What makes a Stradivarius violin so special? The Stradivari or Stradtranscend the barrier of the crafts, becoming works of art.
The price of a study violin ranges from 300 ~ 1,000 euros, which if we compare it with the most expensive Strad, they are so cheap: the Lady Blunt was sold for € 16M. Its name comes from Anne Blunt, Lord Byron’s granddaughter. It is the second best preserved in the world because it was played very rarely.
If you are wondering the reason for this extraordinary price, I will explain it to you in 7 keys, so that you have a vision as complete as possible.
These 300-year-old instruments are not going to last forever: it is estimated that the few hundred that still exist have 100 more years to live. Hence the curiosity (and urgency) to reveal their secret, and also their price.
Something you may not know is that Antonio Stradivari not only built violins, violas and cellos. He also built harps and guitars.
The sound of the Strads has an extraordinary brilliance. You’ll appreciate it right away. According to some experts, their music is projected in the room with a lot of power, without the musician noticing the rise in volume up close. As we will see later, the latest scientific tests have shown that it does show.
Do you want to know for yourself what a real Stradivarius violin sounds like? Scott Yoo tunes and plays a scale on a $ 15 million Stradivarius violin in this audio. Here is the full video.
Because there is nothing WRITTEN about their construction
Stradivari started with his teacher Amati. His first violins were like those of his teacher: solid, small and with yellowish varnish. Little by little, he innovated and made them bigger, with a different varnish (orange-brown) and with other woods.
He died at the age of 93 and 1,100 instruments behind him: 860 survive today and 450 are violins. Only two of his 11 children, the result of his two marriages, were also luthiers: Francesco and Omobono. However, they not only lacked his talent, but passed away shortly after him, as did Master Guarneri.
At that moment, the flame of their excellent technology went out. Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari, as well as the rest of the lesser-known craftsmen of their time, did not bother to write down their manufacturing methods. Most likely, they were not aware of the interest they would arouse in the future.
In fact, the first treatise on violin making and preservation dates from the early 19th century, written by the German luthier Jacob August Otto. In it he recognizes that Cremona’s instruments are the best, and attributes it to their varnish. We will soon see that the varnish is not the culprit.
Portrait of Antonio Stradivari.
Because their exact construction is a MYSTERY
Researchers have tried to unlock the secret that makes Strads the best violins in the world. The theories are many, but I summarize them here:
The oldest idea was that the Strads were successful because of their VARNISH. It was later discovered that the varnish had aesthetic effects, not sound. An MIT study in 2015 analized precisely this fact.
Then they studied the shape. The same study carried out by MIT showed that the secret of the deep acoustic sound of the violin is found in the design and size of the “F” s, because being more elongated, they generate deeper sound. They don’t fully explain the mystery anyway.
Some theories affirm that the secret is in the UNIFORM DENSITY of the 2 wooden panels that form the body of the violin
Another hypothesis blames the COLD for everything. It turns out that in the time of Stradivari, Europe plunged into a little ice age with extreme cold. The trees then developed a more compact fiber, and with a better quality for the sound of the violins. This theory is false, because if true, all the other instruments of the time from those same trees would also be extraordinary.
Others say the secret is a CHEMICAL treatment designed to kill woodworms and fungi. In the article “Chemical distinctions between Stradivari’s maple and modern tonewood” from 2017, the tuning fungi were studied: they eliminate density of the wood, and the sound is distributed differently within of the violin.
It has recently been discovered that the plates of a Stradivarius violin were treated with MINERALS baths. In 2017, the fragments of two cellos and three violins (only one Guarneri) were analyzed, and found to be infused with aluminum, calcium, copper, sodium, potassium and zinc. Scientific were puzzled because this mix is very unusual. So much so, that neither the current luthiers nor Cremona masters of that time knew of it. They deduced that it was a treatment applied by the wood sellers themselves, to protect it from worms, fungi or rot.
Because there is a perfectly PRESERVED violin
The best preserved violin is El Mesías , from 1716. Antonio Stradivari was so fond of him that he never took it out of his workshop . He died in 1737, although it took his son 38 years to finally sell it. The lucky one was the Count of Cozio de Salabue, so he was known as the Salabue violin, a town 155km from Cremona. Know that the Count’s castle still exists. 52 years later, Luigi Tarisio bought it.
Why is he called The Messiah ? Tarisio was bragging about his acquisition with Jean Baptiste Villaume (the luthier who ended up buying it after his death, indeed, he bought his entire collection of violins) and the violinist Jean-Delphin Alard (Villaume’s son-in-law). Suddenly, Alard blurted out: “So your violin is like the Messiah of the Jews: it is always waiting for it, but it never appears” . And that name has remained for posterity. In fact, he’s also known as Alard (and you know why).
Today The Messiah is kept in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, along with drawings by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. The donation was on condition that it never be touched, so that future luthiers could learn from it.
This is the story of why, if it were to be sold, it would be the most expensive violin ever . Having never been touched, The Messiah preserves the essence of its maker. It is estimated that its price would be about 20M euros.
Antonio Stradivari – Violin Le Messie (Messiah)
Because they were profusely IMITATED
The Stradivarius is set as the STANDARD for how a violin should sound, what it should look like, and how it should be played.
So we can see many labels with the word “Stradivari” inside violins of the 19th century. Contrary to what it might seem, they are not copies. They simply say in Italian or Latin that they are violins made “in the manner” of the Strads.
The reality is that surviving original Stradivarius DOUBLE in price every decade.
Because they arouse the admiration of well-known MUSICIANS
Paganini owned several Stradivarius violins, but many renowned musicians have played them today as well. My favorite: the cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
They have also passed through the hands of excellent female performers such as Ana Meyer, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Anna Akiko Meyers and Jelly D’Aranyi. Even Antoine Saint-Exupéry (a writer famous for his book “The Little Prince”) had one.
Because there is a debate about what to do with them: “SOUND OR DIE”
There is a war of opinions among the experts.
On the one hand, professional musicians argue that if these violins are silence for too long (typically two years in the cabinet) they will turn off. It would be something like “sound or die”.
On the other hand, conservatives and restorers consider these instruments to be jewels of the Renaissance of historical value, works of art.
And in between are the cultural program advisers, who want Strads to be played, but not much. In fact, they know that these violins excite and motivate young people to study classical music.
For example, let’s take the case of the Palatine Quartet (also called the Royal or Decorated Quartet), preserved in the Royal Palace in Madrid. This string quartet is perfectly preserved, which makes it unique in the world.
The two violins, the viola and the cello are decorated in ivory. They are usually played once a quarter; eight concerts a year. Each concert is 300 tickets, at 15 euros. They sold out in just 20 minutes last time.
After so many years, these instruments are still in the news. They are the protagonists of multi-million dollar auctions and robberies. Although only with the robberies we would have content for two or three posts…
In short, from mysterious wood treatments, to worms and children that do not carry on their legacy, the truth is that the legend of these extraordinary pieces of Renaissance technology will live on.
Meanwhile, the Stradivari 1715, baptized as “Il Cremonese” (symbol of its city), spends long hours in the Cremona town hall. It sights hoping someone will find out, one day, its secret.