Strad Madness
December 31, 2008 10:01 PM   Subscribe

What gives Stradivarius violins their rich ethereal tones? Scientists clash in theories, attributing the sound quality to wood density, chemical treatments, the "Little Ice Age," even the sun. The mystery continues. Current Strad owners include Itzhak Perlman and Anne-Sophie Mutter. "[T]he great violins are, ounce for ounce, among the most valuable commodities in the world... Almost alone among investments, important violins have proved immune to economic downturns." Today, top Strads can fetch more than $6 million. But some wonder whether Antonio Stradivari's violins truly deserve their "best in class" reputation.
posted by terranova (19 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
One theory was that the logs which were eventually used by the great violin makers of that era spent several years floating in the Adriatic before they were used, and it was thought that long immersion in salt water changed the wood in some fundamental way. But it would require scraps of wood from one of them to really confirm that, and no one is willing to destroy one of them in order to find out.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:58 PM on December 31, 2008

Actually, they have been doing just that:
In 1998, Nagyvary had discovered how to reproduce some of the Stradivarius-like resonances by treating a violin backboard bade of modern maple wood with salt water and grape juice. In 2001, he discovered that he can create an even more similar sound to that of a Stradivarius by adding borax, which is an anti-woodworm treatment Stradivari is likely to have used. "The next step is to identify the chemical agents involved," Nagyvary said. "To do that, more precious wood samples are needed."

(Source, different link about the same people in "chemical treatments")
posted by ghost of a past number at 11:56 PM on December 31, 2008

Hmm. The soaked-in-saltwater thing isn't unique to Europe. The wood blocks used for the Koreana Tripitaka were treated in a similar way -- lengthy soaking in the stuff. Not for the musical quality, obviously, but to strengthen the wood and make it more beautiful.

That said, I rescued a Strad from mutated crab-monsters lurking in an irradiated vault a few nights ago while playing Fallout 3.
posted by bardic at 12:20 AM on January 1, 2009

Stradivarius violins have fanboys. If you think Mac vs. PC arguments get intense, try getting a few string players to agree on the best luthier.
posted by b1tr0t at 1:23 AM on January 1, 2009

Emperor's new clothes. A violinist acquaintance of mine told me that the improvement in tone between a $5,000 violin and a $50,000 violin was massive, but the difference between a $50,000 violin and a $5,000,000 violin was almost complete fantasy. We're in audiophile gold-speaker-cable territory. And if someone produces a modern violin that sounds like a Stradivarius, you can bet Stradivarius violins are unlikely to be any less sought after. Just as mined diamonds are now marketed as being "real", in the face of increasing competition from indistinguishable manufactured diamonds.
posted by Jimbob at 1:56 AM on January 1, 2009 [6 favorites]

Actually, people (well at least one person) have built violins that sound better then Stradivari in blind listening tests.
posted by delmoi at 3:13 AM on January 1, 2009

Heh. It's not the blind listening tests that matter. It's the cult. I've heard, on my local classical station, announcers talking about the violin a soloist is playing before they play a piece. They often talk about touring violinists bringing their Stradivarius (worth $x) with them. Manufactured diamonds can often be purer, bigger and cheaper than the ones DeBeers peddle, but that's not going to matter to a lot of people.
posted by Jimbob at 3:27 AM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Strads have a story, and people want to hear those stories in more ways than one.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:37 AM on January 1, 2009

@seanmpucket makes the important point: the instruments themselves have stories.

There are other instruments (guitars, cellos, etc.,) that have been used for longer than a single person's life and have been passed on to others. Like barnacles, the stories accrete and, in doing so, make these instruments just a little bit larger than life.

I have personally played on an historical instrument (a lute that was built sometime in the early 17th century, but had been "converted" into a theorboe sometime later), and yes, the stories sometimes are louder than the "sound" of the instrument! But people loved to see it being played, even though we had other lutes with better sound.
posted by aldus_manutius at 7:22 AM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm sure they really are fantastic instruments. Truly works of art that also produce music.

But, when you have the world's greatest talents playing a particular kind of instrument, well then, yes, they are going to sound fantastic.

It's a little more complex than "confirmation bias", but that's probably the right direction.

I think their history, their cachet, and their exclusivity contribute as much to their value as just flatly superior tone.

