A Stradivarius is a
stringed instrumentbuilt by members of the Stradivarifamily, particularly Antonio Stradivari. The bowed instruments are famous for the quality of their sound, which has defied attempts to explain or reproduce. The name "Stradivarius" has also become a superlative applied to designate excellence. To be called "the Stradivari" of any field is to be deemed the finest there is.
Italyin 1644, Antonio Stradivari is considered to have been a disciple of Nicolo Amati, of the Amatifamily of luthiers of Cremona. In 1660, Antonio set up shop on his own in Cremona, though his early violins are generally considered inferior to those of his "golden age", between 1698 and 1720. While his techniques have long been fertile soil for debate and not fully understood by modern craftsmen and scientists, it is known for certain that the wood used included sprucefor the harmonic top, willowfor the internal parts and maplefor the back, strip and neck. This wood was treated with several types of minerals, including potassium borate ( borax), sodium and potassium silicate, and vernice bianca, a varnish composed of Arabic gum, honeyand egg white.
A Stradivarius made in the 1680s, or during Stradivari's Brescian period from 1690-1700, could be worth several hundred thousand dollars or more on auction, at today's prices. Depending on condition, instruments made during Stradivari's "golden period" from 1700 to 1720 can be worth several million dollars. Though relatively rarely sold, the highest publicised price paid was at public auction for "The Hammer", made in 1707, selling for US$3,544,000 on
May 16 2006. Private sales of Stradivari instruments have exceeded this price.cite news | url=http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/low/entertainment/4988838.stm | title=Stradivarius tops auction record | work=BBC News | date=17 May 2006 |accessdate=2006-06-07] cite news | url=http://msnbc.msn.com/id/12824291 | title=Successful $3,544,000 bid of "Hammer"| author=Associated Press | work=MSNBC | date=16 May 2006 | accessdate=2006-10-18]
It is not uncommon for violins to be labeled or branded "Stradivarius", as the name has been used since by other manufacturers. However, it is generally believed that there are fewer than 700 genuine instruments extant, very few of which are unaccounted for.
The fame of Stradivari instruments is not a modern phenomenon and they appear in numerous works of fiction. The fictional detective
Sherlock Holmesis described as having owned a Stradivarius, with detail given to how he purchased the instrument for fifty-five English shillings in the story " The Adventure of the Cardboard Box". A famous, if perhaps apocryphal story about the " Duport Stradivarius" claims the instrument's visible dent was made by the boots of Emperor Napoléon I of France, who tried his hand at playing it.
One aspect of Stradivari's approach is illustrated in the BBC TV series "
Lovejoy", in the episode "Second Fiddle", which notes that, while one would expect the 'f'-holes on the top of a violin to be symmetrical, Stradivari often made his slightly offset. The show credits this to him being less of a perfectionist than tradition holds, but, if true, it more likely demonstrates an aural perfectionism preferred over the visual aesthetic.
The reputation of the Stradivarius is such that its name is frequently invoked as a standard of excellence in other unrelated fields (such as ships and cars); for example, the
Bath Iron Works' unofficial motto is "A Bath boat is the Stradivarius of destroyers!" In 1924, The Vincent Bach Corporationbegan releasing a line of trumpets which would later become known as Stradivarius Trumpets, in an attempt to capitalise on the Stradivari name.
Theories and reproduction attempts
Above all, these instruments are famous for the quality of sound they produce. Although various attempts at explaining or duplicating their quality have been undertaken, most results have been unsuccessful or inconclusive. Over the centuries, numerous theories have been presented, and debunked, including an assertion that the wood was salvaged from old cathedrals.
Dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, has proved this false.
