The debate about the characteristics of famous Stradivari violins continues. A Hungarian professor in Texas has claimed he can reproduce these famous violins because he scientifically figured out how they were made and how preservatives and insecticides of the 18th century created a matrix that transmits certain vibrations in interesting ways. And then there were those lovely Guarneri cellos...!
The professional descendants of "the king of violin-makers" have dismissed research that claims to have unmasked Antonio Stradivari's secret.
The Italian crafted over 1,000 violins, violas and violoncellos in the 1700s.
Experts have struggled to explain why the instruments sound so much better than anyone else's.
Researchers in the US said this week they believe a Stradivarius owes its distinct sound to a chemical treatment designed to kill woodworm and fungi.
I have actually observed some of these instruments up close back when I was studying music both in Europe and America. In between trying to orchestrate revolutions and upsrisings, I actually was in school to learn something, heh. Sort of.
The debate about these Baroque instruments interests me because it shows how even with all our modern technology, past geniuses used scientific methods to discover many amazing things and families who built instruments were filled with scientific geniuses, my own clan sprang from the loins of a German violin maker 300 years ago! And to this day, the number of Meinels who become scientists and technical wizards is very high.
The instrument makers, far from advertising their techniques, kept them very secret. This is why critical steps in the processing of the materials for the instruments were cloaked in utter secrecy, they were not shared with outsiders but were passed from father to son. Not even written down, if the transmission of information breaks, it is gone forever.
The choice of woods, examining the grain, learning to cut and disassemble the various parts of trees is a learned skill one picks up by playing with wood for a long time. I own a forest of mixed decidious trees of varying ages from 700 years old on down. I have milled and cut and planed many types of trees from black cherry to white oak. When seeking fine wood cuts, sometimes I and my friend, John, will spend an hour or more examining the growth rings, the curvature of the tree trunk (even straight trees are curved to some degree!) and where a tree has grown matters, too.
The great makers of instruments used woods grown in the mountains. Winds sweep the mountains and the top of my mountain, for example, has a stand of oak trees that roar in the winter winds and they make an awesome music, rising and falling up and down the scales, louder and then softer. In summer, they whisper and creak. This caressing of the trees with fairly violent winds creates a wood fiber that is elastic and very strong. It can accept vibrations from winds that could literally sweep one off one's feet.
One current violin-maker and restorer said it was absurd to try and reduce Stradivari's unique musical gift to a chemical reaction.
"What was the point of trying to dissect the beauty of a Strad?" asked another.
"To do so would be like trying to fathom the depths of Michelangelo's genius."
As I said before, instrument making families have produced many scientists in later generations. And even though the design and creation of fine instruments is an art, it is also a science and therefore, can be analyzed and quantified. Indeed, many scientists are also musicians. There is a connection between appreciating and creating music and thinking scientifically. This was recognized by ancient Greek mathematicians and scientists.
The division between creative arts and science is artificial. Indeed, all the great periods in the arts ran alongside scientific curiosity and the giants of the Renaissance were both artists and scientists like Leonardo DaVinci.
SA: What do you think is the secret of the Stradivarius instruments and others from those golden years of Italian violinmaking?
JN: I began developing my theory in the early 1960s, when I lived in Switzerland and made annual vacation trips to Italy. During those trips, I observed repeatedly that in cities like Milan, the wooden artifacts—furniture and also violins, violas and cellos—suffered considerable damage from woodworm. The wood, some of it, had holes in it like Swiss cheese. When I asked violin shops about similar damage to Stradivari violins, they told me that in Cremona there is practically no woodworm damage.
So in Cremona, people must have used a preservative, an insecticide. I looked in archival data from Venice for historical insecticide use. Pretty soon, I connected chemicals with acoustical effects—chief among them borax, which is very well known as an insecticide and is also well known among chemists as a powerful cross-linker of polymers. Nothing would make wood tighter and harder and the sound accordingly more brilliant.
When Nagyvary's research hit the news in the seventies, we were all very excited about it. Anyone who has used a Strad but couldn't afford to own one, was delighted with the possibility of similar instruments existing. One of the more foolish aspects of modern values is the idea that things are unique and totally confined by their own history. This is so people collecting whatever can see the value of these things rise simply by being unique in time and place.
I tend towards the view that all things are not unique but are part of a process and this can repeat itself with variations over time and so I am less worried about keeping things singular than striving to recreate. This is why I don't reproduce Victorian homes, I recreate them with many improvements, I simply try to understand the mentality behind them and the psychology within them, for example.
The last element of great interest I found was the use of very fine crystal powder to saturate the wood. Crystal powder is the ultimate weapon against woodworm because woodworm would not be able to chew on crystals. Many kinds were used, but quartz from the mountains was a major component, as was Venetian glass, colored glass.
