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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

'Slice it how you like', claims ALICE McVEIGH,
Bromley's premier researcher into cello sounds
and classical music's world's first agony aunt.
'How kinky is that?'

Dear Alice,
Did you hear about the German first violin section threatening to strike unless they received extra money for having more notes than the other strings? I was disappointed you failed to mention this last week!
First violinist, Birmingham

Dear First violinist,

First of all, allow me to wipe the mud off your boots -- thank you. Secondly: one lump or two? No sugar at all? Excellent, excellent; we need those few violinists capable of scaling the heights to look after their health, don't we????? And are you sure you're not in a draught??? -- Allow me to recommend the chair not opposite the door.

The above may seem silly, but, in point of fact, I'm not so sure it is. I am actually (as a lamentable, grade sevenish violin myself) consumed with envy at the ease with which genuine first violins scale the heights; and firmly believe that they do deserve extra (danger) money. Dame Janet Ritterman herself (Head of the Royal College of Music) confided to me at an otherwise deathly do at which we were luckily seated near each other, that first violins remain a rare commodity, even these days, when stunning pianists, cellists and singers come two a penny. The violin is simply harder than the other instruments -- all right (I add quickly, before all the irritated horn players and oboes write erascibly in to complain) not as hard as those, but harder than the cello, the clarinet, the flute, the piano and most other instruments, and God knows more are needed.

[Note from Keith to Alice: do you mean that the wood is harder? (scissors, paper, stone etc ... see below)]

This difficulty is due (I believe in equal measure) to the titchiness and fiddliness of the instrument, the outlandish position in which one is obliged to hold it as well as the (greater) difficulty of the first violin parts. (Second violin parts are possible. Even I can generally play them.)

Also, OK, percussion players are more individually exposed -- when actually scored -- but so what???? I'd rather have to time four triangle notes, completely solo (what are beta-blockers for????) than be expected to nail the first violin part of any major symphony. (And, mainly, percussionists don't have that kind of pressure, either). Not to mention the fact that the percussionist will then, in all likelihood, have all the other pieces off to file fingernails, arrange to loan out their instruments to make (yet) more money, phone their accountants etc, while the violins are still in there, slogging.

So yes, I'm with you, and all the other violins brave/mad enough to volunteer for firstness and firstitude. More power to your E-strings, and may your soft, incredibly delicate V-bow entries never let you down.


Ask Alice



This was the headline recently in The Wall Street Journal, which is, in case you haven't heard of it, very probably the USA's most respected newspaper. In this article it was reported that the latest theory about Stradivari's brilliance has been mooted by a climatologist at Columbia University and his colleague in geography at the University of Tennessee. Analysis of the narrower spruce tree rings (produced by a unique climate situation in Western Europe between 1645 and 1715, they assert) may have enhanced the sound quality of Stradivari's output.

Now correct me if I'm wrong but it was only a few years ago, wasn't it, when we were convincingly informed that the wood Stradivari used was probably immersed in sea-water, thus producing a lot of salty fiddles and sodden violin-makers. And before then it was meant to be the varnish (an idea cleverly exploited in the film The Red Violin), before research exposed the fact that (according to a physicist at the University of Birmingham) 'ultraviolet photography has revealed that many fine-sounding Italian violins have lost almost all their original varnish and were recoated during the nineteenth century or later.'

In other words, another decade, another theory. And besides, what price Stradivari's contemporaries in violin making???? The spruce they used would have been just as narrowly-ringed as Stradivari's, wouldn't it??? Were they just not much cop, then, or have I missed something here???

So I vote we start a new and different theory, right here and now; and here is the first press release ...

Ask Alice

Alice McVeigh, Bromley's premier researcher into cello sounds (well, I did have a go, on a pupil's behalf, on about 95,000 cellos recently valued between six and twelve thousand pounds) has recently published research which, unbelievably, argues that Stradivari's violins are so good because he was a terrific craftsman.

Quoted (exclusively) in The Crofton Resident's Association Gazette, Mrs McVeigh opines, 'My in-depth research suggests that the guy had some kind of rare talent. No matter what you do with his instruments: dip them in sheep urine, shove them under electronic lice detectors, they just come up smelling like roses.'

Shockingly, she also maintains -- in the teeth of all the most recent evidence and current research -- that they are mainly composed of wood. 'Slice it how you like,' says Mrs McVeigh, who has tried more moderately-priced cellos than most people have had hot dinners, 'and you will not find a single electronic Strad. The whole 21st-century thing just seemed to have passed that guy by. And -- get this -- it's wood right the way through the body of the instrument. How kinky is that?'

Still, in McVeigh's opinion, history has justified Stradivari's outrageously simple devotion to good, old-fashioned wood with varnish over it, even though she thinks animal rights campaigners will put paid to gut strings at some point. 'It's my belief,' she told our reporter, 'that someone somewhere will invent new kinds of strings, made out of lots of different metals, that will project better and stay in tune a bit for longer than plain old uncovered gut strings. After all, they've put men on Mars, haven't they?'

Toodle-pip ...


















Finally, I wish to point out, in the face of numerous emails supposing the contrary, that I had B*GGER ALL to do with the outrageous taking-the-mickey of this column perpetuated by person or persons unknown (Keith) last week for April Fool's Day. (Actually, I must admit, it was pretty funny, only wish I'd thought of it myself ...)

Copyright © 9 April 2004 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

[Note from Keith to Alice: [ [ [ [ [ (see my comment from last week)]



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