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The Weekend Vote Weekend Vote: What is your theory on what makes a Strad a Strad?

October 19, 2012 at 5:14 PM

The theories about what makes a Strad a Strad continue to pour in, as well as theories on how one could make a Strad-quality instrument today.

Smithsonian Strad

Some of the theories include the idea that the wood used by luthiers of that period was of a special density -- due to the Little Ice Age -- that just so happened to make for superior violins. Another theory that was especially widely accepted in the 20th century: Stradivari had a secret formula for his varnish, and that made all the difference. A few have surmised that perhaps the guy was just a great violin maker. Or, perhaps he made a good number of duds, which have fallen to the wayside as his best fiddles became valued. Another theory is simply that violins improve with age, and so that is a primary reason why Strads sound great: they are all some 300 years old.

And then based on these theories, there are other theories for how to reproduced this excellence today. For example, if you believe that wood density is the primary key to the sweet sound of a Strad, this might resonate for you: Swiss wood researcher Professor Francis W. M. R. Schwarze claims that treating a fiddle with two kinds of special fungi can make it sound, as an article in Science Daily said, "indistinguishably similar to a Stradivarius."

Really, though?

What is your theory? What makes a Strad a Strad? And I've intentionally left out "all of the above" so we can each pick what we fell is the primary reason. Feel free to discuss your thoughts and theories below.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on October 19, 2012 at 6:00 PM
How about all the above?:)
From Corwin Slack
Posted on October 19, 2012 at 8:12 PM
Heifetz could make an ordinary instrument sound like a great violin. A good violin is a joy to play but the skill of the violinist is paramount.
From Michael Pijoan
Posted on October 20, 2012 at 3:07 AM
I like option 1 the best. I always found it kind of irritating when someone tries to find out "the secret" that makes those violins so great as if it's as simple as a secret formula. A much more plausible answer in my opinion is that the guy was an extremely fine maker who did a heck of a good job.

Much respect for the magic of talented hands.

From Scott Cole
Posted on October 20, 2012 at 5:11 AM
The wood, the varnish, and the age all have to be dropped from consideration because they were available to all the makers of the period. What is left is the maker's specific engineering--arching, pattern, graduations, tuning of plates, etc.
From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on October 20, 2012 at 5:15 AM
My reasoning was similar to Scott's except I had to discount the other factors simply because of all the tests that indicate that the old masters' violins technically AREN'T better than the best modern violins.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 20, 2012 at 12:15 PM
I think the age actually makes the most sense because there are a handful of other makers of the same vintage who now are considered in the same league as the Stradaveri family (e.g. Guarneri, Amati). There could have been others but I don't think it's much of a stretch to postulate that those instruments have been lost, or that the other makers just weren't as skilled. Some modern instruments from today's best makers may be equivalent or better in blind listening tests, but the history gives the old instruments their mystique.
From Kevin Keating
Posted on October 20, 2012 at 3:28 PM
I think Stradivari just put a lot of attention into every detail. Failure to take care at just one point of the process could result in an inferior (though not necessarily ruined) instrument. Even great varnish is no good if it's not applied properly and that could be detrimental to the tone of an otherwise perfect instrument. Read the Hill brothers' book on Antonio Stradivari. Over a hundred years later and it still makes sense. I seriously don't believe science will ever find that single defining "secret." He was just damn awesome at making violins.
From Lawrence Price
Posted on October 20, 2012 at 3:39 PM
I have come to believe that the great Cremonese makers had a very precise system for the entire process that included tuning the plates and everything that went into the instrument. This system probably came from more ancient acoustical traditions and reached it full flower in the hands of the great violin makers of the era. It was not about specific dimensions but rather relational.
From Jonathan Ellenbrand
Posted on October 20, 2012 at 5:45 PM
You also have to consider politics, mass production and how history is written. There is no way of knowing that John Smithiolli down the street from Tonys shop couldn't have made an excellent violin of the same quality. But he may have only made a dozen compared to Tonys 1100. And there is no way a handful of a dozen violins could survive 300 plus years let alone be notorious. Perception is not always reality. Millions of people who dont know a damn thing about the violin know the name Stradavari, but they've never heard of Amati, Gesu, or "John Juzek" but the term Stradavarius is synonymous with quality violin. Its all ketchup, but Heinz has the prettiest most famous bottle.