In other words, a modern hand-produced violin that sounded to 100% of listeners exactly, precisely, the same as a Strad would sell for maybe, what, $100,000? The rest is the simple economics of scarcity.
posted by Ynoxas at 7:29 AM on January 1, 2009

The Wikipedia article indicated his finest instruments were created from 1698 to 1725. His approximate birth year 1644 would make his age span 54 to 81. Maybe there is hope for we old farts!
posted by digsrus at 7:33 AM on January 1, 2009

You can say "It's all in the mind" if you like, but what's in the mind of the performer is quite relevant to the performance.
posted by Wolfdog at 7:43 AM on January 1, 2009

Oh my. Relatively recently I wrote a short essay on the acoustic properties of Stradivarius violins, and particularly the Gibson ex-Huberman, for a technology of music course I was taking. Because I had some Joshua Bell recordings with the violin, it was quite fun to hypothesise about these various theories whilst comparing them to some harmonic spectrum analyses carried out with Adobe Audition - none of which was remotely scientific, alas: credit was given just for demonstrating theory. Predictably, I can't find the essay now, but what little research I carried out was fascinating. Clearly, there is a combination of factors that contribute to the unique harmonics of a Strad, not least the various wood treatments, some of which have been mentioned above.

I am drawn to the Little Ice Age theory as a major contributor, though, which says that the wood from Stradivarius violins was unusually dense due to the low solar activity and slow/limited tree growth of the period.

All said I don't doubt that there is a cult-of-Strad thing going on: do they *really* sound better than *all* other violins? Almost certainly not, but they are undeniably special, and have been recognised as such for some time. In The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, Sherlock Holmes bought a bargain Stradivarius:

"We had a pleasant little meal together, during which Holmes
would talk about nothing but violins, narrating with great exulta-
tion how he had purchased his own Stradivarius, which was
worth at least five hundred guineas, at a Jew broker's in Tottenham
Court Road for fifty-five shillings. This led him to Paganini, and
we sat for an hour over a bottle of claret while he told me
anecdote after anecdote of that extraordinary man. The afternoon
was far advanced and the hot glare had softened into a mellow
glow before we found ourselves at the police-station. Lestrade was
waiting for us at the door."

The dent in the Duport Stradivarius cello is said to have been made by Napoleon Bonapart while he attempted to play it.

For a more recent but equally remarkable slice of Strad-lore, Gene Weingarten's remarkable article Pearls Before Breakfast comes highly recommended.
posted by nthdegx at 7:59 AM on January 1, 2009

A nice fictional take on pseudo-strad madness is The Red Violin. Bonus: Samuel L Jackson does not shout even once.
posted by lalochezia at 8:10 AM on January 1, 2009

There's a short story in last month's Asimov, about a time traveler who goes back to visit with Stradivarius and commissions a violin from him, but his real goal is to steal "the messiah".
posted by nomisxid at 8:56 AM on January 1, 2009

lalochezia: Samuel L. Jackson does shout in that movie. When he walks down to the lobby and discovers he has faxes waiting for him he shouts at the desk staff for not letting him know (even though he did tell them not to let any calls go through to his room).
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 9:15 AM on January 1, 2009

I think it's probably mostly the romance behind the story. Even if we were to somehow find the original recipe or reverse engineer it and produce 100% chemically and mechanically equivalent violins, the original violins would still be fabled to have the best sound quality. However, so much of music is based on emotion and the romance and mystery of life, that I think it's acceptable for people to believe this. Plus, the placebo effect is an amazing thing, and I imagine a violin master who recently acquired a Stradivarius would feel he could play even better.

Deep down, I kind of hope they don't entirely figure out how Stradivariuses are made. In our consumer culture, it's nice to see something that can't be mass produced and/or recreated ad infinitum.
posted by mccarty.tim at 10:16 AM on January 2, 2009

Also, on solid gold speaker cables: These are different, as they're made by hucksters and are intended to be used just to play back recordings, and they make false, easily disproved scientific claims. The magic behind the Stradivariuses lies in how they inspire musicians, and how incredible it is that they were the best in their time and no one can exactly recreate them hundreds of years later.
posted by mccarty.tim at 10:19 AM on January 2, 2009

I reckon he used volcanic ash in his varnish. That's my theory.
posted by bz at 10:20 AM on January 2, 2009

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