Stradivari violins; not what they appear.

July 30, 2014 at 05:53 AM · Hello there. This is like my second post so go easy!

I was thinking today, about Stradivari violins and such, and the period that they were made in, which happens to be the BAROQUE period. (~1590-1725).

Stradivari happened to live right within that period, and made violins within that period obviously. So naturally wouldn't ALL of his instruments have been BAROQUE-STYLE instruments?(Violins, violas, cellos, etc...) So if that were the case, wouldn't most surviving instruments simply be more or less frankensteins with a lot of the original instrument replaced? Baroque violins and violas had shallow neck angles, short fingerboards, diminuative bass bars, skinny sound posts, and from what I've heard the ribs were shallower than contemporary instruments. Now I would assume that the table and back would be original, and they are one of the biggest contributors to the sound.

I believe that there is a misconception of Stradivari making these instruments as they appear today, and not as they originally appeared, with no acknowledgement to the advancements of other makers along the way. So really Stradivari instruments were almost transitional in form and construction.

TLDR:I believe Stradivari's today are mash-up instruments that are half old-half modern, with no acknowledgenent of the modern modifications done over the years.

Replies (24)

July 30, 2014 at 06:12 AM · Yes, even the "Messiah" Strad, which has never been used and is in mint condition, has a "modern" neck.

The reputation of these Italian makers seem to come from the fact that they sound really well with the modern setup. Jakob Steiner's violins were as estimed as Stradivari's at the time, but with the the modern higher tension, they tend to sound silvery but a little "pinched". Maybe their very pronounced arching doen't vibrate so freely. They sound best when returned to a "baroque" setup.

July 30, 2014 at 06:57 AM · Other than the fittings(fingerboard, pegs, tailpiece etc) only two things are required to make an original baroque Stradivari modern, a heavier, longer bass bar, and a way of extending and raising the neck(either a heel graft, like the Messiah, or a new longer neck and a neck scroll graft)The sides, top, back, and scroll are not altered, unless of course some French or Englishman chose to regraduate or thin the plates, and there's a lot of debate about how often this happened, suffice it to say there are a LOT of quite thin graduation strads and del gesus, and only a few quite a bit thicker ones. Seems like someone couldn't leave well enough alone, as today the unaltered thicker del gesus are considered the best.

July 30, 2014 at 08:08 AM · What happens when a baroque violin is modernised has nothing to do with altering the original conception of the workings of it. If the plates are left undisturbed, all the consequent modifications can be reversed to bring the instrument to its original specification. A bass-bar can be replaced, the neck can be elongated with a different angle employing a graft, but all these can be reversed so modernising a violin does not in effect alter its original conception, only the sound of it to bring to modern tastes.

July 30, 2014 at 09:05 AM · I would even venture the difference in sound between a baroque and modern set up has more to do with the changes in strings, than the altering of the violin physically.

July 30, 2014 at 09:46 AM · And using a bow of the Baroque Period, as Stradivari's clients would have done.

In 1998 Yo-Yo Ma recorded some Baroque pieces ("Simply Baroque", Sony Classical SK60680) for cello and orchestra with Ton Koopman and The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. Ma was playing the 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius prepared for Baroque performance practice by Etienne Vatelot & Jean-Jaques Rampal (Paris), and John & Arthur Beare (London).

Arthur Beare said about the alterations, "We didn't go the whole hog in transforming the instrument. The Baroque fingerboard would have been wider, the four strings spread wider apart. We didn't change the fingerboard, but with a Baroque bridge slightly spreading the strings, a tailpiece [instead of an end-pin], a Baroque bow, and gut string, it is a close approximation".

Note that these changes were external and easily reversible.

Ma remarked that working with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra was a little like performing with the country fiddler Mark O'Connor. "The fiddling tradition that Mark O'Connor plays is centuries old and has been passed on orally. It offers a living way to see how people played the fiddle several hundred years ago, for which we don't have sonic evidence. In Mark's playing I can see some Baroque elements: bow holds, concepts of sounds, and intonation."

I have quoted the above information from the sleeve notes to the CD.

July 30, 2014 at 01:52 PM · I would love to hear O'Connor do a CD of the Handel Sonatas, I bet he plays them beautifully.

July 31, 2014 at 02:53 AM · A few years ago my St. Louis Civic Orchestra played O'Connor's "Concerto For fiddle and Orchestra." Paul Huppert, or very fine concertmaster playing the solo.

It was basically a Country Music Concerto. For Paul it was 42 minutes of fast mayhem with a short, slow movement to "rest." Then it got even faster.

We were all drenched in sweat, especially our CM who didn't get a few measures off now and then as we did. It's quite a good concerto. A good calorie burning workout too.

