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For Centuries, Experts Have Struggled--Unsuccessfully--To Duplicate the Perfection of Antonio Stradivari's Violins

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There is mystery about Stradivari's parents, birthplace, upbringing and physical appearance. There is mystery about when he was born and where his bones are buried. There is mystery about his materials and methods; about how he achieved the special qualities for which his instruments are celebrated. There is mystery about how many of them he made--and more important, how many survive. There is the mystery of where most of his creations spent their first eight or 10 decades, of the identities of the original owners who cherished Stradivari's handiwork for a century or more after his death.
The central mystery, of course, is that of genius--of how a semiliterate boy in Cremona, a tiny northern Italian city renowned for its musical craftsmanship, could have emerged as the greatest violin maker of all time. He was an artist of such skill, sensitivity and insight that his name has become a byword for the best, a superlative applied to designate excellence. To be dubbed "the Stradivari" of any field is to be deemed the finest there is.
"There's a very good analogy between, say, a Strad violin and a fine Cuban cigar, as opposed to an ordinary violin and an ordinary cigar," observes Earl Carlyss, head of chamber music at The Johns Hopkins University Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore for the past nine years, and for 20 years before that a member of New York's Juilliard String Quartet and a frequent player of Stradivari violins.
"You can make all kinds of analogies," says Carlyss. "Why would a person spend $150,000 for a Ferrari when he could get from A to B with a Pinto? It's the way you get there."
One could buy a number of Ferraris for what a Stradivari commands. Prices start at between $200,000 to $800,000 and have soared in recent years to as much as $3.5 million an instrument, depending upon its age, condition and history. And the history of some Strads is the stuff of romance; of fabled performers who played them; of disappearances, thefts and miraculous escapes from war, fire and flood; of sounds that have inspired poets and novelists, from George Eliot and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the last century to the late Pulitzer Prize winner John Hersey and Prix de Rome winner Daniel Mark Epstein in ours.
Wealthy amateurs and collectors may own more Strads than professional performers. In 1981, an anonymous private collector in Singapore paid $1.2 million for the magnificent "Alard" Stradivari, named for its most famous owner, Jean-Delphin Alard, a distinguished French violinist of the nineteenth century. Since the approximate weight of a violin is just a pound, that collector spent about $75,000 an ounce for his prize. He probably could quadruple his money if he put the Alard up for sale today. Most concert performers cannot afford a Strad and must rely on the kindness of strangers--or more precisely, generous patrons of the arts or large corporations--for the privilege of playing them. Midori, the Japanese prodigy, has played a famous Strad known as The Jupiter, courtesy of the Fuji film and camera company, which paid $3.5 million for it a few years ago and loans it to her. If Fuji ever decided to sell "The Jupiter," it probably would fetch $4.5 to $5 million.
Apart from the phenomenal beauty and precision of Stradivari's instruments, what has assured their enduring superiority more than two and a half centuries since his death is a quality even more prized today than it was when he made them: their power. The finest of Stradivari's predecessors, and most of his contemporaries, produced smaller instruments with fairly high curved or arching backs that produced beautiful but thin tones, suitable for the church services or small chamber music ensembles that entertained the nobles who were their patrons.
With astounding prescience, Stradivari recognized that in time, greater demands for volume and sonority would be made upon the violin. Somehow he foresaw, if not precisely the symphonies and orchestras of the late eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, then at least the likelihood that music was moving in that direction. Through constant experimentation--varying by a fraction of an inch the arching of one instrument's back, another's length, the overall dimensions of yet another--he created what Dutch scholar Dirk J. Balfoort called "the violin of the future," capable of producing not only delicate, sweet sounds but powerful, crystalline tones, strong and clear enough to perform brilliantly with the orchestras of today.
Had it not been for Stradivari, Balfoort wrote a half century ago, "the violin would have become the victim of tradition, because it would in the long run have ceased to be able to adapt itself to the requirements of the times." Thanks to Stradivari, the violin has been able to remain "the Queen of musical instruments."
