Most photographs of any great cellist include a fine old instrument, usually Italian, usually 200-300 years old. Many players come to our shop specifically to try older instruments. Often people who do buy newer cellos prefer them to be antiqued so that they at least look old. Yet there are some great makers working today: are their instruments always going to be inferior to older ones, or is the old-instrument belief a myth?
Certainly an instrument dealer who sells only new cellos will be tempted to tell you that the old ones are fragile, any repairs will come apart, that you will have nothing but trouble, etc. A dealer of only older cellos will often distain new instruments as having a “new” (read tinny, not rich, inferior etc.) Is either right?
As dealers with an inventory of about equal numbers of new and old cellos, we have quite a bit of experience with both and it isn’t our financial interest to convince you to buy one over the other. Here are some facts that we believe to be true based on a lot of years working with both newer and older cellos:
1. There is a physical difference in new wood and old wood. Here’s an experience that we think is telling. A few years ago a customer’s 100 year-old bass had an accident in which the top was destroyed beyond repair. I first called colleagues looking for a good piece of wood to make a new top from; I didn’t find the wood I was looking for but did, almost unbelievably, locate a “new” top, which by some miracle was adaptable to the bass. The amazing part was that the top had been sitting in a shop for almost 100 years. What I learned from the process of cutting the purfling channel was that unlike cutting through wood a few years old, which the cutter goes through relatively easily, in the old top each winter grain (the grain lines you see in your cello top) almost completely stopped the cutter which had to re-sharpened with almost every grain. The winter grains in old wood are much harder than in new wood.
2. In my experience brittle wood sounds better than springy wood. Older wood is more likely to be brittle than new wood but this is not always the case.
3. There is in general an “old sound” and a “new sound” that is discernable when you try the two side by side: especially in a smaller space. Many people prefer the woodier sound of the older instruments, usually darker and, well, older. Interestingly this difference seems to diminish somewhat as the size of the performing space increases.
4. New-makers with supplies of old wood have eliminated some of the distinction between old and new sound: though not entirely since wood that has been vibrated for 100-300 years will sound “older” than wood of the same age that has not been vibrated.
5. Newer instruments (good ones) tend to have a slightly bigger sound than comparable quality older ones although there are a lot of exceptions to this..
6. Older cellos can be expensive, especially if they’re made by the right person from the right part of the world. Less expensive older cellos are becoming more difficult to find, but they do exist and some of them are great players.
7. Good sounding new cellos under $5000.00 do not all come from Europe anymore.
Next time we’ll talk specifically about cellos in the $2000-7000 range, both old and new: what to look for, and how to find a treasure.