The Myth, the Legend, the Stradivarius

When any master holds twixt chin and hand a violin of mine,
he will be glad that Stradivarius lived,
made violins and made them of the best.
– George Eliot (1873) 

Artists live to share their talents, to contribute in the lifting and commiserating of souls, and the theft of an iconic symbol of their vocation is like a smack in the face. Heists of many a great painting have yet to be resolved, but it is a bit more rare to hear about the loss of great objects outside the realm of visual arts.

Lipinski Stradivarius violin (1715). Credit: Milwaukee Police Department

In January, the Stradivarius violin known as “Lipinski” (named after a previous owner, the Polish violinist Karol Lipinski) was stolen from Frank Almond, the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. The thieves used a stun gun to overpower Almond and then fled in a maroon minivan.1 Nearly a month after the instrument’s disappearance, Milwaukee police arrested three suspects, one of which had been linked to a previous art theft.2 The violin, however, was no where to be found.

The community was a bit nervous at this point, what with a $5 million violin hidden somewhere about. An anonymous donor went so far as to offer a $100,000 reward for its return.2 After a few days of negotiations with one of the suspects, investigators were directed to a house on E. Smith Street in Milwaukee. More specifically, to a suitcase in the attic.1 It appears that the homeowner was unaware of the case’s contents and had stored it in her home at the request of a friend (who happened to be one of the suspects. Whoops!).

Thankfully, the violin remained unharmed during the whole ordeal. Investigators treated the violin with the utmost care, and Police Chief Edward Flynn was quoted saying, “It was handled like a baby, except we didn’t powder it.”1

Admittedly, I only read about this event the other week; apparently I have a bit of trouble keeping up with the news.

And another admission: I wasn’t quite sure why I felt so taken aback by the theft. I vaguely recognized the word “Stradivarius,” I knew to revere it, and for some reason an image kept bubbling up into my mind’s eye of a couple wealthy elites sitting in cushy concert hall seats whispering the name in awe behind their hands. Yet, I actually had no clue what the term meant. What is a Stradivarius, and why is it worth so very much?

Edgar Bundy, "Antonio Stradivari" (1893)

Edgar Bundy, “Antonio Stradivari” (1893)

FROM WHENCE IT CAME

Extract from Stadivari's notebook

Extract from Stadivari’s notebook

The Stradivarius is named after its maker, Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737). He was born in Cremona, Italy, but many details of his early life remain in the realm of conjecture. It is widely speculated, however, that he was an apprentice to Nicolas Amati, the grandson of the great violin maker Andrea Amati.3 Stradivari made his first violin when he was only twenty-two years old, and he grew to become a legendary luthier (someone who makes or repairs string instruments).3

Around 1698, Stradivari’s sons, Francesco and Omobono, joined the family business. He was a talented luthier before, but the extra hands in the workshop allowed the master more time to experiment and develop upon Amati’s basic model of violin construction.3 He redesigned the violin’s sound box and introduced the use of a deep red varnish and other design elements, such black edging, broad edges and wide corners.3

He managed to become a famed artisan during his lifetime, making instruments for elite figures (i.e. one for the Prince of Tuscany and an ornate set for the Spanish court in 16874). His last violin was constructed in 1737, the same year of his death at the age of 93.4 During his career, Stradivari made over 1,000 violins and other instruments, but only 650 still exist today.3

CONSTRUCTION

“The big secret about Stradivari is that there is no one secret.” -George Bissinger5

When he died in 1737, his secrets died with him: no one has ever been able to duplicate the sound of the violins he made. Was it his materials, varnish, structural design…? More likely it was all of the above.

Luthiers from Stradivari’s time preferred to use multiple species of wood to create their violins: the top was often spruce while maple was preferred for the back, ribs, and neck.

