Sex and Violins!
Well, actually just violins

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    Antiono 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.

Antonio Stradivari

    Antonio 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 own.  He made 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.

    Throughout 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 old.

Britannica's article on Antonio Stradivari

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A Strad leads to death

    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 1732.
       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 violin.

    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 Mackenzie Strad

Cozio keeps track of most of the Stradivarius violins still in existence.  Check out their Stradivarius page here:
Cozio: Strads

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Interview with Jennifer Cappelli

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 fantastic. 
    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. 

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Empa research

    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 bias. 
    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.

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Well maybe it was Stradivari's varnish!

    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 work.
    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 there.                                                               here!

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Modern Violin-Makers in Cremona

    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:
1) 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

Source, although I'm not sure if you'll have to be signed in to access that.

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The Maunder Minimum

    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.  Sorry.

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This webpage created by:
Nick Stracco
Environmental Science major
Tulane University, New Orleans
Last updated 12/7/2011