July 31, 2014 at 12:18 PM · The idea that Jakob Stainer's work was as esteemed as that of Stradivari is flawed. Stainer was the most celebrated maker of his time, and every string player of the time could only have dreamt of owning one of his instruments. It is more correct to say that Stradivari's work was held in similar high regard as Stainer's. Stradivari was, however, the father of the modern violin, with its lesser arching, and the shape from his 'golden period' which has influenced almost all modern building. It was Stradivari who worked out that higher arching can only mean a smaller sound (contrary to the belief at the time that the larger the space within the sound box, the bigger the sound). A flatter table will vibrate more freely, and this will enable the sound to travel further. Among the discerning, there were of course customers who could differentiate between the qualities of an instrument made by Stradivari, and ones by other makers of the time, but unfortunately, there are so many accounts of musicians who apparently found the tone of his instruments "too strident" etc. This is as ridiculous as not believing that a Ferrari may if wished, be driven as slowly as any other car! Additionally, a modern, thicker bass bar is necessary to add strength to the upper table because modern strings exert far more pressure in order to allow the current string pitches to be reached. The form of the sound post has also been strengthened since Stradivari's time. Modern requirements of string instruments came about because of the expansion of the orchestra, namely to include more brass and woodwind instruments, which themselves have undergone various evolutions. It is obvious to me that Stradivari was so ahead of his game, that had orchestras already become modern in his time, he would have strengthened the bass bar and sound post himself, and raised the fingerboard. This clearly wasn't necessary at the time, and composers of the likes of Wagner were still in the distant future. It has to be emphasized that the varnish of the period, along with the new, flatter form was, and is the key to the highly sought-after tone that is typical of the great Italian masters. Modern spirit varnishes cannot possibly allow the wood of the most exceptional new instruments to vibrate with the freedom necessary for the tone of the instrument to emulate that of the great Masters. There are a few makers today who use oil varnish, and particularly in the case of Christoph Gotting's instruments, the difference is immediately apparent. But because such varnish takes much longer to dry, this adds to the time it takes to make a new instrument, and is generally reflected in the price. Ultimately, fewer customer are prepared to pay more, because most of them do not realize the importance of the varnish, or appreciate the difference in price. Only time will tell whether or not one day a varnish will be developed which has superior values compared to any that have gone before. It is correct to say that all of Stradivari's instruments would have originally been equipped with a shorter fingerboard and a thinner bass bar and soundpost, and that the necks would have been angled differently, but unless his instruments were all designed to be looked at in a museum, it is inevitable that they would undergo modifications sooner or later. I doubt whether this would significantly change their current value at auction, but one could argue that if none of these instruments had ever been altered, would his name (and others) mean as much as they do now? His fame, I am sure has as much to do with the fact that his instruments are the tools of the trade for today's soloists, and this would not be the case had they remained in their original Baroque state. Stradivari may have set the standards, but it is up to the current makers to understand his achievements fully, and replicate his work, perhaps also to provide their own innovations, and produce modern instruments which are in every way, as magnificent as Stradivari's. This is entirely possible to achieve, but not while music snobs abound. Ageing of the wood of course has its role to play, but when Stradivari made and sold his instruments, they too were brand new, 'un-matured', and yet were allowed to be used in ensembles of the day, without prejudice.

July 31, 2014 at 04:35 PM · From Franck Leprince

Posted on July 31, 2014 at 12:18 PM "Modern spirit varnishes cannot possibly allow the wood of the most exceptional new instruments to vibrate with the freedom necessary for the tone of the instrument to emulate that of the great Masters. There are a few makers today who use oil varnish, and particularly in the case of Christoph Gotting's instruments, the difference is immediately apparent. But because such varnish takes much longer to dry, this adds to the time it takes to make a new instrument, and is generally reflected in the price".


Maybe you were thinking cheap import fiddles treated with a thick coat of spirit varnish.

Most makers I know do not just use spirit varnish

some don't use it at all. There is such a thing as mixtures and multiple layers. Then there is the ground.

Serious makers experiment with all of these and I doubt cost would be the major factor.

It is my understanding that Stradivarius used spirit varnish as well to some degree.

Extra cost: I'm not sure but would find it hard to believe that a maker who goes to great length to make a superb violin and establish his/her name would in the end put on a cheaper varnish to bring the cost down. Maybe in some workshop instruments.

July 31, 2014 at 08:43 PM · Correction, modern chemical analysis has found that Stradivari's varnish was Linseed oil and resin, no spirit and no shellac or seedlack, the First Cremonese to use spirit seedlac varnish was GB Guadagnini and that was around 1760 or 70 his earlier instrument use oil varnish and are valued tonally over the spirit ones.

Correction, although it may seem likely Baroque violins were at significantly lower tension, a lot of modern baroque specialists disagree, and believe, using heavier gut strings, that many baroque violins were under just as much if not more tension than modern violins, still doesn't explain why the bass bars would be lighter, which makes me think the tension was probably 10 or 20% lighter but not a whole lot lighter.

July 31, 2014 at 08:51 PM · Thanks Lyndon. I had read that somewhere but don't remember where and it was a while ago.