"Strad was the one who finished the form of the instrument," says Carlyss. "It has never changed since Strad's ended with him. You couldn't improve on what he did.
"A great Strad allows you to express yourself on every level," Carlyss adds. "It has a range of possible expressiveness within it that allows the person to be totally at ease with what he wants to say with the music. I mean, you're dealing with colors, you're dealing with sounds and you're dealing with emotions. And the music has all these emotions going on with it. A Strad has the ability to translate the emotions aurally to perfection--the performer's emotions. And there's something about the sound that grabs the listener. A Strad is a Strad."
In 1902, the brothers Hill--William Henry, Arthur Frederick, and Alfred Ebsworth, scions of a British family that had been in the stringed instrument business for nearly 300 years--produced what remains the benchmark for Stradivari scholarship, Antonio Stradivari: His Life & Work (1644-1737). Expert luthiers (stringed instrument makers), restorers and dealers themselves, the Hills were uniquely qualified to write such a book. Having spent more than a half century selling rare instruments when such a trade was even more confined than it is today, they personally were familiar with virtually every Stradivari instrument then known to exist: 540 violins, 12 violas, 50 cellos--and two guitars.
Since the Hills, other experts have attributed additional instruments to Stradivari, who employed the Latinized version of his name, Antonius Stradivarius, on his labels. (Scholars use either spelling interchangeably.) Thus the accounting of existing Strads has been inching upward toward 700 or so, a number about which collectors and dealers politely debate. Because the sales of many Strads are conducted privately between a few discreet dealers and well-heeled collectors, the exact number of his surviving instruments is almost impossible to determine.
The Hills meticulously estimated that Stradivari made 1,116 stringed instruments during an extraordinary career that spanned seven decades, from about 1665, when he was 21, to the year he died at the age of 92 or 93. He was, they wrote, "an expeditious worker," with tremendous "industry and devotion to his art." They calculated that he was able to complete at least two violins or one cello a month, or an average of 25 violins or 10 cellos a year--and sometimes many more. In 1715, when Stradivari was 71, the king of Poland ordered 12 violins from him and sent his director of court music to Cremona to await completion of the instruments. The king received all 12 in three months.
An aged violinist who died in 1853 told one scholar that his teacher had known Stradivari and described him as "tall and thin in appearance, and invariably seen in his working costume, which rarely changed, as he was always at work." It is the only remotely contemporary physical description of Stradivari that we have.
What, exactly, is it that makes "a Strad a Strad"?
Talk to any expert and take your pick:
Is it the varnish? Yes, definitely, say some; it contained secret lost ingredients and Stradivari took its recipe to his grave. No, say others; the formula for the oil-based varnish Stradivari used was common knowledge among violin makers when he lived and has been chemically analyzed to a fare-thee-well today.
The filler or sealer? (See above answers for varnish.)
Perhaps the wood makes the difference. Yes, absolutely, say some; Stradivari selected his maple and spruce from local or foreign forests long since cut down and he treated it in a special, secret way. No, say others; equally fine wood is available now, easily obtainable, and the old methods for treating it can be duplicated.
Or maybe it is the arching of the violin's back; the elegant, masterly shaving of the wood to fine gradations of thickness and thinness; the carving of the f-holes; the placement of the internal bass bar and sound post. All have been subjected to meticulous modern measurement and acoustical analyses. Exact copies can be--and have been--made.
What about the impossible-to-duplicate effects of aging on that marvelous wood, varnish and filler, not to mention two centuries of playing? Yes, say some; that is what gives Stradivari instruments their extraordinary, unique sound; a sound that causes listeners such as poet Daniel Mark Epstein to envision "little cherubs with halos" fluttering about a Strad while it is being played. No, not quite, say others. "There are old violins that don't sound good," says Carlyss.
So, what was Stradivari's secret?
