Blog: Stradivarius violins a mix of genius and nature’s magic

Stradivarius Violin

Antonio Stradivari’s career spanned seven decades and his workshop produced almost 1,200 violas, guitars, cellos and violins. About 650 of his exquisite instruments exist today. Many of them are nearing 350 years old. How can such old instruments sound so melodious and command over $3.5 million at auction?

Violins, violas and cellos belong to the violin family. They are the indisputable kings of all musical instruments. The violin has said to portray and inspire every emotion imaginable, from the braying of a donkey to delivering a tune of heart rendering beauty. Only the human voice can match it. Stardivarius or “Strads” are the most famous and sought after violin family.

Andrea Amati made the first violin in 1564 in Cremona, Italy. One hundred and two years later, in 1666, Stradivari made his first violin. The craftsmanship that went into building these splendid works of art is breathtaking. The violin has rightfully so been compared to the female silhouette — narrow-wasted and voluptuous.

Violins have a hollow body, or soundbox, with a back and a belly. The top of the soundbox, or belly, has two sound hole curves toward the center, which resemble the letter “f”, and the letter “f” reversed. The belly and back are held apart by ribs around the sides and a neck that rises from one end towards the head of the instrument. This design has not changed from the original Amati.

Four strings are held under tension. They span from the tailpiece, over a bridge that supports them, over top of the soundbox and along the neck to the head. They vibrate, usually by rubbing a horsehair bow but also by plucking or striking with the wood of the bow. The bridge transmits the vibrations to the soundbox, which amplifies the notes we hear.

Experts believe that Strads are unique for a number of reasons. Antonio Stradivari was unquestionably a genius. He was an extraordinary woodworker, luthier, and, some believe, he apprenticed as a young boy with the great Amati. His early Strads were decorated with immense artistry.

The different kinds of wood that Stradivari selected for his instruments were crucial. He used close-grained high elevation European spruce for the belly because it vibrated in sympathy with the strings. The back, which acts as a reflective plate, was made of river maple, a much harder wood. The neck, along with its magnificent scroll, was also carved from maple. The ribs were made of thin strips of maple bent under heat to form four main curves, making up the hourglass shape of the body. The inside edges of both the back and the belly are called perflings. In order to protect against cracks, perflings were made of three narrow strips of inlay; the outer two of pear-wood were stained black while the inner was made of poplar.

The varnish contained an Italian volcanic ash. It made the spruce bellies of Strads look like various shades of amber while the maple backs resembled that of tiger stripes.

All 650 remaining Strads are named and they produce brilliant and powerful tones. Why? Tree scientists believe that it has to do with the quality of the wood. In particular, the growing conditions that existed in the 17th and 18th centuries.

From about 1500 to 1800, Europe dropped into a time called the “Little Ice Age.” Cold temperatures occurred especially between 1645-1715 called the “Maunder Minimum” after the English astronomer Edward Maunder, where the Thames and the Dutch Ijselmeer Rivers regularly froze. Climate scientists believe a scarcity of sunspot activity during that time accounted for much colder conditions.

Tree growth, especially during Antonio Stradivari’s lifetime, was very slow. Tree ring patterns were narrowly spaced: wood cells were few but dense. Growing conditions of the “Maunder Minimum” have never occurred since and all Strads contain wood from this time period. The unique wood properties have significantly enhanced the harmonics of his instruments.

Niccolo Paganini, the great 19th century violinist, was quoted as saying “Stradivarius only used the wood of trees on which the nightingales sang.”

Wood grown during the “Little Ice Age” along with Stradivari’s Renaissance technology is a superb combination — nothing since can match the quality nor hold a tone for longer.

Earth Dr Reese Halter is a broadcaster, biologist, educator and author of The Insatiable Bark Beetle