Stradivari’s “la” was different from ours - Luthier Vladimir Kalashnikov

The guest of the “Tribuna” Vladimir Kalashnikov, the leading luthier of Russia, believes that…

…Stradivari’s “la” was different from ours

— Vladimir Vladimirovich, could you please tell, what is the difference between the best Russian luthiers and the Western ones?

— For us making musical instruments is an art, but for them it’s a craft which you can be taught during some 4-5 years at a special school. In reality during this time you can learn just how to make a pretty casket named “a violin”.

— But what about the famous Italian schools?

— They were famous in the XVII-XVIII centuries, after that almost all major secrets have been lost. Even among Italian makers there are not many who can use the acoustic tuning technic. To create a good replica of an ancient violin — easy, but only a few can understand the essence of the sound.

— From your professional point of view, who can be named the best luthier in the history?

— Everyone agrees that it is Stradivari. Let’s say it’s the most popular name. However, there are Guarneri, and Amati, and Santo Serafino, and Guadanini, and Bergonzi and other famous representatives of Cremona, Brescia and Milan schools. Actually, all makers created both good and bad violins. Stradivari himself was crafting his ingenious pieces only during the last 10 years of his life.

— Which violin is the most expensive in the world?

— Hard to tell. Recently a Stradivarius was sold for more than $2m at an auction, an Amati — for $1.5 m.

— Is it a reasonable price?

— It’s not mainly for the sound of the violin, but for the name. Also add the antique value. As Vatelot (one of the greatest French experts) said: “You can pay $10,000 for the sound. The rest is your whim and the antique value”. The sound is pretty symbolic. You need to have very well trained ears to tell the difference between a genuine instrument and a fake one.

It applies everywhere. For example, an experienced mechanic can tell what is wrong with the car judging by the sound of its engine. And not to forget — the sound of modern violins is the product of time. Earlier they sounded differently. And the violin’s construction was not the same: the fingerboard angle was lower, the neck shorter and the gut strings had weaker tension. For a modern listener they would sound too quiet and snuffling.

Only around the middle of the XVIII century a violin started to get its modern appearance and sound. In the Medieval ages to get a better sound the Italians made up their know-how: a unique tuning of the soundboard (the top side of a violin’s body). It was this technique which was later named “the secret of the Stradivarius”. By the way, the first man who discovered this secret was my teacher – Denis Yarovoy.

— Could you tell more about the secret?

 — For each note played there should be found a spot on the instrument which ideally resonates with the same frequency. In the moment of resonance, it should reach the pinnacle and catch up the whole plate. This is it. For this, 365 spots should be tuned on both plates’ surfaces taking into account all possible notes which could be made on the violin. This means that each square centimeter of the wooden body must have different thickness and density. This principle could be compared with a xylophone – a percussion instrument where wooden pieces are tuned to a specific frequency to make different notes.

— Does this mean that the instruments made by Yarovoy and his apprentices are not at all worse than Stradivari’s ones?

— The Italian violins made by the ancient schools have one great advantage which we’ll never compensate only by the soundboard tuning secret. It is the time factor. Wood is organic. With time, the protein coagulates making wood denser, more similar to bone, which resonates much better. However, there are violins made by Yarovoy, which being unlabeled, will never be distinguished from an ancient Italian instrument according to its look and sound. There are two violins like this in Moscow and the rest have been taken away abroad. So, nowadays there is no such a thing as the secret of the Stradivarius. There is the legend which will exist for another 1000 years, because people are looking for a recipe like “salt-pepper-saturate-and-it-sounds!”

Almost every 10 days the world media publish a sensational advertisement: the secret of Stradivarius revealed! Some find it in the varnish, some in the ground and some in the purfling installment in the plate… This is just funny. The secret is much more complicated. Just to start the total tuning of the plates we should go back to the XVII century, when the tuning fork “la” sounded half a tone lower than now. During the last 3-4 centuries all musical keys have risen.

— How could it happen?

— I don’t know. It's just a historical fact. In the Russian National Museum of Music in Moscow all those tuning forks are exhibited in the chronological order and you can follow this process. The Italians from Stradivari and Amati’s period crafted their instruments for that other “la”. 

— Sounds like some mysticism...

— No. Some physicists tried to explain it as a natural life development process on the Earth. The life pace is going up. Earlier it was disco, now it is techno. The music used to be 120 beats per minute, now it is 132 bpm. If you want to achieve the sound of an antique violin you have to go back to those times when the tuning fork had another “la”.

— How many violins made by Stradivari are there in Russia?

— Nobody will answer this question. There is one Stradivarius in the Museum of Music, one — in the State collection of unique musical instruments. Although how many there are privately owned Strads is veiled in mystery. This information is kept undisclosed.

— Well, it’s not surprising — they are expensive instruments…

— Yes, violin theft has long become a national sport. I remember my student times when we would put violins in the college corridor and leave for lunch. Today such carelessness is unsafe. It is not a rare case when an instrument is snatched out of the owner’s hands right in the metro or a train — they just spray some muck into the eyes and run away. Expensive violins are stolen in Moscow from time to time. “38, Petrovka” (the Main Directorate of Internal Affairs of Moscow) informs all famous  Moscow luthiers about such cases.

— They inform those, who can be contacted to value the stolen instrument?

— Thieves usually do not come to us: it's too dangerous. They immediately take the stolen instruments out of Moscow and sell them for the third of the real price or try to send them abroad to private collections.  Flat theft usually happens with the help of an informer, as a criminal does not have any expertise in musical instruments. They are all the same for a thief: those which cost a thousand roubles and a million dollars.

— I know, that there is such a swindle as an instrument forgery when a label of an ancient luthier is put on a new instrument...

— It is a separate criminal business. It is possible to put a label, but it must be a genuine one — from the XVII century. At those times there was paper etiquette. Paper was absolutely different — thick and fleecy. Less often the luthiers burnt out their family monogram on the back side of the soundboard, which is easier to copy. Sometimes a swindler removes the genuine label and sticks it to some rubbish to sell it for the insane money. Of cause, famous craftsmen will never do such things, but only speculators of a certain category. “Top league” luthiers are all well known, their reputation is priceless. Such fraud is revealed very fast.

Right now I’m restoring an instrument which had been bought for a lot of money, but its real cost is hardly a third of the paid price. It was terribly unwise to buy first and then to get it evaluated.

— Are you often asked to authenticate a luthier?

— Yes… By other luthiers and resellers. Not long ago someone called me and asked to authenticate their violin they claimed to be a Stradivarius. Without looking at it. They promised 10% of a million dollars, which they were going to get for the violin. They pushed quite hard, which made me alerted. I had to spend a long time explaining that there was no point in that — a good reputation is more valuable than money. I like to sleep peacefully at night and smile to people coming to me, and not to run and hide.

Interviewed by Andrey POLYNSKY