A more modern theory attributes tree growth during a time of unusually low solar activity during the
Maunder Minimum" Little Ice Age" from "ca." 1645 to 1750. During this period, temperatures throughout Europe were much cooler causing stunting and slower tree growth with unusually dense wood. [cite news | url=http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/science/12/08/stradivarius.secret.ap/ | title=Cool weather may be Stradivarius' secret | publisher=CNN | author=Associated Press | date=8 December 2003 | accessdate=2007-06-24] Further evidence for this "Little Ice Age theory" comes from a simple examination of the dense growth rings in the wood used in Stradivari's instruments.cite news| url=http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/01/0107_040107_violin.html | title=Did "Little Ice Age" Create Stradivarius Violins' Famous Tone? | work=National Geographic News | author=John Pickrell | date=7 January 2004 | accessdate=2007-06-24] Two researchers, Henri Grissino-Mayer, a University of Tennessee tree ring scientist and Lloyd Burckle, a Columbia University climatologist, published their conclusions supporting the theory on increased wood density in the journal "Dendrochronologia". [cite web | author=Rachelle Oblack | title=10 Non-Military Historical Events Drastically Changed by the Weather | publisher=About.com | url=http://weather.about.com/od/meteorologyandsociety/ss/weatherhistory_3.htm | date=10 March 2008 | accessdate=2008-06-11]
In 2008, Dutch researchers announced that they had discovered further evidence for wood density as the cause of the high quality of these instruments. After examining the violins with
X-rays, the researchers found that these violins all have extremely consistent density, with relatively low variation in the apparent growth patterns of the trees which produced this wood. [cite journal | last=Stoel | first=Berend C. | coauthors=Borman, Terry M | title=A Comparison of Wood Density between Classical Cremonese and Modern Violins | journal= PLoS ONE| volume=3 | issue=7 | pages=e2554 | doi=10.1371/journal.pone.0002554 | year=2008 | url=http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0002554 | accessdate=2008-07-04]
Researchers attributed this to the unique tree growth patterns of the Little Ice Age, the era of Stadivarius's work. The change in climate caused trees to grow uniformly in both summer and winter, creating the renowned quality of the wood used in Stradivariuses. Through the years, various other causes had been hypothesized, including varnishes, boiling or other treatments.cite news | author=Brandon Keim | title=Secrets of Stradivarius Explained | url=http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2008/07/secrets-of-stra.html?npu=1&mbid=yhp | work=Wired | date=3 July 2008| accessdate=2008-07-03]
Yet another possible explanation is that the wood originated and was harvested from the forests of northern
Croatia. [cite book | last=Hill | first=W.H. | coauthors=Hill, A.F.; Hill, A.E. | title=Antonio Stradivari: His Life and Work | location=New York | publisher=Dover Publications | year=1963 | isbn=0486204251 | url=http://books.google.com/books?id=UBDc4WnFtiUC&pg=PA162&lpg=PA162&dq=stradivari+using+croatian+wood&source=web&ots=mgc-XJvt7M&sig=1ixmTjuIUYnolsW27dGAxxFBZiU | accessdate=2008-07-03] This maplewood is known for its extreme density due to the slow growth from harsh Croatian winters. Croatian wood was a commodity traded by Venetian merchants of this era and is still used for crafting musical instruments by local luthiers to this day.
Some research points to wood preservatives being used in that day as contributing to the resonant qualities. [cite news | author=Paul Marks | title=Secrets of the Stradivarius: An Interview with Joseph Nagyvary | url=http://technology.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn10686&feedId=online-news_rss20 | title=Why do Stradivari's violins sound sublime? | journal=NewScientist | date=29 November 2006 | accessdate=2008-05-25] [cite web | author=Charles Choi | title=Secrets of the Stradivarius: An Interview with Joseph Nagyvary | url=http://technology.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn10686 | work=Scientific American | date=10 June 2002 | accessdate=2008-05-25]
While the sound of Stradivari's instruments still has not been fully explained by modern research tools, devices such as the scanning laser
vibrometerare aiding researchers in testing the theory that the careful shaping of belly and back plate, in order to "tune" their resonant frequencies, may be an important factor. [cite web | url=http://iwk.mdw.ac.at/Forschung/english/2004e_AWB_ISMA/ISMA04_PAPER_Final.htm | title=Documentation of Double Bass Plate Modes Using the Scanning Laser Vibrometer | publisher=University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna | author=Andrew W. Brown | year=2004 | accessdate=2007-06-24]
Glues and varnishes used by Stradivari have been analyzed extensively, and have also been attributed for the sound and quality of his instruments. There remains no consensus on the single most probable factor, and most likely, it is some combination of all, and something not yet recognized.