"In my view, there is no secret," says Carlyss. As a member of the Juilliard String Quartet, the Library of Congress "resident" chamber music ensemble, from 1966 to 1986, he played all three Stradivari violins in the Library's collection. "It's like saying, What's the secret of Rembrandt? The Strads are works of art. They're the epitome of baroque art. The genius used in making these things is genius. And even if they copy it--and they can copy it--they still can't imitate it. It's just like imitating a Rembrandt. You can do it, but it's not the same."
That hasn't stopped people from trying--for more than 250 years. Every so often, someone proclaims the discovery of Stradivari's "secret."
In 1984, Professor Joseph Nagyvary at Texas A&M University, a specialist in biophysics and biochemistry, announced a recipe for recreating Stradivari's varnish: Boil one pound of shrimp shells in powerful lye for 24 hours, strain it through cheesecloth, then rinse the residue thoroughly with water and dissolve it in vinegar until it attains a syrup-like consistency. This, he contended, would duplicate Stradivari's varnish, which Nagyvary believes was made mostly of chitin, the polymer found in the bodies and wings of insects. (Shrimp shells also contain chitin.)
In 1986, Nagyvary claimed that a microscopic fungus growing in the wood used by Cremonese violin makers was responsible for their special sound. Long soaking of the logs from which the violins' wood came made it especially receptive to the particular qualities of Stradivari's varnish, he said. On the other hand, in 1988, William Fulton, a retired aerospace engineer and now secretary of the Violin Society of America, suggested that wood destined to be made into violins should be subjected to ammonia fumes for several weeks to duplicate an eighteenth century smokehouse treatment.
In 1991, Mayne R. Coe, a retired organic chemist in Jupiter, Florida, received U.S. Patent 5018422 for what he believed was the secret to Stradivari varnish: tung oil. He claimed Italy started importing tung oil around the time Stradivari and other violin masters in Cremona began establishing their reputations. He cited other research that suggested the violin makers colored their varnish with a red dye called dragon's blood resin, extracted from the rattan fruit from India....
You get the idea.
Whatever it is that makes a Strad a Strad and merits the enormous prices they fetch can be applied in almost every respect, including current market value, to the violins of Stradivari's contemporary--and, amazingly, next-door neighbor--Guiseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698-1744).
More than 50 years younger than Stradivari, yet neither as productive nor as meticulous, Guiseppe Guarneri (the "del Gesù" stems from a symbol for Jesus he put on his labels) nonetheless created incredible instruments as prized today for their power and expressiveness as Stradivari's finest works.
Guarneri was a member of a violin-making clan whose house was one door down from Stradivari's on Cremona's Piazza San Domenico. Between Stradivari and Guarneri lived Carlo Bergonzi, Stradivari's best pupil, whose violins also command high prices today. It was as if Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael all lived on the same block.
Down the street and around the corner in one direction lived Niccolò Amati, Stradivari's teacher; around the corner in another direction lived Francesco Ruggieri, yet another notable luthier. Stradivari and Guarneri were the megastars in a galaxy of superlative seventeenth and eighteenth century violin makers, whose serendipitous residence in Cremona has given the name Cremonese to all the stringed instruments produced in that time and place.
Itzhak Perlman, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Yo-Yo Ma, Anne Sophie Mutter, Midori, and Joseph Fuchs, at 95 the oldest professional concert violinist in the world, play Strads (although Menuhin also owns a del Gesù); Jascha Heifetz preferred del Gesù, as do Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman (even though Stern, as did Heifetz, also owns a Strad). With only about 250 to 370 del Gesù violins known to exist (or about half the number of Strads), the best of them fetch as much as any Stradivari.
Not every Strad is a Strad, so to speak (or every Guarneri a Guarneri, since four other members of his family made violins). Not all of them fetch millions. Of the 700 or so Strads known to exist, only about 50 are concert-quality instruments. The others have various defects--cracks, new backs or bellies, botched repairs by clumsy craftsmen. Practically all have been modified to some extent over the centuries to accommodate a particular violinist or to increase their carrying power: perhaps a longer finger board, a bigger bass bar inside, or a reinforcement of the belly.
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