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A musical tonic for the soul

A trip to the Musical Instrument Museum in Arizona offered profound and uplifting insights into the human condition, and interesting results at an instrument blind test

Do you get depressed watching the news and reading Facebook? Does it feel to you that the world is imploding, with cultures at war, nations fragmenting, and ancient hatreds resurfacing? Well, I have just the tonic for you.

Last week I went to Phoenix, Arizona, to give a talk at the Musical Instrument Museum, at the opening of its new Stradivarius: Origins And Legacy Of the Greatest Violin Maker exhibition. While I was there, I visited its extraordinary collection of musical instruments from around the world. On display are 6,500 – of a collection of 16,000 instruments – from 200 countries around the world, curated either according to country, style or theme. As you walk around with headphones on, technology allows you automatically to hear the instruments in action in carefully chosen music clips.

‘You only need to look at the many various violin forms around the world (and of course I did) to see how resourceful we are’

What I found there made me feel better about the world. For what is really on display, underlying the various designs for noise-making boxes, bowls and tubes, is the human spirit at its very finest. The diversity of our creativity is astounding. You only need to look at the many various violin forms around the world (and of course I did) to see how resourceful we are. Whatever means we have – wood, metal, animal parts, and even rubbish (in the case of the Paraguayan exhibit of Landfill Philharmonic instruments), we find ways of making sound. The richer we are, the more refined these design solutions may become, but my favourite instruments were often the most primitive looking, with crude details and sans varnish or sheen.

Seeing some of the more primitive forms, I also realised for the first time the intimate relationship between music and nature. Most instruments were first hewn from some part of our surroundings, whether tree, cow hide, ram’s horn, bird skeleton, horse tail or even fish skin. Music must originally have felt like a way of celebrating nature and while we’ve gained much in sophistication and technical advances, maybe we’ve lost this sense of closeness to Mother Nature.

‘This is a world where all musical expression is valid and there is no hierarchy’

We are also diverse in the ways we use these many forms, and the sound clips are thoughtfully curated to include several different types of native music from each country. For example, David Oistrakh can be heard alongside three other Ukrainian folk music groups; for England, you can hear the Elgar Cello Concerto, George Formby and Morris dancing music. This is a world where all musical expression is valid and there is no hierarchy. It’s exactly how I want to hear music – with all genres jostling along together nicely (and with good quality control).

And yet, beyond this diversity, we find the powerful universal need to express ourselves through music, to reach beyond the mundane to something greater than ourselves (or at least to dance to a good tune). And it’s quite overwhelming to experience that sense of need, coupled with creativity, concentrated in one place. For a hardened rationalist like me, music is as close to a religion as I get, and visiting these galleries was the nearest to a religious experience. I've uploaded a gallery of just a few of the instruments here.

‘There are also refreshing references to some of the female figures in the history of violin making’

The Stradivari exhibition itself is also cleverly thought out, aimed at a general audience, but with plenty for the geek (see my photogallery here). It is Stradivari in name, but by contextualising the maker, is actually more of a history of violin making. It starts with historical background on Cremona, lingering on a few beautiful Cremonese instruments – including the 1728 Artôt-Alard Strad and 1566 ‘Carlo IX’ Andrea Amati. There are also refreshing references to some of the female figures in the history of violin making, such as the great patron to luthiers Catherine de Medici and the wife of Guarneri ‘del Gesù’, and the viola of the first woman to win the Cremona Triennale prize, Ulrike Dederer, is displayed.

We see tools from Stradivari’s workshop (it’s not clear whether he would actually have used them), as well as a facsimile of his will, in which he remembered a 40-year-old debt of one of his sons (the tightwad). There are also some fascinating graphics, including a family tree of Cremonese makers, and a map of where instruments are held by foundations around the world (current tally: America 37; Japan 19; England 14; Italy 12; Taiwan 9; Austria 9; France 8; Russia 6; Spain 5; Switzerland 4; Germany 4.)

