Tag Archives: Antonio Stradivari

Roll over, Stradivari?

Old Italian violins are routinely credited with playing qualities supposedly unobtainable in new instruments. These qualities include the ability to project their sound more effectively in a concert hall—despite seeming relatively quiet under the ear of the player—compared with new violins.

Although researchers have long tried to explain the mystery of Antonio Stradivari’s sound, it is only recently that studies have addressed the fundamental assumption of tonal superiority. Results from two studies show that, under blind conditions, experienced violinists tend to prefer playing new violins over Old Italians. Moreover, they are unable to tell new from old at better than chance levels.

In two separate experiments, three new violins were compared with three by Stradivari. Projection was tested both with and without orchestral accompaniment. Projection and preference were judged simultaneously by dividing listeners into two groups.

The results were unambiguous. The new violins projected better than the Stradivaris whether tested with orchestra or without, the new violins were generally preferred by the listeners, and the listeners could not reliably distinguish new from old. The single best-projecting violin was considered the loudest under the ear by players, and on average, violins that were quieter under the ear were found to project less well.

This according to “Listener evaluations of new and Old Italian violins” by Claudia Fritz, Joseph Curtin, Jacques Poitevineau, and Fan-Chia Tao. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 8 May 2017).

Above, detail from Antonio Stradivari in his atelier by Antonio Rinaldi; below, a report on one of the experiments, including excerpts from interviews with Fritz and Curtin.

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Violins and fungi

In the late 17th and early 18th century the great violin maker Antonio Stradivari used a special wood that had grown in the cold period between 1645 and 1715. In the long winters and the cool summers, the wood grew especially slowly and evenly, creating low density and a high modulus of elasticity. Until now, modern violin makers could only dream of wood with such tonal qualities.

Similar wood can now be made available for violin making. The fungus species Physisporinus vitreus and Xylaria longipes can decay Norway spruce and sycamore—two important kinds of wood used for violin making—to such an extent that their tonal quality is improved. Unlike other fungus species, they gradually degrade the cell walls, inducing thinning; but even in the late stages of decomposition a stiff scaffold structure remains through which the sound waves can still travel directly.

The implementation of such biotechnological methods for treating soundboard wood could make it possible one day for violinists to afford instruments with the sound quality of a Stradivari.

This according to “Production of superior wood for violins by use of wood decay fungi” by Francis W.M.R. Schwarze, et al. (Journal of the Violin Society of America XXII/1 [2009] pp. 116-124). Above, a Stradivarius at the Palacio Real de Madrid. Below, a brief documentary on the process described by Schwarze.

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