New Study reveals Cremona masters' chemical treatments of spruce tops
EDIT: The original paper is online here:
Andy thanks for that link. I'd like to point out that in my field (which is chemistry) the journal
Some of the postulates in the paper may be a bit sketchy, like the claim that old Italian instruments have superior sound. This has failed to be validated by blind tests. The blind and double-blind tests have trended toward more opposite findings.
9 out of 10 top soloists disagree with you, David
Ask the soloist who have participated in the blind testing, not those who are encumbered with maintaining the investment value of the old Italian instrument they own or borrow.
We're still waiting for Joshua Bell to give up his Strad and play a Burgess, then we'll talk.
This paper is one of chemistry results, not one on sound quality, but it does have the following claims:
While the average concert-goer probably couldn't conclusively distinguish the sound of a Stradivarius from that of any number alternatives, everyone can interpret "..plays the [Gibson] Stradivarius" as a mark of distinction.
I remember hearing that Stradivari used volcanic ash and that the logs used were floated in salt water.
Oh jeez, here we go again with another "modern vs old Italians" argument.
Yeah, here we ago again. The same tests that show listener preference towards modern instruments also show a strong bias towards the modern instruments in playing as well. The soloists didn't say, "Oh, I like the sound of this instrument best but it doesn't do what I want," or "This one sounds nice but this other is more responsive," or "This takes less work." No, in fact they said something like "This is the instrument I would use tomorrow if I needed a replacement."
I think it's worth noting that there are plenty of crappy old Italian instruments, too. But no one plays on them.
It takes a soloist one to two weeks to get accustomed to a new instrument. It can take month until he can unleash its full potential. That's why I'm always skeptical about those blind tests.
The "old violins vs. new violins" debate can rage on the side. Personally I think we live in a "golden age" of violin making. If I had $5 million I'd much rather buy 100 great modern violins than one Strad -- investment value be damned. However, I think that's not what this thread is about.
The use of alum can possibly be traced to alchemy, which was popular at that time and which ascribed certain characteristics to alum in the alchemical process. Not all alchemists were in search of direct transmutation of base metals to gold or the production of the philosopher's stone. I've studied this history extensively as it was the precursor of the chemical science that I studied.
Paul, adding sodium chloride doesn't seem like a good idea to me, since it becomes highly hygroscopic at relative humidity levels exceeding 70%. Huge changes in the sound, weight, and moisture content of the wood wouldn't seem desirable, when the humidity level goes a little above or below 70%.
Would salt gather on the inside of the top? That appears to be what they were digging around in to get samples.
Stephen, much has been learned about respiratory output, including that from speech, sneezing and coughing, during the covid pandemic.
Why can't we just accept that these old instruments are a product of careful craftsmanship and excellent marketing? I know a couple professors who've had the chance to play Strads and their prognosis is always the same: beautiful instruments with rich history, but not really better or worse than their personal violins. I feel like we're really scraping the bottom of the barrel, trying to find a reason for their elusive superiority at this point. First age, then dense wood, then varnish, now metallic salts...
It's not human nature to just accept things, Cotton. We must explore and push, even when the actual answer is right in front of us.
Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on.
The study on violin chemistry (the topic of this thread, remember?) only factually gives the chemicals found... not factually how they got there or why, and certainly nothing about what those trace elements do to the acoustic properties of the wood. The most logical speculation (to me) is that they were added to prevent mold and insect damage during the seasoning of the wood, and does nothing directly to the sound. Indirectly, perhaps it prevented excessive wood degradation over the following 300 years.
Don, I'm curious, do you have any definitions and numbers regarding the degradation of hemicellulose? Like EV batteries which on average have their storage capacity decline at an average of 2.3% per year (we finally have *that* number)?
"I feel like we're really scraping the bottom of the barrel, trying to find a reason for their elusive superiority at this point. First age, then dense wood, then varnish, now metallic salts..."
Dimitri, the only numbers I have seen come from the paper that is the topic of this thread... but I haven't researched it. In the paragraph right before "Conclusion", it states a half-life of 400 years for maple and 800+ years for spruce, and references are given.
Also remember that just because a maker had a crackpot theory, that didn't necessarily make his violins better or worse. If Stradivari made every other fiddle wearing purple socks, are you completely hosed for not following his example?
Incidentally, Churchill was specifically denigrating Stanley Baldwin, not making any observation about mankind. Churchill and the truth weren't exactly the best of friends either!
If it were discovered that Picasso mixed alum into his paints, you can bet people would be trying it.
My first thought was what Don said, proof of chemical treatment is no causal relationship to sound characteristics. Note that I didn't say better, as Don said, that is very subjective. The next experiment would naturally be to see if/how such treatment affects the tonal characteristics of the wood. Will it improve my instrument if I put moth balls in it? I'll make sure they're Made in Italy ;-)
I grew up hearing that pernambuco wood had been used for dock pilings before it ever found its way into instrument bows. So naturally I wonder how the wood for violins got from the mountains to Cremona.
I suspect that pernambuco would have been too valuable to use as dock pilings, anywhere outside of Brazil. It was mainly brought to Europe to be ground up so the prized red dye could be extracted and used to dye expensive clothing.
I wonder how they said 'hemicellulose' in 17th century cremona
I think Pernambuco also has seen use in Brazilian railroad ties. Suggests the possibility of some commando raids to acquire Peccatte-vintage lumber.
If Stradivari did indeed wear purple socks dyed with Tyrian Purple, as would befit a luthier of his eminence, then that would explain the high value of his instruments historically and today. Tyrian Purple is, and always has been, one of the most expensive natural dyes you can get.
Begs the question of why the shellfish dye was never used to make purple violins. You'd think they'd fetch a higher price if they were the colour of royalty.
"If Stradivari did indeed wear purple socks dyed with Tyrian Purple, as would befit a luthier of his eminence, then that would explain the high value of his instruments historically and today."
Trevor, you don't think that the purple socks can be explained by some pernambuco shavings falling into his socks, combined with a more brown color prior to the existence of toilet paper, when people used whatever was handy? ;-)
Incidentally, there seem to be plenty of other studies out there.
This was a hot topic on Maestronet recently. My take was that experienced materials researchers, as I once was, could appreciate the investigative chemistry that was performed, but be disappointed at the shoddy application of the scientific method used to make statements of fact not supported in the least by the research.
David, I think Tony was a snakewood man.