Mad About Strads: Fiddling the Stradivarius Market

By Carsten Holm

Part 2: Where Does the Remarkable Sound Come From?

According to legend, on nights with a clear full moon, the master journeyed from Cremona to the high Alps, where he selected impressive spruce trees and peeled off a section of bark. He then placed his ear against the trunk, knocked on the wood with a hammer and listened. If he was satisfied with the resonance, the tree was cut down. Stradivari is thought to have benefited from a series of hard winters from the mid-17th century to roughly 1715. The trees grew more slowly than usual, the wood was close-grained and denser, and some say that it transmits acoustic waves better than wood grown during warmer periods.

Researchers at Cambridge University, however, suspect that the secret of the remarkable acoustics from Cremona lies within the reddish layer of varnish on each Stradivarius. In 1988, a research team analyzed a chip of varnish from a cello made in 1711 and discovered a wafer-thin layer of primer below the layer of varnish, which chemically resembles Pozzuolana earth, a volcanic ash that is used to produce cement in northern Italy. Stradivari may have made a mixture of ash, egg whites and water and applied this to the wood to create the magical sound.

Perhaps Joseph Nagyvary, a biochemist at the University of Texas in Galveston, has come closer to the secret. His theory: Due to prevailing high humidity conditions in Cremona, Stradivari used a wide range of preservatives to keep the wood from rotting. Placing the wood under his electron microscope, Nagyvary discovered traces of an ordinary fungus that would have thrived in the rivers which were used to raft the wood from the Alps to Cremona. The water fungi flourished to such a degree that they altered the shape of the wood cells, giving the violins their rich, distinctive sound.

Nagyvary mimicked the manufacturing process using wood from Canada and Nepal. Experts who listened to his violins thought that they were Stradivariuses. This was hailed as a "pioneering" achievement according to the American Chemical Society, a leading scientific organization.

Nearly all Stradivariuses -- insiders call them Strads -- have their own pet names. They are often dubbed after their first known owners, "Ex-Derenberg" or "Davidoff." Each is different, each has its own personality. "They have," says Munich violin dealer Renata Koeckert, 59, "faces like people." And an entranced smile full of humility spreads across her face, not unlike the expression worn by the faithful as they receive the Holy Communion.

Each Violin Has its Own Story

In addition to their faces, Stradivariuses have biographies. The life and times of "Antonietta" were remarkably described in the novel by Pulitzer Prize winner John Hersey. It traces a journey over three centuries. Built in 1699 and named after a woman who was the object of the great master's infatuation, the violin makes its way to Paris where it meets Mozart in 1778 who is delighted and inspired by this delicate masterpiece and composes a sonata in its honor.

Or take the "King George" from 1710. George III, King of Great Britain and Hanover and Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, played the Stradivarius himself before it was given to a Scottish officer as a present. The officer then took it to the Battle of Waterloo where he was killed on July 18, 1815. The "King George" survived the tumult in a horse saddlebag and fell into German, then Japanese, and again German hands. Now this violin is played by the Zurich-based Amar Quartet, which performs exclusively with Stradivariuses.

"Oh, yes, it’s sheer madness with these violins," confirms Roger Hargrave, 59, a violin maker who lives in Lower Saxony and is one of the best in the trade. He clenches his powerful hands into fists and launches into a fortissimo sermon: "The violin is the queen. Take Hitchcock’s Psycho. The murder scene in the shower. The killer swings his arm back. Then he stabs. And this is accompanied by a couple of fine strokes on the strings. Out of this world. Suspenseful crime stories? Unthinkable without cellos. Eleanor Rigby by the Beatles or Ruby Tuesday by the Stones without strings? You can forget it. Life without strings would be unimaginable."

Then Hargrave pauses for a moment before he continues, almost piously. "The violins from Cremona stand above the others. The wood. The sound. And right at the top, far above the others, you have the Stradivariuses."

"Perfect Balance"

The best soloists play on them. "It took a Stradivarius to open my ears," says Anne-Sophie Mutter, 44. Most people are spellbound by them. The American Joshua Bell, 39, who is the proud owner of "Gibson" from 1713, says he fell in love with this violin after playing it for only a few seconds. He says it can "be light but also has depth, the perfect balance."

Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, 29, senses something about her "Barrere" Stradivarius that is "almost magical, that I haven’t found in a modern instrument." She plays exclusively with this small marvel because it "has such a flexible sound that it matches music from any era."

Leonidas Kavakos, 40, sings the praises of "the volume of the sound, the sweetness of the tone, the overtones and the timbre of these great, unrivaled violins." The artistic director of the Camerata Salzburg plays the "Earl of Falmouth" Strad from 1692. He recalls the "fantastic moment" decades ago when, as a young musician, he first held a Stradivarius in his hands.

Anne-Sophie Mutter alternately places two very different Stradivariuses under her chin. Her "Emiliani" from 1703, says Mutter, sounds "superb" but it lacks "a dimension: It has no edginess. I miss the unbridled power. I need this roughness for the eruptive moments of the Beethoven sonatas. You need it for Brahms, Sibelius and contemporary works." To meet these challenges, she plays her "Lord Dunn-Raven" Stradivarius from 1710.

Are Strads Really That Good?

Nonetheless, there are soloists who are chipping away at the Strad myth. Christian Tetzlaff has played two Stradivariuses but only performs with a violin from the Bonn workshop of Stefan-Peter Greiner. "It sounds better than the two Stradivariuses that were loaned to me," says Tetzlaff. He thinks there are "perhaps 15 Stradivariuses" that outshine the others, that have a "particularly brilliant, particularly sweet and particularly dark" sound. Many others have an aura and, above all, a price that, "compared to their sound, is far too high," he says.

It’s late at night and the smell of varnish and glue permeates the Vienna workshop of German violin maker Marcel Richters, 49. He has just performed a "pit stop," reconditioning the "Rawark" Stradivarius. It’s worth roughly €3 million. He placed grains of rice in the body of the violin and shook it back and forth, gently, like a prospector panning for gold. It loosens the dust.

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