Stradivari's violins are the best in the world. But what
makes them so good? Well, it turns out the music and the
science community cannot quite agree. Some people believe
that it was because he stole wood from old cathedrals.
Others think his secret was a special varnish that he used that
changed the properties of the wood. These two guys named
Grissino-Mayer and Burckle say that the climate of Stradivari's
day created the perfect conditions for trees to grow that are
best for violins. Some Swiss scientists at Empa have found
some pretty convincing evidence that uses certain types of
fungus to make wood that can produce violins that sound awfully
good. Let's explore the different ideas.
Stradivari was born in Cremona, Italy in 1644. The modern
violin was invented in this city in northern Italy. Many
members of the Stradivari family made fine musical instruments,
but Antonio's work remains the apex of their ability. As a
boy Antonio began working for Nicolò Amati. Amati's
violins are well known for their clarity and depth of sound. Around
1666 Antonio began making violins and putting his own labels on
them. He initially followed Amati's style but he soon
began to experiment with different forms and styles of his
the scroll bigger, the corner blocks larger, the curves of the
middle ribs more extreme and those of the belly less so, and
modified the F holes
. These variations resulted in violins of greater quality than
those made by Amati.
Here's a diagram of a violin so you
know what I'm talking about.
his life Antonio Stradivari crafted roughly 1,000 violins
and a few cellos and violas. Somewhere around 700
violins still remain today. Many of them have sold for
millions of dollars. He made his best violins when he
was in his 70's and 80's, and he died in 1737 at 93 years
My violin teacher, Jennifer Cappelli, is a
professional violinist who has played with the Chicago Symphony
Orchestra. Some years ago the owners of a Stradivarius
violin wished to sell their instrument, so they lent it to
Jennifer so she could demonstrate its beautiful quality to
potential clients. Jennifer told me that this very violin that
she toured with for three months had led to the death of an
unlucky previous owner.
People call this particular violin the
"Muir-Mackenzie," in honor of Lady Muir-Mackenzie who owned it
at the turn of the 20th century. Stradivari made it in
Maria Grevesmuhl was a violin
teacher in Germany. In October 1996 she played with a
chamber orchestra in Bremen, Germany. Her star pupil
Vasile, whose last name has been withheld by authorities, knew
how she got home from the venue and hired a thief to steal the
precious 300-year-old violin, which Jenny told me sold for $3
million. He purportedly told this man exactly were to
stand and asked him to snatch the Strad from Maria.
While Maria was walking to the train to take
her home, Vasile's accomplice saw her at the train station just
as Vasile had predicted. The thug approached her, shoved
her down a flight of stairs, snatched the violin and fled.
Maria hit the ground and died right there in the train
station. The thief was later caught attempting to sell the
For more detailed information on this
particular violin, visit Cozio's webpage. Cozio is a website
that compiles information about fine musical instruments. The Muir
Cozio keeps track of most of the Stradivarius violins still in
existence. Check out their Stradivarius page here: Cozio: Strads
As I mentioned above, I
studied violin with Jennifer Cappelli for just over ten
years. While researching Stradivari's violins and what
makes them so great, I figured what better source could I find
than a personal interview with somebody who has played
one. It turns out that she has played eight Strads.
Eight! Jeeze! So I asked her what, exactly, makes them so
She told me one thing she loves about them is
their clarity of sound. She also likes how easy they are
to play; they have a quick response. She described some
poor violins as being "hard to play" when you really have to put
in effort to get thesound to come out the F holes. Strads,
on the other hand, are very easy to play and respond very well
to the player. As she put it, "If you're a good enough
violin player, it will do anything you want it to do
immediately." She also mentioned the sweetness of the
sound as being something she loved. She mentioned that the
F holes in his violins are just placed in the right place.
Researchers at Empa recently took a stab at
the mystery of the Stradivarius. Dr. Francis Schwarze
started treating spruce wood with split gill fungus. He
found that after treating wood with fungus it became less dense
and lighter. A lighter wood is much better for resonance
in violin-making. The great thing about this was that it
managed to make a less dense wood without compromising its
firmness. The fungus did this by thinning the cell
walls a cell called the tracheid. To the right is an
electron-scanning microscope image of a tracheid. They are
cells that are part of xylem. They conduct water so it can
move throughout the plant. Check out Empa's page about
this study here.