On top of being able to get trees from the Alps, they sent them downriver into Italy and back in the Middle Ages all the way until today, the rivers are also industrial waste dumps so the water has all sorts of interesting chemicals in it. At the time the Strads were being made, tanners used the rivers to flush away wastes and we all know that tannin, made from oaks, is also a great preservative which is why tanners who were buried in the Middle Ages, their corpses were much better preserved than other people.
On top of this, the glass works of Venice were nearby and this industry produces lots of broken glass and it wouldn't be too surprising to learn varnish makers using this to give their work an inner glow and shine! For humans like brilliance. It is hardwired to our brains from way back when we used to hunt bright little bugs and insects when we were in the Permian jungles.
The cello’s outline indicates that it was constructed on a mould favoured by Filius for many of his later cellos. At 29 ¼ inches (74cm) the model is somewhat smaller than a B-form Stradivari but is substantially wider through the C-bouts and so, when compared with the statuesque, hourglass outline of a Stradivari cello, the Guarneri presents a more sturdy, homely figure.
Guarneris are very mellow and mesh beautifully within the architecture of a string quartet or a piano trio. I touched the wood of a Guarneri in Germany in 1968 when Rosen, a famous cellist, was playing in Tübingen. &hearts But in 1971, I got to play one in Tucson.
The Smetana String Quartet, named in honor of the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, had its roots in the Quartet of the Czech Conservatory, founded in 1943 by the cellist Antonin Kohout (b. 1919) in Prague. The other founding members were second violinist Lubomir Kostecky (b. 1922), with Vaclav Neumann (1920 - 1995) on viola and Jaroslav Rybensky on first violin. They gave their first performance as the Smetana Quartet on November 6, 1945, at the Municipal Library in Prague, which by that time had been liberated from the Nazis -- the program included Smetana's Quartet in E minor ("From My Life"), a work that they were destined to perform thousands of times during their subsequent history.
When one of my very favorite string quartets got permission to tour the USA, I was right up there, lucky to get the job of moving around their chairs, escorting them onstage, attending them backstage. And to my eternal joy, the founder of the quartet, Mr. Kohout, a man I admired from afar for years, offered me an opportunity to actually play his cello.
Hands shaking, I sat down and sighed and then played some Bach. It was as if I was a different person! I sounded SOOOO much better, it was not my imagination. The instrument, instead of being cranky and unruly, guided my hands and helped me along. I knew I didn't have the talent to be a great or even middling player but it certainly showed me the utility of good instrumentation: the better the instrument, the better the output.
Mr. Kohout took the unhappiness and sorrows of life and using this instrument, transmuted pain into joy. This was a combination of magic and technology which is where all the best things in life come from.
Response curves, important both for steady sound and transients, give a far-reaching insight into the objective characteristics of violins: good ones exhibit large amplitudes at low frequencies and small ones at high frequencies, a broad minimum near about 1500 cps, and larger amplitudes between about 2000 and 3000 cps. The musical subjective significance of these physical properties is mentioned briefly. In general, the sound pressure radiated from a violin follows the inverse-distance law, being independent of frequency. The influence of wood thickness is very important, that of the varnish is comparably small. Pine has a greater damping at high frequencies than at low frequencies. This seems to be a good acoustical reason for making important parts of stringed instruments of pine. Sapwood is better than heartwood. Similarly, some kinds of varnish produce more damping at high frequencies than at low frequencies. If a resonance curve is to be imitated in detail, it is necessary to change carefully the wood thickness of certain parts of the violin body. The applicability of present-day scientific knowledge to the construction of violins is here outlined. ©1957 Acoustical Society of America
I have a very good ear and within the Meinel stock is this ability to hear very high pitches as well as many Meinels have 'perfect pitch'. I can hear bats talking and swallows singing as they fly, the whirl of wings of tiny incects are quite loud in my years. Once when a flight of bats took off, people on the street looked quizzically at my son and I as we clutched our ears and yelled out loud with the pain.
Discerning fine alterations in vibrations comes naturally to us and it wouldn't surprise me at all if the Stradivarius family was the same. I can, for example, 'hear' a Meinel violin. Once, I met a Russian musician who heard I could do this so he played his violin and then said, 'This was made in 1805. Who made it?' and I said, 'It has to be a Meinel!'
Which it was. The fine arts aren't called this for frivolous reasons. People going deaf listening to loud, crude, bass-driven music literally cannot hear, much less appreciate, the fine distinctions of sounds coming from a fragile, small wooden instrument. Fragility and the fine arts go hand in hand, it would seem. DaVinci's paintings are extremely fragile. Chinese scroll art is very delicate!