Old Things

An early version of this article was posted on the website of Elite Music Academy (where I taught violin and viola) a number of years ago. I no longer work for the school, and their website has gone through a few generations of changes. As such, this article has vanished from the internet…until now.

By far the most common question that is asked of me by non-musicians is, “is your violin very old, Tim?” The conventional wisdom is that old violins are better than new violins. For the record, the violin that I use most often is my 1809 Giovanni Dollenz from Italy, making it 207 years old. I’ve been playing on this violin since 1997, when its previous owner retired from playing in the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. So, yes, my violin is over 200 years old already.

But to say that an old violin is better than a new one is not true. But it is true that for the sound of the violin to “settle down”, it usually takes 50 to 80 years of continuous playing. During this time, the quality of sound from the violin can improve and degrade, and there is no guarantee that a brand new violin that sounds terrific straight from the maker’s shop will be as good 10 years later. So buying an “old” violin is really just more of a safer investment than a new one.

This is actually not my violin. I just realized that I do not have  a photo of it with me in it.

This is actually not my violin. I just realized that I do not have a photo of it with me in it.

As for my Dollenz, the base of the violin is slightly wider than other instruments made during that period in Italy, giving a louder and warmer sound. It’s perfect for playing as a soloist when I have to cut through louder woodwind and brass instruments. Let’s give an idea of how old this violin really is. The violin itself is 207 years old. When you carefully look at the grains along the wood, you can see that the spruce and maple wood are at least 200 years old when the trees were cut down. Now, no one ever cuts down a tree and use the freshly-cut wood to make a violin…at least not a good violin anyway. That’s why you sometimes find violin makers looking for maple wood furniture at antique stores, because the wood has to be dried for few decades (preferably more than a century, hence the antique furniture) before it can be used to make a violin. Which means that the tree that became my violin would have started growing at least 500 years ago, may¬† be possibly more. Five hundred years ago, in 1615, Johannes Kepler has just published his works on planetary motion, and the modern violin hasn’t even been invented.

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