BTW not taking anything from the strad, god knows i would love to play one let alone own one. But plenty of blind listening tests have made the case that other violins and modern violins can sound just as exquisite.

From Nairobi Young
Posted on October 20, 2012 at 10:15 PM
I chose the one about firewood, but I really believe that Stradivarius was just a really good luither.
From Paul Deck
Posted on October 20, 2012 at 11:01 PM
If I had 3+ million dollars to spend on violins, I would not buy a Stradivarius violin. I would buy 100 violins at an average price of $30,000 from good modern luthiers (or 60 @ $50,000, whatever), loan them out to aspiring violinists so that they can get played, and pass them down through the family. I predict that in 200 years their combined value (including those that really did become firewood, etc.) will exceed those of the single Strad by a factor of ten.
From Julie Wilson
Posted on October 21, 2012 at 4:12 PM
My uncle told me a story about my grandpa, who is a really accomplished woodworker. He showed up one morning to find grandpa burning a beautiful cabinet. My uncle panicked and said "Dad, what are you doing???" My grandpa said "I'm burning the evidence." He then told my uncle the secret to being a good woodworker is to destroy your mistakes before anyone else has a chance to see!

So I think Antonio Stradivari was just a very excellent luthier who did a great job picking the best woods, had superior woodworking skills, and I don't doubt, was good at 'burning the evidence.' :)

From David Burgess
Posted on October 21, 2012 at 4:36 PM
I think Stradivari was too practical to burn the violins he didn't like. He still sold them, but first, he inserted the label of a competing maker (perhaps one he'd had a falling out with). LOL

Here's another theory:
These fiddles are typically fixed, altered and adjusted by some of the best technicians in the world, and have been for about 150 years now. How much of a role might that play?

From Shawn Krysiak
Posted on October 21, 2012 at 6:31 PM
I am an amateur woodworker and have always thought that the seasoning process would have affected the sound. I have read various documents that suggest that every woodworker had their own secret seasoning process, which sometimes included submerging the wood in water for up to two years. Usually this would result in a lower resin content and much stronger wood fibers.
From Scott Cole
Posted on October 21, 2012 at 7:43 PM
"Perception is not always reality. Millions of people who dont know a damn thing about the violin know the name Stradavari, but they've never heard of Amati, Gesu, or "John Juzek" but the term Stradavarius is synonymous with quality violin. Its all ketchup, but Heinz has the prettiest most famous bottle."

In honor of global warming deniers and evolution deniers, I've decided to create a third, and even sillier category of deniers:

The "Strad-denier."

From Benedict Gomez
Posted on October 21, 2012 at 9:20 PM
I wish there was a category in the poll for "confirmation bias" or "human perception", as I would have picked one of those. So yes, I'm perfectly happy to be denoted as a "Strad-denier"
From Kathryn Woodby
Posted on October 21, 2012 at 9:16 PM
I voted that he was a great maker--in reality i would bet it is a combo of factors, but that being the generator. Because he was a great maker, his violins have been around the longest, set up and played by some of the best, and have grown an acoustic and artistic history of their own. I doubt there is a "secret", though i think his fame is probably well-deserved. Maybe in another 200 years some of our current makers will have a similar legend--although it's possible that part of the stradivari mystique was that he and the cremonese handful were unique among makers of that time, allowing their instruments to rise, while the number of excellent makers today makes another "legend" less likely?