“These genera have superior acoustical and mechanical properties that have the least loss of energy through internal friction than other woods. For example, spruce cells are light, physiologically simple, hollow, and rigid, ideal properties for enhanced acoustic quality.” 6

Figure One: The Anatomy of a Violin

Figure One: The Anatomy of a Violin

During Stradivari’s lifetime, Mother Nature seemed to have been particularly kind to luthiers. During a period now known as the Maunder Minimum, there was a decrease in solar activity, which in turn affected the growth of vegetation. By looking at tree ring records, researchers revealed how the cooler summers and longer winters during this period reduced the rate of growth in trees frequently used by violin makers of the time. The rings are quite narrow, a property that “would not only strengthen the violin but would increase the wood’s density.”6 Nuances in wood density matter, as density affects the instrument’s vibrational efficiency (and therefore the sound quality).

Many luthiers from this time period used such wood, however, Stradivari was a cut above his contemporaries. It wasn’t simply his choice of material. As the popularity of Stradivari’s instruments spread throughout Europe during the late 1600s, it was rumored that his violins’ particular sound quality was due to a secret varnish formula he had developed. In 2006, Professor Joseph Nagyvary at Texas A&M University confirmed that the chemical treatments Stradivari used–which included ingredients such as salts of copper, iron and chromium–could indeed have played a role in affecting the violin’s resonance.5

Yet another essential ingredient to the Strad violin is its unique shape. Stradivari was constantly evolving the shape of his violin design. He reclined the sound holes and used flatter plates (the panels on the front and back of the violin).7 In the 1690s, Stradivari began developing a slightly longer violin4, and he also tweaked the design of the f holes (see figure 1). Those holes allow for the air to flow back and forth through the instrument, and how smoothly or quickly it flows can change the violin’s tone.

“Over the generations, violin makers have experimented with various lengths and widths of f holes, and the positioning of the f holes on the top. Of course, there are limitations. Some of the limitations you would expect, others are more subtle. If the f holes are placed too wide apart, the sound tends to become rough. Too close together and the vibrating part of the top becomes too narrow with a resulting “pinched” sound. Too wide of an f hole (more than 8mm at the notches for violins) and the violin loses projection. Too narrow (6mm or less for violins) and a luthier might have trouble getting the soundpost in to the instrument. The treble f hole gets banged up quite a bit if the width is too narrow.”8

Many luthiers traditionally used what is called the “Cremonese” system for positioning the holes, and Stradivari built on this system, changing the geometry of the holes ever so slightly.

Illustrations of sound holes, showing their evolution from Nicolas Amati to the latter part of Stradivari's career. (a) 1663. Nicolas Amati's late period. (b) 1678. The f is more vertical; peculiarities of the upper and lower wings are retained. (c) 1684. There is some return to the flow or inclination of Amati, but the whole thing is more extended and slender; the upper and lower wings are widened. (d) 1690. Some return to the vertical design; the width of the wings is retained; larger proportions in the lower part of the design. (e) 1700. The design is more equalised and is more substantial. (f) 1715. The same proportions are kept with an increase of gracefulness; the lower wing approaches at its lowest part the opposing curve more closely, the upper one likewise; in some specimens of this period it is still closer. (g) 1725. The lower part of the design is more contracted and curled up; there is a somewhat heavier expression about the upper part in consequence. (From Project Gutenberg's "Antonio Stradivari", by Horace William Petherick)

Illustrations of sound holes, showing their evolution from Nicolas Amati to the latter part of Stradivari’s career. (a) 1663. Nicolas Amati’s late period. (b) 1678. The f is more vertical; peculiarities of the upper and lower wings are retained. (c) 1684. There is some return to the flow or inclination of Amati, but the whole thing is more extended and slender; the upper and lower wings are widened. (d) 1690. Some return to the vertical design; the width of the wings is retained; larger proportions in the lower part of the design. (e) 1700. The design is more equalised and is more substantial. (f) 1715. The same proportions are kept with an increase of gracefulness; the lower wing approaches at its lowest part the opposing curve more closely, the upper one likewise; in some specimens of this period it is still closer. (g) 1725. The lower part of the design is more contracted and curled up; there is a somewhat heavier expression about the upper part in consequence. (From Project Gutenberg’s Antonio Stradivari, by Horace William Petherick)

Finally, these violins are adored because they are just…so…beautiful. Stradivarius excelled in balancing geometry and design:

“He is the bridge between the artist and the scientist, both of whom speak very different languages and have different concerns. The maker has to speak to both.”5

 

