Did "Little Ice Age" Create Stradivarius Violins' Famous Tone?

John Pickrell in England
for National Geographic News
January 7, 2004

Instruments crafted from the late 17th century onwards by revered violin maker Antonio Stradivari sell for millions of dollars today, and musicians and scientists have long sought to explain their superb sound quality.

Now, American scientists have come up with a possible explanation: A dramatic European cold spell may have enhanced the quality of wood from which the instruments were crafted.

A sharp dip in temperatures between 1645 and 1715 coincided with a reduction in sunspots and the sun's overall activity known as the Maunder Minimum. Researchers say those factors may have slowed tree growth, thereby creating the ideal building material for violins later manufactured.

The research is described in the current issue of the tree ring science journal Dendrochronologia.

"Grounded in Folklore"

The violin first emerged in northern Italy in the mid-1500s. Many of the most distinguished violins ever created were produced by famous local families of violin makers—such as Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari—in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Stradivari was the most famous of these craftsmen, and produced over 1,100 violas, guitars, cellos, and violins. Around 600 of his instruments exist today.

Many top musicians today prefer to play instruments created by Stradivari or his contemporaries. But scientists have found it difficult to pin down the exact difference between a modern violin and a Stradivarius.

"It may be that Stradivarius violins are so well made that they are easier to play" to their best potential, said John Topham a tree ring expert and violin maker in Surrey, England. "The finest instruments are the ones that allow musicians to express themselves best," he said.

Henri Grissino-Mayer, co-author behind the new study and tree ring scientist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, said there is continuing debate as to whether these instruments do indeed sound superior and what, if anything, explains that quality other than the legendary skill of their makers.

"There are many competing hypotheses … and a lot of it is grounded in folklore," he said. "Some people even believe [Stradivari] used the wood of ancient castles and cathedrals."

Others suggest that Stradivari and his contemporaries used a special varnish (the secret of which has been lost today), or that the wood was chemically treated, soaked in water, specially dried, or stored for long periods of time.

Grissino-Mayer believes many of these explanations are flawed, however. For example, despite scientific investigations using ultraviolet photography, electron microscopy, and x-rays, a secret varnish has yet to be revealed. Furthermore, tree ring analysis has demonstrated that many surviving Stradivarius violins were made using wood that grew during Stradivari's lifetime, discounting the idea that it may have come from ancient buildings.

Continued on Next Page >>


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