So if you thought that was cool, just wait
till you hear about what those crazy Empa scientists did
next. So that guy Schwarze went and found a violin-maker
named Michael Rhonheimer. Together the two of them created
"biotech violins" by treating the wood with this fungus.
The then set up a blind test to see if they really sounded as
good as a Stradivarius.
The two of them created four violins, two of
them biotech violins treated with fungus and two that were
not. They got British violinist Matthew Trusler to play
their four violins as well as his own 1711 Stradivarius in front
of an audience. He played from behind a screen to minimize
Out of 180 people in the audience, 90 people
felt that the “Opus 58” violin, which was treated with fungus,
had the best tone quality. Trusler’s Stradivarius, worth
two million dollars, came in second place with 39 votes.
When asked which violin was the Stradivarius, an overwhelming
113 attendees guessed it was the Opus 58. This violin had been
treated with fungus for nine months, longer than the other
biotech violin. While it seemed that science had won this round,
it turns out that the very fungus that gave the biotech violins
their beautiful sound would ultimately eat them alive; it slowly
causes the wood to disintegrate. Check out Empa's press release
of this show-down here.
Maybe! Joseph Nagyvary of Texas
A&M University attained 88 milligrams of Stradivarius
violins and tested them to see if he could find out what varnish
Antonio Stradivari used. He concluded that Stradivari used
borax, and that treating wood with salts of copper, iron, and
chromium lead to great sounds. Nagyvary uses very
sophisticated equipment to make violins. He plays the
violin near fancy machines that test the sound and if it is not
good enough, he keeps working until he is satisfied with his
Just like the Empa researchers, he also had a
blind test against a Stradivarius violin. 463 people listened to
Dalibor Karvay, a great violinist from Slovakia, play his
Stradivarius and also one of Nagyvary. The violins were
scored on a 1-10 scale of tone quality (beauty) and projection
(power). The trained musicians in the crowd awarded the
Strad an average of 8.03 on beauty and 8.0 for power.
Meanwhile the Nagyvary violin received 8.1 for berauty and 8.33
for power. Only 57 people in attendance guessed which one
was the Strad. 290 were wrong, and 129 were undecided.
The article detailing this study can be found over
In Antonio Stradivari's hometown people have
continued to make and repair violins. One premier violin
craftsman, Simone Sacconi, worked on over 300 Stradivarius
violins in his lifetime. Before he died he published a
book about what he believed were Stradivari's secrets. He
mainly focused on the varnish. Most of the violin-makers
in Cremona use a three-step method to varnish:
Mix silica and potash to make a glassy liquid. Apply this
to the finished violin. It will enter the pores and wrap
around the fibers to give the wood a robust constitution.
2) Mix egg whites with either honey or sugar. This will
act as an insulator and will protect the varnish from oxidizing.
3) The varnish proper is applied last, consisting of dyeing
substances that include gum arabic, turpentine, and a resin
called Venetian Red
although I'm not sure if you'll have to be signed in to access
Some people thought that Stradivarius stole
wood from old castles or cathedrals. Tree-ring analysis
now shows that the trees that Stradivari used grew during his
lifetime. Lloyd Burckle of Columbia University realized that
Antonio Stradivari began his life just a year before the Maunder
Minimum. The Maunder Minimum was a time period within the
Little Ice Age that had greatly decreased sun spots. This
led to a very
cold snap, so cold that the canals in Venice froze over!
Burckle and Henri Grissino-Mayer together
figured out that this cold period led to very slow and even
growth in the spruce firs from which Stradivari made his
violins. This even growth made for trees that were just
aching to be made into a Stradivarius; their properties are
perfect for a beautiful-sounding violin.
Here's Grissino-Mayer and Burckle's article,
but again, you may have to be signed in to access that.