THE GRAVITY OF MYTH

“[The sound] flickers, constantly trembles, it moves like candlelight.” – Joseph Nagyvary

"Lady Blunt" violin (1721)

“Lady Blunt” violin (1721)

These instruments produced by Stradivari are kindof a big deal. With minuscule variations due to their handmade construction and their maker’s design evolution, each violin has its own personality. They have, therefore, been given nicknames, usually inspired by the name of a previous owner. The “Lipinski” violin was, as mentioned above, worth about $5 million. Others include:
– “Red Mendelssohn” (as in the movie “The Red Violin”!) was sold in 1990 for $1.8 million
– “Kreutzer” was sold in 1998 for $1.6 million
– “Lady Tennant” was sold in 2005 for $2 million
– “The Lady Blunt” raised $15.9 million in 2011 for the Japan Earthquake fund
– “Molitor” was sold 2010 for $3.6 million,
– “Hammer” was sold in 2006 for $3.5 million
– “Baron van der Leyen” was sold 2012 for $2.6 million

Needless to say, these are coveted objects, and their notoriety has prompted all kinds of research. Scientists and violin enthusiasts alike have been clamoring for access to the instruments, seeking the science behind the mystery in hopes of reproducing their famed sound.

For example, Francis Schwarze of the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology developed a fungal treatment in 2012 for wood used in violin construction that he claimed would increase the material’s stiffness, thus making the sound quality comparable to violins produced with wood from the age of the Maunder Minimum.9 A radiologist named Steven Sirr ran CT scans on the 1704 Stradivarius known as “Betts,” and George Bissinger, a physicist at East Carolina University, used a 3D scanning laser to create an extremely detailed map of the vibrations in several Strads.5 Whew! There must be some kinda big acoustic pay-off for all this research.

At this point you might be wondering, “Is the music really that superior? Do we really need to seek ways to replicate Stradivari’s materials and methods?” You might have an itch to hear a little tune played by a Stradivarius. Well, so did I.

Compare these two audio clips. One features a Stradivarius, and the other is a violin made in 1980. Both clips are segments from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, and the same musician plays both.

Can you tell which is which? (look to the end of the post to see the answer)

Don’t worry if you’re having a bit of trouble deciphering which is the Stradivarius. You are in good company.

In 2012, Claudia Fritz, an acoustics physicist from France’s National Center for Scientific Research, conducted an experiment to see if professional ears really preferred the sound of a Strad and if they could identify even identify one. Her team gathered 10 celebrated violinists, five Stradivarius violins, one additional Old Italian violin, and six new violins. Each musician played the violins in two 75-minute sessions, once in a regular rehearsal room and the other in a 300-seat concert hall.10

“The experiment was designed around the hypothetical premise that each soloist was looking for a violin to replace his or her own instrument for an upcoming solo tour. Tests were structured to emulate, as far as possible, the way a player might do this search in real life.”10

The violinists were asked to provide their own bows as, researchers write, “when testing violins in real life, players typically use their own bows, which through constant use have become, in effect, extensions of their right arms.” When playing in the concert hall, the violinists were allowed to ask for feedback from a friend, and the researchers provided a pianist in case the musician wished to play a piece requiring accompaniment.10

Hughues Borsarello evaluates a violin. Image by Stefan Avalos.

Hughues Borsarello evaluates a violin. Image by Stefan Avalos.

In order to eliminate any extraneous perceptual clues, the new violins were sanded a bit, making the tactile experience similar to that of the older instruments. Musicians were also required to wear “modified welders’ goggles, which together with much-reduced ambient lighting made it impossible to identify instruments by eye.”10

At the end of the sessions, the participants rated the instruments’ qualities: loudness under the ear; estimated projection; playability; tone quality; articulation/clarity, and overall preference/quality.11

In the last step of the process, the violinists played each instrument again briefly and predicted whether it was old or new. (NOTE: this experiment was a bit complicated, so if you want to know what they did in-depth, you can read the paper here.)

The results? When it comes to finding a replacement instrument, six musicians chose a new violin, four chose an older one, and the violinists guessed the correct age only 50% of the time.

