage stamp on a letter.

Fine Stradivari Copies
There are however, some violins that are copies of the masters and are fine, valuable instruments. A case in point is the French maker J. B. Vuillaume (pronounced Vee-yoom) b.1798-d.1875 Mirecourt, France. His copies parallel the originals and are sought after.

Of course, there are copies of Vuillaume's copies. Just about any maker that has achieved any sort of recognition has been copied. If you have a violin whose pedigree is in question, first, assume it's a copy for the chances are good that it is not authentic to the label. Then take it to an appraiser or two, familiar with violins to determine its origin.

Violin Strings
Violin strings are made from a variety of materials, such as various types of steel, nylon, silk, perlon and real animal gut wrapped in aluminum or silver or even gold. The gut strings are often referred to as "cat gut" but are in fact made from the intestines of sheep. A string made from real cat guts would be much too short and weak for use on bowed instruments.

So, why the term "cat gut"? The Encyclopedia Britannica states that an Italian term for violin was "kit" and hence a gut string would be called a "kit gut." This in time developed into "cat gut." Another explanation is that when gut strings were first manufactured in Europe, the best strings came from Catagniny, Germany. They were so superior to other strings that players demaned Catagniny gut or "Cat gut."

My own feelings is that when an inexperienced player draws the bow across the violin strings, out comes this horrendous sound not unlike the screech of a cat. Linking the sound to the gut of the animal that makes such cacophony seems logical.