30 March 2010

Arts and Music: The Stradivarius Violin

By Lisa Marie Wilkinson

Wurlitzer organ. Steinway piano. Les Paul, Gibson, and Fender Stratocaster guitars.

Some musical instrument maker names represent the gold standard of musical instruments, and at the top of the list is the Stradivarius.

The term "Stradivarius" refers to stringed instruments--including guitars, violas, cellos, harps and violins--created by members of the Stradivari family, beginning with craftsman Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737). Stradivari set up shop in the small Italian city of Cremona in 1680 and soon gained a reputation for the quality of his handcrafted string instruments. The "Golden Age" of the Stradivari violin, during which the highest quality violins were produced, is generally conceded to be from 1698 to 1720.

Stradivari experimented with form, construction methods, and the types of wood employed in the creation of his instruments throughout his career. Spruce was used for the top, willow for the internal workings of the instrument and maple for the neck and back. It has long been speculated that he treated the wood with various minerals, and used a custom varnish consisting of honey, Arabic gum, and egg white as the finishing touch.

Nearly 400 years later, we can still only speculate about what it is that makes the sound of a Stradivarius so unique in quality. A number of disparate theories have been explored, including the rumor that the wood used to make the Stradivari instruments had been removed from old cathedrals, or that the dense wood came from trees whose growth had been stunted during what is referred to as "The Little Ice Age" that affected Europe from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

Whether the sound quality results from the shape of the instrument, the minerals used to prepare the wood, irregularities in the wood itself, the special recipes used for the glue and varnishes, or some undefined "something" contributed by the art of the instrument maker has provided fodder for lively debate for centuries.

The one thing the world has been able to agree upon is that an instrument bearing the Latin inscription "Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Faciebat Anno (date)" is special, and the belief that there are fewer than 700 surviving genuine Stradivari instruments in existence today has created a high demand for them, resulting in steep prices at auction. Depending upon the condition of the instrument and the year it was made, a Stradivarius sold at auction can fetch anywhere from several hundred thousand to several million dollars. Famous musicians who have owned and played a famed Stradivari violin include Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, who owns a model referred to as The Soil of Strad of 1714, which is considered one of the finest of all the Stradivari violins.

In 2009, the famed Stradivarius lost in a competition against a modern engineered violin in a five-violin blind play-off held during a German forest husbandry conference. The Stradivarius, whose name has come to represent the modern standard of excellence, came in second.