Curiosity though. Never having played a strad :)--what really is it that is so great about them? What, now, makes them so desirable. Besides the history I mean-and really this is not an old vs new question, just a qualitative question-what is it about a strad's tone, character, whatever, that really makes them such great and desirable instruments from a player's standpoint? Is there a common quality (or qualities) that does distinguish them from mediocre or even other great instruments--of that time or of today?

From David Burgess
Posted on October 21, 2012 at 10:29 PM
I've heard and played a bunch of them. A top-notch Strad or Guarneri is something to behold.

These are few, maybe counted on the digits of your extremities if you take your shoes off. LOL

From Mary Carlson
Posted on October 22, 2012 at 12:28 AM
I think he was great. I also love a great Del Gesu. Age could have a big part also.
From Paul Deck
Posted on October 22, 2012 at 1:48 AM
David, a Strad may be a wonderful thing, and I do respect your opinion on such matters. I don't think I've ever heard one except on recordings.

But as you say, Strads have long histories. What about your violins? Won't they too improve over the next 200 years if they are well cared for by the most serious luthiers? Whereas eventually doesn't an ancient violin either level off in terms of its maturation or even become too fragile to play?

From Nicholas Tavani
Posted on October 22, 2012 at 4:03 AM
I recently got to play a couple concerts on the companion of the instrument pictured above - the 1687 Ole Bull Strad! By far, the best instrument I've ever played.
From Bill Palmer
Posted on October 22, 2012 at 6:45 AM
It's worth remembering that Stradivari's violins were seen as top-notch violins in his day, not just 300 years later. The various nobility didn't commission sets of instruments from just anyone, and the instruments Stradivari made were never inexpensive. And in my experience, the "300 years of playing" theory doesn't really hold water, either, as I've played some instruments of that vintage which clearly have NOT been in active use for much of that time, but are nonetheless tonally fabulous.
From Raphael Klayman
Posted on October 22, 2012 at 12:56 PM
All of the above - except the burning part! I'm in the middle of my 5th or 6th book about Stradivari, and I still don't know the answer - and I'm not sure that anybody else does, either. The noted authority, Saconni, wrote a book called The "Secrets" of Stradivari. Note his quotation marks. He didn't really believe that there were secrets as such. And as another modern Italian maker said, "the secret was that he could do it."

BUT - I've tried about half a dozen Strads, 2 del Gesus, some Amatis, Guadagninis, etc. And while some classic instruments are amazing, many - including some in very good condition - are not. Nobody, including Strad, could bat 1,000%. And it's a personal symbiosis between violin and player. Maybe the most beautiful violin for my tastes that I've ever played was a particular Amati. (V. my blog re auctions.) But many top contemporary violins - including a few in my own collection - come very close to equalling the top classics.

When all is said and done, there will always be a touch of mystery to our beloved instrument!

From marjory lange
Posted on October 22, 2012 at 1:28 PM
From a different perspective...since "all" (for practical purposes--all) more recent violins are copies of Strad, or one of a other few greats, many of whom were copying Strad, how can the originals NOT be the best? simply by definition, and by the parameters established by the music world we have made them the best.

I'm not saying they aren't (not qualified to pronounce either way) but we've pretty much created a 300+ year old atmosphere of Strad-ism. Many of the good books on string history even write about preads as if they hadn't gotten the details figured out -- yet: that needed Strad.

