Music

Why are Stradivarius violins so revered?
Answered by Kim Williamson
  • Kim Williamson

    Kim Williamson

  1. At a public auction in 2006, an anonymous bidder bought a Stradivarius violin, the Hammer, for $3.5 milllion. The violin was a 1707 production, made at the height of Stradivari's craftsmanship. The BBC reported in June 2011 that another Stradivarius had sold online for 9.8 million pounds, or about $16 million [source: Sanders]. So, why are these violins so revered? With only 600 or so remaining in existence, that certainly accounts for some of the allure -- but, most agree it's really the sound they produce that makes them so special. But why does the music they make seem so much better? Some say it's the wood, while others look to the varnish, the shape or even alchemy for its stellar notes. Let's explore some of these theories starting with the wood Stradivari used.

    At the time Antonio Stradivari was making his instruments in Cremona, Italy, Europe experienced what became known as the "Little Ice Age," a period of more intense winters and cooler summers. This caused slower tree growth, and the affected trees produced denser wood than usual. The wood density of instruments affects vibration and tonal quality. Some scientists say the quality of wood that Stradivari used is what gives the Stradivarius violins their superb sound. This weather occurrence has not happened since Stradivari's time, giving the theory credibility.

    In June 2008, a Dr. Bernard Stoel, in conjunction with Terry Borman a U.S. luthier (instrument repair craftsman), used modern, medical equipment to examine Stradivarius violins. Stoel put several Stradivarius violins along with some modern-day violins through a CT scanner to compare the wood used. He found that the older, classical instruments had similar densities yet were different from their contemporary counterparts [source: Science Daily].

    While all of this is compelling, an interesting argument to the "Little Ice Age" and wood density theory is that violins from other parts of Europe don't have the same exceptional quality as the Stradivarius instruments.

    So, if it's not [just] the wood, what else could be responsible for the superlative nature of these instruments?  One theory, which is still being debated, is that there is a sort of "magic potion," created by the chemicals and processes Stradivari used. In 2006, Josephy Nagybary, a chemist and violinmaker, did a study using shavings from Stradivarius violins and those made by Guaneri del Gesu, another violin maker during Stradivari's time. The tests showed distinct chemical changes in the wood shavings leading Nagyvary to believe that Stradivari was heating the wood, using oxidizing agents like copper and iron salts and possibly also borax, fluoride and chromium to treat the wood. All of these findings support Nagyvary's belief that there was a magic potion -- chemicals that only Stradivari used in his creations [source: Lovett]. Ironically, in a Nature podcast, Nagyvary said that he thought the violin-maker used these substances, not to make a superior instrument, but to preserve the violins and fight off woodworms [source: Nature].  

    Research done at Brigham Young University in 2006 also supported Nagyvary's theory on chemical use in the Stradivarius craftsmanship. Noel Owen, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, used infrared spectroscopy to examine wood shavings. He found differences in Stradivari's violins compared to other instruments made during the same time time period. Along with Nagyvary, Owen contends that the chemical treatment is what made the Stradivarius violin and its sound unique [source: Madsen].

    More answers from Kim Williamson »



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