There are two complete extant guitars by Stradivari, and a few fragments of others, including the neck of a third guitar which is owned by the
Conservatoire de Musiquein Paris. [cite news | url=http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A0DE4DD143BF935A25751C0A960948260 | title= Get ready for videos of the classics | work=The New York Times | accessdate=2007-06-25] These guitars have ten (doubled) strings, which was typical of the era.
The only Stradivarius harp to survive today is the "arpetta" (little harp), owned by San Pietro a Maiella Music Conservatory in Naples, Italy. [cite news | author=de la Mare, Calina| title=Review of: "Stradivarius: Five Violins, One Cello and a Genius", by Toby Faber (2004) Macmillan | url=http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/books/story/0,10595,1344638,00.html | work=The Guardian | date=6 November 2004 | accessdate=2008-03-14] [cite journal | first=Maria Principia | last=Buonadonna | title=Tradition, Art and Folklore: the Luthiers of Naples | pages=197 | format=.PDF | journal=Rivista di Politica Economica | volume=LXXXVIII | issue=VII-IX | url=http://www.emersionelavorononregolare.it/dev/old/catania/doc/volume1/12buonad.pdf | year=1998 | accessdate=2008-03-14]
There are two known extant Stradivari mandolins. The "Cutler-Challen Choral Mandolino" of 1680, is currently in the collection of the
National Music Museumat the University of South Dakotain Vermillion, South Dakota. [cite web | author=National Music Museum
title=The Cutler-Challen Choral Mandolino by Stradivari, 1680 | url=http://www.usd.edu/smm/PluckedStrings/Mandolins/StradMandolin/StradMandolin.html | publisher=University of South Dakota | date=19 September 2006 | accessdate=2008-01-30] The other, dated "ca." 1706, is owned by private collector Charles Beare of London. [cite book | last=Tyler | first=James | coauthors=Sparks, Paul | title=The Early Mandolin | location=Oxford | publisher=Oxford University Press | year=1989 | url=http://books.google.com/books?id=p4JFbUqIGPcC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_summary_r#PPA18,M1 | isbn=0198163029 | accessdate=2008-02-15]
*cite book | last=Hill | first=William Henry | coauthors=Hill, Arthur F.; Hill, Alfred Ebsworth | title=Antonio Stradivari, His Life and Work (1644-1737) | location=London | publisher=W.E. Hill & Sons| year=1902 | oclc=8179349
Walter Hamma, "Meister Italienischer Geigenbaukunst", Wilhelmshaven 1993, ISBN 3-7959-0537-0
* [http://www.channel4.com/fourdocs/film/film-detail.jsp?id=31945 A FourDoc (short on-line documentary) about a group of violin makers making a violin in the original spec of the maurin Stradivarius in just five days]
* [http://ididnotknowthatyesterday.blogspot.com/2006/12/what-makes-stradivarius-violin-so.html What makes a Stradivarius so Great?]
* [http://www.cozio.com/Luthier.aspx?id=17 Cozio.com] Online database of instruments by Antonio Stradivari.
* [http://www.jose-sanchez-penzo.net/records.html Cheniston K. Roland, Discography (incomplete) of Stradivarius recordings]
* [http://www.uberhippy.com/axelrodnyt080303.shtml Mark Levine, "Medici of the Meadowlands", "The New York Times" 3 August 2003]
Herbert R. Axelrod's Stravarius collection.
* [http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/~jw/chladni.html Chladni patterns] for visualizing violin plate resonance patterns
* [http://home.scarlet.be/~tor-4879/stradivarienglish.htm Stradivari Violin Forms] A detailed study of Stradivari's molds and drawings kept in the Cremona Museum..
* [http://pubs.acs.org/subscribe/journals/ancham/79/i03/pdf/0207detective.pdf How Stradivari and Guarneri got their music] discusses the chemical techniques used to figure out what makes these instruments' unique sound. From [http://pubs3.acs.org/acs/journals/toc.page?incoden=ancham&indecade=0&involume=79&inissue=3 the February 1, 2007 issue of "Analytical Chemistry"]
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