During the early 18th century Antonio Stradivari built violins that are widely considered to be exceptional instruments and are some of the most valuable in the world. The secret to Stradivari’s success has been a mystery for more than 400 years. Does his secret lay dormant at the bottom of a lakebed or lost in a four-century-old formula of Italian alchemy? Some have claimed that there’s no secret at all, and his violins are not acoustically superior to their modern-day counterparts. Is this all just a Stradivarius hoax? Read on to find out.
In 2009, an audience of violin players, music critics, and even experts in forest husbandry waited eagerly to hear British star violinist Matthew Trusler play his $2 million Strad. The catch: he was playing behind a curtain and switched between the Strad and four modern violins. Of the 180 audience members, only 39 thought the Strad sounded the best. Scientific studies of the acoustical performance of these instruments have not reached a consensus on whether acoustical anomalies exist; however, a least one study has shown that Strads may radiate sound in the frequency range associated with tenors and altos better than other violins, leading to their “distinctive brilliance”.
Whether or not there is a subjective or scientific consensus for acoustic superiority, Dr. Joseph Nagyvary, a biochemist, studied the wood structure of several Strads and observed striking differences in the wood composition compared to modern violins, which could cause acoustical differences. The spruce and maple that Stradivarius used most likely came from the Italian Alps and would have traveled hundreds of miles on rivers and lakebeds, left to float at the docks of Stradivari’s hometown of Cremona, Italy. Perhaps the long soak in the water left the wood susceptible to local microorganisms that could lead to the unique structure observed by Dr. Nagyvary. To test his theory, Nagyvary compared samples of old growth wood lost to the bottom of Lake Superior over several centuries, preserved in the lake’s cold water and silt. The Lake Superior wood did show unique properties; unfortunately, it was not similar to the structure of Stradivarii and the secret remained unsolved.
In the 18th century, wood worms devastated forests in Northern Italy. Nagyvary and others theorized that violin makers took to chemicals to rid the wood of this pest. A mix of interesting compounds was discovered in the chemical emission spectrum of Strad samples: copper and zinc salts as well as sodium borate, the pesticide commonly known as Borax. It’s possible that Stradivari boiled his wood in this chemical solution, leading to structural differences. The wood worm infestation subsided after Stradivari’s death, obviating the need to chemically treat wood….was this the secret?
If you think you can tell the difference between a Strad and a modern-day violin, click here. And if you have an acoustic mystery of your own, Metropolitan Acoustics may be able to help. We don’t do violins, but we do promise to solve your issue in less than 400 years! Class up your holidays by clicking here to listen to holiday music played on the Taft Stradivarius, worth over $6 million!