Monday, April 14, 2014

Stradivarius and Shakespeare

For centuries, classical musical lovers and violin aficionados agreed that no violin sounded better than a Stradivarius. There was just something about that old-wood sound.

These 18th century instruments are extremely valuable. In January, a man shot an orchestra performer in Milwaukee with a stun gun and stole his Stradivarius. The reward for returning the violin unharmed? $100,000.

However, according to this article over at Livescience, Stradivarius has lost its reign as King of the Violins. In a blind test in which some of the world's greatest violinists played new and old violins, "The older violins ranked lower in all five categories of the ratings, though new and old violins came out equivalent in the 'overall quality' category. Notably, the soloists couldn't tell an old violin from a new one: Their guesses were no more accurate than the flip of a coin."

So, what explains all this fuss over the Stradivarius sound for hundreds of years? How have we all been fooled into thinking that no other violin has a better quality? Joseph Curtin, the man behind the study comparing new violins to their Stradivarius counterparts, says, "The idea that you can't make a better sound than a Strad has been a pervasive one, and it doesn't really rest on anything except people saying it."

That statement from Curtin reminded me of a comment made by a certain graduate student, I'll name him Tyler, who claimed that Shakespeare was a little overrated. Needless to say, a rousing debate followed. At one point, Tyler said, "If we were not always talking about Shakespeare, we would not consider him the best ever." 

Tyler's point was that no one approaches Shakespeare without a huge amount of bias. We are told Shakespeare is the best ever and we in some way want to believe that Shakespeare is the best ever in order to fit in with cultural predispositions. Lo and behold, we read Hamlet and join the "Shakespeare is the Best Ever Club." 

I originally felt that Tyler's argument was baseless, but after reading the article on Stradivarius violins I am beginning to reconsider my position. Do I love Shakespeare because of what is actually in the text, or do I love Shakespeare because everyone has told me that I love Shakespeare?

Almost all Americans are introduced to Shakespeare during high school. This makes Shakespeare literary common ground for much of the nation. The fact that many Americans are able to argue intelligently about Shakespeare's work speaks to his pervasiveness, and therefore his greatness, as a writer. 

Now, I do not want to set up a binary. No one claims that a Stradivarius does not produce an incredible sound. The study simply argues against the idea that a Stradivarius produces the best sound ever. In a similar way, Tyler admits that Shakespeare is one of the greats. His point is that perhaps Shakespeare is not the greatest writer in the history of the English language.

What other "bests" might bare closer examination in our different disciplines? Are John Lennon and Paul McCartney the greatest pop song writers? Should Warren Buffet go down as the greatest investor of all time? Has someone out-painted Picasso?

No comments:

Post a Comment