Why Stradivarius Violins Sing
Stradivarius violins are works of alchemical art, and with just 512 left in the world, only the true elite of the musical world (or the extremely rich) get to play them. Long before I moved to Italy and stood mesmerized by the beauty of the Medici Stradivarius quintet at the Galleria dell’Accademia (including a rare cello and a one-of-a-kind tenor viola that is beyond wow), I was fascinated by their ethereal sound and scientific composition. This is the story of how and why someone who doesn’t even play the violin can be so moved by the aesthetics and sonance of Stradivari’s creations.
Who was Antonio Stradivari?
Before we get into the specifics of Stradivarius violins, let’s talk about the man who made them for a sec. Antonio Stradivari was a northern Italian luthier who lived in Cremona province in Italy’s Lombardy region from 1644 to 1737. Stradivari specialized in violins and crafted 960 of them between 1666 and his death. He also made 166 other instruments, including violas, cellos, guitars, mandolins, and harps. To say he was the maker of exceptional stringed instruments would be like saying Papa Francesco is a little bit Catholic. So yeah, he was good at what he did.
Stradivari’s childhood years are vague, and census reports conflict on the actual year he was born since war, famine, and plague led to a 16-year gap in parish records, but 1644 is the best guesstimate based on later clues. It is known that his Cremonan ancestry went back to the 12th century, his parents were Alessandro and Anna (Moroni), and he had at least three older siblings, probably more.
In 1667, Stradivari married Francesca Ferraboschi, a young widow with two children. They had six more children together, including a son who only lived for a week. (Sons Francesco and Omobono later worked for Stradivari, but both retired when their father died.) The family ultimately lived in the large house that Stradivari purchased at No. 1 Piazza Roma, which was where he set up shop and worked from for the rest of his life. A year after Francesca’s death in 1698, Stradivari married Antonia Maria Zambelli and had five more children with her, including a son who died before his first birthday and Giovanni Battista Giuseppe, who died at 24.
Stradivari was extremely successful during his lifetime and quite wealthy (because Stradivarius violins, hello). He died at the age of 93 in 1737 and is buried in the Basilica of San Domenico in Cremona. His career spanned 70 years, which is impressive considering the wars, famines, and plagues he endured.
After a lifetime of working for his father, son Francesco inherited his shop, tools, finished violins, patterns, and a portion of his estate but opted to take his inheritance and retire at the age of 62. Ombono also retired (and died five years later), so the last of the true Stradivari violins, Le Chant du Cygne (The Swan Song) was created in 1737.
The remainder of Stradivari’s estate was divided among Antonia and his other six heirs, but interestingly, he had niente grandchildren at the time of his death. He produced 11 offspring and lived almost a century, so both of those circumstances were highly unusual at the time. Of his seven surviving children, two were priests and one was a nun, but only ONE of the other four (Paolo) went on to marry and have a child…after Stradivari died.
Why are Stradivarius violins so revered?
Who Stradivari apprenticed with (if he apprenticed) is debatable, but Nicolo Amati, a talented craftsman from an established family of luthiers in Cremona, is the most logical answer. This hypothesis is supported by the label of the first known violin made by Stradivari, which reads “Alumnus Nicola Amati, faciebat anno 1666” (translation: former student of Nicolo Amati, made in the year of 1666). Unlike Amati’s other students though, Stradivari didn’t continue putting Amati’s name on his labels, so it’s impossible to say for certain.
Another viable theory is that Stradivari started out as a woodworker since he lived in a house owned by woodcarver and inlayer Francesco Pescaroli from 1667 to 1680 and may have been hired to decorate some of Amati’s instruments without being a true apprentice. The elaborate decorations and purfling of a few later Stradivarius violins supports the possibility, including Ole Bull, named for the Norwegian violin virtuoso and composer who first played it.
Regardless of where he learned his craft, the only name Stradivarius violins needed was Stradivari’s, according to Grazia Rondini’s 2006 “Brief History of the Classical Period of Cremonese Luthiery (1505-1744)” essay. She writes that “Almost simultaneously with the work of the last exponent of the Guarneri family, and precisely in 1680, the unknown Antonio Stradivari acquired a huge and luxurious building in the same block in which the Amati and Guarneri worked and lived. This is the reason why it is said that he appeared almost suddenly on the Cremonese market, where in a short time he acquired supremacy in the field of high-quality instruments.” In other words, Stradivari showed up seemingly out of nowhere and essentially took over the violin business of Cremona after Amati’s death in 1684.
Italians were the master luthiers, btw…the most expensive musical instrument ever (Guarneri violin, $16M, thankyouverymuch), the oldest surviving violin (Amati, circa 1560), and the most famous violin (the Messiah Stradivarius) are all Italian made. They’re also the most stolen instruments, especially Stradivarius violins.
Stradivarius and the Golden Ratio
And now for the most fascinating fun ever with…geometry and quantum physics (yes, really, and Dr. Stephon Alexander is the expert on how and why). Also called the golden mean, golden number, golden section, golden proportion, section aurea, and divine proportion, if it’s beautiful to the ears and eyes of humans, it involves the golden ratio. It exists in nature in things like nautilus shells, the human body, and pinecones, but Notre Dame, the Pantheon, and the Great Pyramid of Giza also utilize it, as did Stradivari. Mathematically, the golden ratio (≈0.618) is “the relationship between two segments such that the smaller segment is to the larger segment as the larger segment is to the sum of the two segments” (≈1.618). The geometric relationship between the elements of a Stradivari violin’s form, i.e. height to width, all use the golden ratio. In fact, the violin bridge position is located in the same proportion to the instrument’s body as the belly button is to the human body.
