Misconceptions about the Old Italian violins:
#1. "There are some Strads that don't sound good at all, and still cost hundreds of thousands of dollars".
The ´cost a lot´ part is often true ( the reason will be revealed shortly).
#2. Another urban legend says that some relatively cheap old factory-made violins sound as good as most expensive hand-made instruments.
This is often true. However, the misconception is in the fact that most hand-made instruments don't sound much better than inexpensive old factory-made instruments.
#3. "Modern instruments sound just as good as the old ones".
b. It is an error to assume that an Old Italian instrument will retain its sound quality regardless of poor setup. For example, during the famous BBC test, a Guarneri sounded more like a bassoon from inside a cellar rather than a violin. We’ve seen first class Old Italian violins with the sound posts shoved almost to the middle of the soundboard. In such condition they would most certainly fail any sound comparison. The owner apparently liked the ‘dark, unobtrusive sound’ – a cardboard box with rubber bands for strings would do the job just as well, instead of bastardizing a $250K+ violin.
c. The listening culture has already deteriorated to the point where even musicians no longer have a sound benchmark as a comparison point. Most of them have never even been introduced to the culture of sound. How many of the violin/viola players or teachers are serious audiophiles or opera buffs? How many of them can say listening to a radio
broadcast – “...this is definitely a Strad, not sure who’s playing, but sounds very much like David Oistrakh” – and get it right? How then can they be trusted to decide which instrument sounds good and which is not?
The widespread view of any musical instrument is that it is a physical object which can be routinely made by a factory or a person knowledgeable enough to put all the necessary parts together. Just like with a rudimentary make-it-yourself kit one can put together, say a dulcimer in a couple of days with basically no skill at all, a violin is thought of as seemingly intricate, but quite an ordinary handmade item- like a shoe, or a chair, or a wine barrel, something that can be made to any required level of quality or price.
To the amateur eye the most notable difference in violins of a different origin is their immediate appearance, which can be easily replicated to fill the demand. One can purchase violins ranging from crudely manufactured factory violins to the “bench copies” that look almost identical to the famous examples of the Old Italian masters. One of the commonalities between these violins is that the sole purpose for their fabrication is to make them look like more valuable instruments. The sound they produce somehow becomes a non-issue for the distributors of such products. The most advertised quality of these instruments becomes their provenance, age, condition etc.
Since its inception, the violin has transcended its mere material boundaries, and has become much more than a simple object made by a mortal hand. In those days, to make a simple object out of wood would not present much difficulty to almost anybody- people were making things for everyday use all the time. To survive as craftsman in such an environment would in fact present a real challenge. The Old Italian masters have created an instrument with a voice rivaling that of a live soprano. The knowledge utilized in their craft was anything but rudimentary (of which they were undoubtly quite aware). Only small communities of violinmakers existed in Italy (1550-1750) producing instruments with exceptional sound. Considering the unique social status of the Old Italian violin makers and the underlying economical and political conditions, it isn’t a mystery that their art never spread beyond Italy- it did not survive long even there past 1750.