Many violins in a row

Well strung

Pivot Points is a monthly column by EuroScientist writer David Bradley.

The Deceived Wisdom: The classic Stradivarius violin has a unique sound that justifies the reverence with which these instruments are held and the million-pound price tags. That’s as may be, but scientific analysis of Stradivarius violins reveals there was actually no secret sauce in the wood nor the varnish used by the luthier ClassicFM’s Tim Lihoreau refers to as the Cremonese Creator. Indeed, repeated blind tests with expert listeners and virtuoso players has shown that they really cannot distinguish between the absolute top-quality modern instrument and a classic Strad.

Buying one of the 600 or so surviving violins made by master luthier Antonio Stradivari during the early eighteenth century will not make you sound better as a violinist. Not because a better instrument will not improve your talents but because there is no evidence that Stradivari’s violins sound any different from those made by any other master craftsmen. A Stradivarius violin is often associated with superlative excellence by players, composers and conductors. The sound, they say is exquisite and cannot be reproduced by the most beautifully crafted modern instrument.

There are numerous theories as to why a Stradivarius might produce such a beautiful musical timbre. And, they do, admittedly. The design and shape of the violins and the incredible craftsmanship used in their creation are certainly important factors. However, in 2003, US scientists suggested that the wood available to Stradivari may have benefited from the Little Ice Age of the seventeenth century, which led to slower growing trees and so denser wood from which luthiers might select as temperatures began to warm. Other researchers have suggested that the sound might even be linked to the preservatives used at the time to kill woodworm and prevent moulds forming in the instruments. There is even one theory that claims Stradivari used wood from ancient churches and that this endowed his violins with some kind of spiritual quality.

Another focus of those hoping to explain the secret of the “Strad” sound is that perhaps there is a secret ingredient in the varnish that somehow shapes the beautiful tone of these instruments. Unfortunately, researchers in Europe have cracked the varnish idea too. The team Jean-Philippe Echard of the Cité de la musique, Musée de la musique, in Paris and Loďc Bertrand of IPANEMA Synchrotron SOLEIL, in Gif-sur-Yvette, Franc, working with colleagues there and at the Institute for Analytical Sciences, in Dortmund, the LC2RMF and CRCC, and the LADIR, in Paris, the University Pierre et Marie. Curie, in Paris, and the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Institut für Technologie der Malerei, in Stuttgart, Germany, took microscopic samples of varnish from five Stradivarius violins and carried out a highly sophisticated chemical analysis using infrared spectroscopy. The instruments analysed were made at different times during a thirty-year period. The analysis revealed that the varnishes contain materials, such as oils and pigments, used widely in decorative arts and paintings of the period but the researchers found no unknown ingredients, no odd minerals nor fossil resins forming hidden layer that had previously been suggested by others as hiding that secret sauce.

The Cremonese creator was certainly a master luthier, he made hundreds of instruments, violins, violas, cellos, harps and guitars. The examples of these instruments that survive do indeed sound beautiful. Unfortunately for those clinging to the idea that there is something nevertheless mysterious about these instruments, beauty really is in the ear of the beholder.

Blind studies where the listener cannot see the instrument being played have shown repeatedly that even the greatest experts usually cannot discern which among top-quality violins is the Stradivarius when the same piece is played on each by a virtuoso. Similar experiments with violins made by that other great master luthier, a contemporary of Stradivari, Giuseppe Guarneri “del Gesů” revealed the same. Moreover, it seems that violinists themselves cannot tell the difference between playing an old and a new instrument when they are tested under experimental conditions. The fact that a single Stradivarius sold at auction recently for almost Ł10 million suggests that secret sauce or not, the instruments remain music to the ears of collectors…and auction houses.

Stradivaius expert Jeff Sexton is rather reluctant to dismiss the Strad. “It is only the very best, elite modern-day violins – ones that are made with traditional craftsmanship and care combined with modern scientific understanding of acoustics, wood properties, etc. that are indistinguishable from a Strad,” he told us. It’s not just like you can take any old modern violin and expect it to perform as well as a Stradivarius.”

The Stradivarius really is a remarkable historical achievement, it is, one might suggest, in some ways comparable to finding a 1920s automobile that can shift as quickly as a modern day Ferrari. “Supposedly, Jay Leno’s Duesenberg roadster can drive around in modern traffic without a hitch, but no one would suggest buying the thing as a purely performance car,” muses Sexton. “Its astronomical price is based on its historical value combined with its extraordinary (for its time) performance.” He adds that the same ethos might be at work with the Strad. “People are paying for the performance, yes, and that, in and of itself is remarkable, but they are also paying for the historical value of the piece,” he says.

We’ll let Lihoreau have the final word: “Strads are special, they’re the vintage Rollers of the fiddle world, as it were,” he enthuses, “In many ways the scientific findings only add to the mystery, it’s his magic art that is the key: a blend of all his crafts, coming together to make these legendary instruments.”

David Bradley

David is a freelance science writer with more than thirty years in science communication. His best-selling book, Deceived Wisdom is available now.
David Bradley

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