Speaking of bodies, the violin is the only instrument that emulates the human voice…one reason why Stradivariuses have the ability to evoke powerful emotions and are said to “sing.” Which is where quantum physics comes in, unified string theory, specifically, which says that the tiniest particles at the core of all matter (electrons and quarks) resemble vibrating strings. Violins are made to maximize all aspects of vibrating strings, theoretically enabling them to touch the core of everything within and around us. So, a singing Strad becomes a sort of dog whistle for your cells, your brain, and your soul.
Stradivari’s Golden Period
In the 1680s, Stradivari experimented with innovative sound hole shapes, a softer varnish, wider purfling (the inlaid border of the violin’s front and back edges), and a stronger tone, deviating from the traditional Amati style. In the 1690s, he worked on perfecting a narrower and longer violin with a darker tone (“Long Strads”).
Around 1700, Stradivari reverted to a shorter, wider design (his “grand pattern” that utilizes the golden ratio) and with the help of sons Francesco and Omobono, employee Carlo Bergonzi, and an apprentice, he proceeded to craft some of the most exceptional violins ever made in the next 25 years. La Pucelle (The Virgin) is considered the ‘pilot model’ and got its name from the mid-19th century Parisian dealer and luthier who disassembled the instrument for maintenance and discovered it hadn’t been touched after leaving Stradivari’s hands. To honor La Pucelle d’Orléans—the virgin warrior—he added an elegantly carved Joan of Arc tailpiece. Side note: La Pucelle was given to eclectic heiress Huguette Clark in 1956 by her mother as a 50th birthday gift, but in the 45 years she owned it, she never played it. Not once.
More interesting side note: Huguette owned ANOTHER Stradivarius —The Kreutzler—that no one even knew about until one of her closets was cleaned out in 2014…three years after she died. She never played it either.
Foresta dei Violini
Stradivari hand-picked the spruce trees that would become his famous violins from the Fiemme Valley of the Italian Alps, inside the Dolomites’ Paneveggio-Pale di San Martino Natural Park. A unique combination of altitude and microclimate gives the wood exceptional sound transmission qualities and makes the trees’ lymphatic channels act like tiny organ pipes that create exceptional resonance.
Skilled selection by experienced woodsmen and musicians who can observe foliage, bark, trunk, and position to know which trees are best for ‘playing’ and centuries of strategic forest management have kept Foresta dei Violini (Forest of the Violins), also called Il Bosco Che Suona (The Musical Woods) healthy and productive. Some of the world’s greatest violinists and cellists have played their instruments in the forest as a show of respect to the source of their fame and success.
The ecomusical spruce (and Bosnian maple) that Stradivari used is only part of the equation since attempts to replicate his creations using wood from the Fiemme Valley have all failed. He also treated the wood he used with various minerals and varnishes, including “bianca” (egg white, gum arabic, and honey). Other elements found in shavings from two Strads included aluminum, copper, and calcium…common in 17th and 18th century chemical treatments no longer used by modern luthiers.
Stradivari changed the varnish he used to an orange-brown one and included vermillion and red iron oxides with some violins, but possibly the biggest factor contributing the exceptional clarity and brilliance of his instruments may have been the one he had the least control over…the weather. The “little ice age” (1300-1870) would have altered the mechanical properties (elasticity and strength) of the spruce and maple he used since climatic conditions experienced during growth directly impact the structure of wood.
Cells added as a tree grows in girth in the spring (earlywood) are short and thin walled, with a large inner diameter to facilitate water transport. Latewood cells, on the other hand, are long, narrow, and thickened with a secondary wall to fortify the wood. If summer is cold and moist, the annual rings that form are narrow and composed of mostly large inner-diameter earlywood cells since the resulting latewood shows only thin secondary walls.
Stradivari was extremely lucky that his wood came from trees that grew during the Maunder Minimum—a prolonged period of low mean summer temperatures characterized by extreme sunspot inactivity. The minimal latewood growth caused narrow rings and exceptionally elastic wood that was also light…the ultimate vibrational characteristics.
Of the 960 violins Stradivari made, 512 still exist, and are documented by the individual names they’ve acquired in connection to their provenance. Among the more famous Stradivariuses still in play (pun intended), and there are several, are the four Strads played by the Vienna Philharmonic’s first violin section and the Baransky Stradivarius owned by Julian Lloyd Webber.
Copies and Forgeries
In the 19th century, violin makers created thousands of inexpensive copies of Stradivari’s designs. It was perfectly normal at the time for copies to be labeled with the model they were designed after since buyers were clear on the fact that they were purchasing a budget instrument, not a 17th century masterpiece. Referencing the name of the master was considered normal, not a deceptive practice, especially after the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890 was passed and the country of manufacture had to be included on the label. Anyone shopping for a violin would have known that if it was made in Germany, it wasn’t a Strad.
Fast-forward to people discovering those copies stashed in attics, secondhand stores, and under the beds of now-grown band geeks, and things can be misleading. Deliberate forgeries make them even murkier. A violin’s authenticity can only be determined by someone who is experienced in design, wood characteristics, and varnish textures, but if you find one stashed in a closet that’s labeled in English or was made in a country that didn’t exist before 1900, it’s not a Strad. If you find something that can’t be ruled out by the obvious, treat it like it’s real and call an expert…there are still a tiny number of unaccounted for Stradivarius violins out there.
The End. And that, my friends, is how I combine Italy, music, quantum physics, climate change, and history in The Bethiverse, so if your inner nerd or musical soul resonates with it, be sure to subscribe to my blog and follow me on Instagram for more unique, obscure, amusing, and think-worthy stuff. If you want to know more about who I am and what I do first, here you go. Grazie, ciao!
(This is an updated and edited version of an article posted on ThriftBooks.com for National Violin Day 2018.)