From steven su
Posted on October 22, 2012 at 1:42 PM
I think the quality of the instrument is super important because the sound will improve overtime as long as it's well made. However, the sound itself comes from the player. Like Heifetz said at one concert when someone said "your violin sounded great" and he answered, "that's funny. I don't hear anything" Note that I ain't saying he wasn't good just I think people focus too much on the name. I do crave for a Guarnierius though :p
From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on October 22, 2012 at 3:37 PM
I voted "firewood" but, like many others, think it's a combination. He was obviously damn good at what he did, from what I know he only made high-end, expensive instruments, and as several others have commented, the best have been meticulously cared for. Anyone who has played a lot of Strads- unfortunately, that doesn't include me- will tell you there are a few real dogs out there, but I think it's a fair guess that the worst, or the ones that just didn't age well, ended up keeping poor families warm for a few minutes.
From Brent Hudson
Posted on October 22, 2012 at 6:56 PM
It has been observed by Sacconi and others that the Strads that lose their varnish continue to sound great, but that if they lose their undercoat or "ground" that was applied before the varnish, they lose their special sound and become more or less ordinary. Recent studies using electron microscopy confirm that this ground was nothing more than a coat of drying oil, probably linseed or walnut, that penetrated the wood and cured. Then a few coats of conifer resin oil varnish, sometimes carrying some non-soluble minerals (mica flakes? diamond dust?), were applied -- that's all. Applying this procedure to new instruments has not produced a modern Soil, Lipinsky, or Red Mendelssohn . . . This implies to me that there must have been a special synergy between Stradivari's woodcraft and his finishing that may never be pinned down because it's just too ineffably subtle.

Occasionally you hear an instrument from an obscure maker that is definitely in Stradivari's league -- I'm thinking of Sylvia Marcovici's Paolo Albani (1633 - 1680), for instance. He evidently shared a teacher with Stradivari (Nicolo Amati), but unlike Stradivari, lived only to age 47 and left only a few surviving instruments. If Strad had died that young and Albani had worked ceaselessly into his nineties, we'd have a different name for the great violins. Probably it was Amati's relentlessly high general standard of craftsmanship, handed down to his apprentices, that accounts for their achievement . . .

From Alice Smith
Posted on October 22, 2012 at 8:27 PM
Of course Antonio Stradivari was the greatest luthier, but any instrument won’t sound good until some really talented performer will take it in his hands. And this process has an inverse effect, when real professional can make almost every instrument sound good. Some time ago at onyxclassics site I’ve found a new record of Beethoven’s works performed by Maxim Rysanov, Kristina Blaumane and Jacob Katsnelson and the music is so amazing that I’m sure both: the performers and instruments they play are great!
From Raphael Klayman
Posted on October 22, 2012 at 8:35 PM
Marjory - "how can the originals NOT be the best?" - that's an interesting thought. However, the only thing originals can't not be are originals. IOW, the best copyist of a violin or a painting can't make their copy look more like the original than the original does. But otherwise, what does "best" mean? Different things to different people. As I said above, I've actually tried many original classic instruments. All the Strads I've tried sounded different from one another. The 2 del Gesus I've tried could not be more different. I've heard people who have tried many more classics than I say the same thing. When people talk of the Strad sound vs the Guarneri sound, it is a generalization, a family resemblance. And again, as I mentioned, the symbiosis or chemistry bet. instrument and player is so important.

There was one early Strad I tried that belonged to a famous violinist. I tried it at the home of a mutual friend - and I wasn't very impressed. It was brilliant and cutting - that was good, and very important to a soloist - but not much else. It had a silvery timbre as opposed to a more golden one that I would prefer, and a thin bottom register. That player, who was never crazy about it, eventually sold it and not too long ago I saw and tried it again at an auction showing. I had the same reaction. But it was bought by another famous violinist who loves it. Who is right? Everyone! So what is "best"? There IS no one best sound or response for everyone, and again, there is no one block of sound that is Stradivari. And it IS possible for a talented maker to closely copy a violin by Strad or anyone else with different pieces of wood and get what is for many people, better results - or worse.