Would be nice if luthiers could comment on oil versus spirit based varnishes. My violins and viola all have an oil based varnish except maybe one may have oil on spirit.

July 31, 2014 at 10:02 PM · Nick,

if you have a spare Stradivarius collecting dust, let me know. I do not mind those alterations at all.


July 31, 2014 at 10:34 PM · Franck, you have made a couple of good points, but there are also significant problems with most of the content of your post. The post is long enough, that I don't know if I'll be willing to tackle everything specifically.

Lyndon's post has appropriately challenged some of your assertions.

July 31, 2014 at 10:45 PM · "My violins and viola all have an oil based varnish except maybe one may have oil on spirit."

How did you come to that conclusion?

August 1, 2014 at 02:25 AM · Luthier of my main violin Guy Harrison told me it is oil based. I've never asked Guy if he started with a thin spirit base : I just presumed that it was all oil based but I can ask him.

The other violin is Romanian and supposedly oil based.

Viola I've been told has more than 20 applications of varnish; this was told to me by the seller, not the maker. I can ask him, it's Michael Koeberling.

I sure can't tell what's oil or what's spirit base

just by looking at it but tend to think that if it is softer it is more likely an oil based varnish.

David do you have some references re oil versus spirit varnish? I read a bit on Maestronet and the main thing I got from it is that you can't necessarily tell from the outside and that both have their place in luthiery if you know how to use them well.

August 1, 2014 at 02:53 AM · Also should mention: I do have a Chinese viola that could have oil based or spirit based varnish; I don't know ( sorry I fibbed, I said "all".)

August 1, 2014 at 09:47 AM · Re:- "TLDR:I believe Stradivari's today are mash-up instruments that are half old-half modern, with no acknowledgenent of the modern modifications done over the years."

An ancient joke :- "my broom is 30 years old - it's had three replacement heads and four new handles".

A violin sold as a Stradivari nowadays would have undergone at least some of the modifications prior posters have listed. If a buyer asks, the seller might be frank about the structural history, but I suspect that in many cases the desire to offload cash in a great splurge of retail therapy or money-laundering might outweigh simple prudence.

What our OP seems to want to know is at what point does a restored wreck cease to be a "genuine" Stradivari.

It's not just old Italian fiddles that get modified. "Retoning" by re-thicknessing the plates seems to be taking place on an industrial scale, not always with beneficial results.

No maker has ever been 100% responsible for the sonic output of his/her product - indeed in one thread the player is stated to be 99.99% accountable !

Between maker and player come the experts who invariably "know better" than the original maker and do love to "fiddle" around.

Many a slip twixt cup and lip .....

August 3, 2014 at 02:15 AM · Panteed Johe (1640-1680) was known for never playing anything else! "He also said "A strad a strat will never be, no matter what the guzzling symphonick pick-up need a fuel be".

August 3, 2014 at 07:36 AM · @Nancy, what, there were fender-benders way back in 1640-1680 ??

August 3, 2014 at 07:46 PM · @ John Cadd: According to the Royal Academy of Music's site, re: the 1696 "Archinto" viola :- "Looking from the sides, the ribs seem relatively low and give a shallow appearance to the viola. The ribs measure substantially less than other extant Stradivari violas, and have probably been reduced at some point in the instrument's history."

If RIBS aren't sacred on violas, who can be absolutely sure that the fiddles weren't tampered with in the same way ??

August 3, 2014 at 10:26 PM · @David Beck

Strad's violin molds have marks corresponding to the rib heights at the five lower blocks and the neck block (two scribe marks). Those are close to the same for all molds, as far as I know. It is pretty easy to tell whether ribs have been lowered. That said, many have been lowered slightly to clean up gluing surfaces after top removal. I haven't done that personally, but I read about it now and then. I'm not sure there is a viola mold still in existence.

August 3, 2014 at 11:04 PM · And some antique instruments have had the ribs lowered, and then built back up again. Some instruments have been reduced in length (to make them more playable), and then restored to original (?) length again. Thicknesses have been reduced, and sometimes built back up again. There's not much which is conceivable, which hasn't been done.

August 4, 2014 at 06:58 AM · "There's not much which is conceivable, which hasn't been done. "

So, encountering fiddles by THE WORLDS GREATEST MAKER later repairmen ignored that old adage "If it ain't broke don't fix it" and had their wicked way regardless. Hmm.

August 4, 2014 at 09:02 AM · At one time, these instruments were considered more to be tools for musicians, than irreplaceable art objects which should be kept as original as possible.

Even today, there are still some compromises and judgement calls involved. For instance, an instrument in a museum might be left with areas of bare wood. An instrument used regularly by a player might have a little varnish added to the bare areas, to protect these areas from further deterioration due to wear and exposure to perspiration. Having these instruments in continuing use isn't the ideal thing, from a conservationist perspective, so one tries to come up with a "least overall harm" strategy.

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