So, ten of the most accomplished violinists in the world had a difficult time identifying an old violin, and they tended to choose the new instrument over the Stradivarius.

“The truth is, there are many very fine world-class instrument makers today, producing violins that can hold their own against the Strads, but their names don’t evoke the same awed reverence, and thus the perception is that they are not as good,” – George Bissinger5

PHILOSOPHICAL RAMBLINGS

So after all of this historical research, after gleaning the comments of musicians and scientists alike, a thought continues to buoy through my mind: perception is indeed affected by the gravity of bias (look up confirmation bias), but is it OK to allow certain slivers of background knowledge influence our experience of an Artwork so considerably? I’ve always been of the opinion that a work of Art should be able to carry its own weight. As Etienne Gilson wrote, “…a true work of art is a completely self-sufficient system of internal relations regulated by its own law…” 

This ushers in an even stickier question: is a Stradivarius a work of Art, or is it simply a means to create Art? Perhaps a Strad is, in the end, a well-crafted tool whose value now lies in its ability to amplify the the echoes of ideas and ideals from another era, echoes that have nearly been muted by the din the modern world. There is, in my opinion anyway, great value in such an object. $5 million value? Perhaps not.

p.s. Oh yeah–the second clip is the Stradivarius.

 

Sources

1. Luthern, Ashley. “Stolen Stradivarius Violin Found in Suitcase in Milwaukee Attic.” Journal Sentinel. 6 Feb 2014. Web. 21 Aug 2014. <http://www.jsonline.com/news/crime/stolen-stradivarius-violin-reportedly-recovered-in-good-condition-b99199772z1-243934631.html&gt;.

2. Neuman, Scott. “Stolen Stradivarius Found By Milwaukee Police.” NPR. NPR. 6 Feb 2014. Web. 21 Aug. 2014. <http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/02/06/272452997/stolen-stradivarius-reportedly-found-by-milwaukee-police&gt;.

3. Stradivarius.org

4. Lauer, Magda. “Italy’s Treasures: Antonio Stradivari.” ITALY Magazine. 22 Jan 2014. Web. 21 Aug 2014. <http://www.italymagazine.com/featured-story/italys-treasures-antonio-stradivari&gt;.

5. Ouellette, Jennifer. “Anatomy of a Stradivarius.” Scientific American Global RSS. 5 Dec 2011. Web. 21 Aug 2014. <http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cocktail-party-physics/2011/12/05/anatomy-of-a-stradivarius/&gt;.

6. Burckle, Lloyd, and Henri D. Grissino-Mayer. “Stradivari, violins, tree rings, and the Maunder Minimum: a hypothesis.” Dendrochronologia 21.1 (2003): 41-45. Web. 20 Aug 2014. http://web.utk.edu/~grissino/downloads/burckle%20grissino%202003.pdf

7. Saunders, Emma. What makes the Stradivarius violin so special?” BBC NewsI. 21 Jun 2011. Web. 21 Aug 2014. <http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-13856203&gt;.

8. Fein, Andrew. “Why f holes?” The Violin Shop. 6 Apr 2013. Web. 19 Aug. 2014. <http://blog.feinviolins.com/2013/04/why-f-holes.html&gt;.

9. Dunning, B. “Secrets of the Stradivarius.” Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 18 Sep 2012. Web. 31 Jul 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4328>

10. Jacobs, Tom. “Study Casts Doubt on Superiority of Stradivarius Violins.” Pacific Standard. 27 Apr 2014. Web. 21 Aug 2014. <http://www.psmag.com/navigation/books-and-culture/study-casts-doubt-superiority-stradivarius-violins-78350/&gt;.

11. Fritz, Claudia, et al. “Soloist evaluations of six Old Italian and six new violins.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.20 (2014): 7224-7229. Web. 19 Aug 2014. http://guyharrison.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/soloist-evaluations-of-six-old-italian-and-six-new-violins.pdf

Audio clips: Joyce, Christopher. “Double-Blind Violin Test: Can You Pick The Strad?” NPR. NPR. 2 Jan 2012. Web. 21 Aug 2014. <http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/01/02/144482863/double-blind-violin-test-can-you-pick-the-strad&gt;.

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