From Ulf Kloo
Posted on October 22, 2012 at 7:00 PM
I agree with David Burgess - Stradivari was very successful during his lifetime. He got commissions from royal courts to build instruments, so right from the start his instruments were well cared for , adjusted and improved by the very best luthiers. Guarneri del Gesù, for his part, was saved from oblivion by Paganini. After he made del Gesù violins famous, the Mantegazzas and others started to convert the del Gesùs they could get their hands on into soloist quality instruments, often by removing as much as maybe 30% of the top and back wood (on the inside of course).
I think the question about "strad sound" is tricky, because most violinists haven't had a chance to try a strad, and wouldn't recognize the "under the ear" sound.
I personally feel that there is an aspect of the sound of top notch old, Italian and non-Italian, violins that is difficult, but not impossible to recreate, and that is a cardboard-like lightness of the response of the instrument, that I think causes the hissing, high treble harmonics that you hear under the ear when you play pianissimo on these instruments. I also think this makes for a tremendous vibrato definition and a very malleable sound. Ageing might help to obtain this quality, but it's not indispensable, as you can have it in a violin fresh from the workbench. I can guarantee, though, that it's almost impossible for a contemporary maker to sell a new violin with a sound like this, because it's a sound that is too revealing for most players, and it's a sound that you don't immediately understand as a good concert hall sound. It's easier to sell a violin with a simpler, sinewave-like sound, that is more mellow and strong under the ear - but those instruments will never help you to touch any souls in a large concert hall. It's unfortunate for audiences that most violinists choose quite boring instruments. I think everyone should play soloist quality instruments.
From marjory lange
Posted on October 23, 2012 at 12:02 AM
Raphael, an original has to be the best of what it is, but there is no reason someone couldn't potentially improve on the design of the 'violin'--not on the 'strad' violin, but the instrument itself, in the way Strad improved on earlier models of the instrument called 'violin.' That's what I meant.
From Raphael Klayman
Posted on October 23, 2012 at 1:19 PM
We may be nit-picking. But what is "best"? Best for you? Best for me? Best for what Strad might have hoped for a particular instrument? Also. btw, Strad was constantly experimenting with his models. And as I said, it's possible for a maker to make an exact copy - no change in design - that will sound better, or worse, than the original. So "best" for what and whom? Strad was a practical maker, who wanted his instruments to sound well, and not all of them did - because even a genius is human, and there are so many variables to work with - materials, model, dimensions, arching, graduation, plate-tuning, etc. I'm sure that Strad himself would have said that this one or that did not achieve the best results he'd hoped for.

So it seems to me that an original is what it is, but not necessarily the best acheivement that the person producing it wanted. More mudanely, I'm about to finsh this post, and then will review it, check for typos, and may revise a phrasing here and there. Will my original effort necessarily be the "best"?

From David Burgess
Posted on October 23, 2012 at 10:44 PM
"The cult of Stradivari".

It really took off when some influential French fiddle dealers thought it would a good idea to integrate violins into the flourishing "collectibles" market. That worked out well enough that even Paganini got involved in dealing around that time.

From Raphael Klayman
Posted on October 24, 2012 at 12:26 PM
And wasn't Tarisio, who rediscovered a lot of Italian classics, a major supplier to Vulliaume and other French dealers? But I also heard that a little earlier, Viotti, one of the greatest virtuosos of his time, helped to first really put Strad on the map when it became known that his favorite violin was a Strad. For some time before that, Stainers were actually held in greater esteem by most players. Similarly, Paganini put del Gesu on the map, though his collection included Strads and Amatis.

I read this all in various reference books - or was it on a box of Cocoa Puffs? ;-)

From Paul Deck
Posted on October 24, 2012 at 2:23 PM
Ulf I really appreciated your insight ("cardboard-like lightness" etc.). Certainly it will be difficult to recognize a great performance instrument only from the sound under the ear. When I chose my violin I had my teacher play a few passages in the largest "hall" convenient to us, which was a local church with reasonable acoustics. Some violins were quite different under the ear as you suggested, and indeed they tended to be older violins although the sample size was pretty small (about 6 violins). Still I chose a modern instrument, which was the one that sounded the best *both* under the ear and in the hall.

One thing to remember about amateurs is that many of us play mostly for ourselves, because we're students (practicing). I'm my own audience most of the time. So yes, I want something that sounds good under the ear.

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