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Instruments built by the Stradivarius family are popularly thought of amongst the pantheon of "greatest ever".1 But have they always been considered this way? Were they held in similarly high regard in their day and continuously up to the present? Were they just ordinary violins until some "great master" musician declared them the best, and the declaration became self-fulfilling?

What is the origin and history of the popular fame of the Stradivarius?


1 I make no claim one way or another about the actual quality of the instruments; I'm interested in the history or their popular reputation, regardless individual opinion of them.

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    I feel like there are two "levels" to the question. Were they celebrated, elite collector's pieces even in their own time? Sure. But the second question is about how "household names," those names that represent their categories to the exclusion of others, get to be that way. Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Julliard, Steinway... These are names that everyone is familiar with, even if unfamiliar with, say, Joshua Bell, Jacqueline du Pré, Curtis Institute, and Bösendorfer. How did Stradivarius come to eclipse in this way Amati, Stainer, Guerneri, et al? That sounds like a fascinating mystery story. Oct 25, 2021 at 2:05
  • Almost the same question could be posed regarding the Stratocaster.
    – Tim
    Oct 25, 2021 at 7:20
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    I consider this as question weakly related to music, and completely explained by the psychological urge to rank (raising from a cognitional overload if the numerous relevant facets would have to be prioritzed and evaluated separately). While the most striking examples are instruments (grand piano -> Steinway, bassoon -> Heckel), a similar list may be created e.g. for cars easily.
    – guidot
    Oct 25, 2021 at 9:51
  • @guidot The phenomenon holds for other entities, too; people (when did Shakespeare become Shakespeare) or institutions (cf Juilliard vs every other music school). But of course you can't valuate or hoard people or institutions (well, I mean you can, but not in the same ways); Strads stand at a perfect-storm convergence of economics, art object, and sociology as mediated through the commodity of classical music (and indeed the keystone role the violin played in that history). Oct 25, 2021 at 13:01
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    @Tim I think '59 Les Paul Standard would be closer equivalent. Stratocaster was intended to be mass produced right from beginning.
    – ojs
    Oct 25, 2021 at 15:00

2 Answers 2

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They were famous from the first, as were some other Cremona violin makers. Later on, the Strads were rebuilt (as were other marks) to 19th century standards; the rebuilds worked better on the Strads. There is a (possibly apocryphal) story about Cremona factory signs. Supposedly Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivarius each had a factory on the same block in Cremona.

Amati had a sign on their factory: "Best Violins in Italy." Guarneri had a sign on their factory: "Best Violins in the World." Stradivarius had a sign on their factory: "Best Violins on the Block."

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  • Alright, which one of those companies made the best violins...? (Yes, I know all of those slogans have a chance of spouting hyperbole on their own and mutually contradict each other.)
    – Dekkadeci
    Oct 25, 2021 at 12:37
  • Ha... Reminds me of John being asked whether Ringo was the best drummer in the world and responding, "He's not even the best drummer in the Beatles!" Oct 25, 2021 at 13:40
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    @Dekkadeci Although I haven't researched enough yet, the anecdote smacks of myth. But as to "which is best," I could slyly say that that would be introducing a subjective question. But that's kind of Aaron's point: if he was one among equals in his day, and if even today some players might say (with perhaps a hint of sour grapes) "I prefer a Guarneri"... Then why is a Strad a Strad, and (maybe the more fascinating) when did it become one? (Let the record show I intend to post an answer, but need more research.) Oct 25, 2021 at 15:10
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I think for the type of performer that these violins are a possibility it is not just the quality of the workmanship, but the oldness of the wood. There is no way to fake old wood. As a violin vibrates, the sound goes into the fibers of the wood and trough many years of playing the tone improves. I do believe that these violins would be pretty temperamental. They may also have problem with intonation and staying in tune, but all these minor inconveniences may be worthwhile for the warm tone that simply cannot be had by a violin compromising of any younger wood.

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  • I'm not asking why they're considered good instruments. I'm asking for the history of when and how they became known as "the best."
    – Aaron
    Oct 26, 2021 at 19:44
  • They started being considered the best when people realised the older the wood the better the sounds the violin makes.
    – Neil Meyer
    Oct 26, 2021 at 19:46
  • That would make exactly the answer I'm looking for as long as you can include some specifics of when and how that realization came about, along with some sources.
    – Aaron
    Oct 26, 2021 at 19:48
  • Also probably a fact that there full tonal capabilities were not fully realised in the days of gut strings. The strads were probably violins with the oldest wood and an acceptable level of craftsmanship. The craftsmanship improved over the years, but that level of old wood could never be attained again.
    – Neil Meyer
    Oct 26, 2021 at 19:56
  • sound goes into the fibers of the wood and trough many years of playing the tone improves [citation needed]
    – fdcpp
    Feb 21 at 19:30

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