It takes the story right up to the present, with a good proportion being about today’s craft and craftsmen, who get to explain how they got the lutherie bug in the captions – and some modern instruments, most from the Museo del Violino in Cremona. Again, headphones provided audio, whether of interviews, the instruments being played or interviews with players, and even a short taster of a blind test, with clips of two violins, one a Strad and one modern, and the visitor enjoined to guess which is which: the answer is tantalisingly and cleverly left hanging.

Not so, however, in the final event of the gala opening weekend, the ‘Playoffs’ blind test, with Rachel Barton Pine playing a selection of instruments both old and new. The format is a little different to the research-based blind tests I’ve seen first-hand in New York and Indianapolis, but it’s an interesting one. Instruments are played in pairs: she plays a scale on the G on each; a scale on the E on each; an arpeggio on each; the opening of the Saint-Saëns Third Concerto on the G string, on each; and the opening of the Mendelssohn Concerto on the E string on each. She then asks the audience for their perceptions and takes a vote on which the audience prefers. The ‘winning’ instrument is then taken forward to be in the next pair, and the ‘losing’ one announced.

Barton Pine herself plays the 1742 ‘Soldat’ Guarneri ‘del Gesù’, and her foundation has just been given a 1732 ‘Lady Sylvan’ Strad. She’s quite open about modern instruments, though, prefacing her playing by saying, ‘Modern instruments can be just as beautiful as old ones but they usually have fewer colours. The colours are just as gorgeous, there just aren’t as many of them.’

While it couldn’t really be classed as a scientific experiment – there were too many uncontrolled variables – it nevertheless provided some very interesting evidence. For example, the first instrument to be ‘eliminated’ was actually the 1732 Strad. Barton Pine took this on the chin, though, and explained that the instrument has not been played for a while and is about to undergo some basic restoration, proving the point that not all Strads sound wonderful.

The next instrument to be eliminated was a Rugeri, which had been in the exhibition, although the show of hands was pretty evenly spread. The instrument that had beaten both the Strad and the Rugeri was knocked out in the next round, so we found out what it was – a modern instrument made by local luthier Joel Shewchuk. Another modern instrument didn’t make it so far, being knocked out in its first round – this one made by Cremona-based Bruce Carlson. Barton Pine explained that the instrument has been on display in Cremona for the last 20 years, hardly a fair fight, especially as we discovered that the instrument that had beaten it was the 1733 ‘Prince Doria’ Guarneri ‘del Gesù’. This, in turn, was knocked out by the 1728 ‘Alard’ Strad. By now, it was getting harder to choose preferences, and most votes were split pretty evenly, only marginally going one way. And maybe it was no surprise when we discovered the instrument that had triumphed – Barton Pine’s own ‘Soldat’. Barton Pine admitted it had an unfair advantage but qualified that by saying, ‘I do my best to be fair, but this is one of the best instruments in the world and it’s being played every day.’

So, what were the possible conclusions?

  • A general audience – which this was – can hear some differences in sound, and those who volunteered their feedback were able to articulate these clearly, using words such as rich, open, deep, mellifluous, full-bodied, sweet, raspy, crisp, and other apt descriptions.

  • Most of the votes were evenly balanced between the two instruments, proving that at a certain level, nuance isn’t that important for a general audience.

  • The times when there was an obvious preference in the votes were when it was obvious that the instrument wasn’t played in – whether old or new. This proves how important set-up is – maybe even more important than age.

  • At the very high end of the spectrum, between well set-up Strads and Guarneris, it was really hard – even for an old hack like me – to judge a preference.

  • Ultimately, the most appropriate instrument – Barton Pine’s own ‘del Gesù’ – won the day, proving how important the player’s own preference and comfort are, not just for themselves, but in how the audience reacts to their performance.

So, maybe not scientific, but meaningful nonetheless, and a fascinating way to round off an excellent visit to this unique place. If you happen to be passing Phoenix, I highly recommend the museum, and if you get there before 5th June, you will have a chance to see the Stradivari exhibition too.

For photogalleries click here for world violins and here for the Stradivari exhibits.


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