Instead, Grissino-Mayer and climatologist Lloyd Burckle of Columbia University in New York have come up with an alternative hypothesis. They suggest that climatic cooling over many decades affected rates of tree growth and may have contributed to the acoustic quality of the violins produced by Stradivari and his contemporaries.
Dense wood with narrow growth rings may help to "instill a superior tone and brilliance in violins," the researchers wrote, adding that wood grown under fast conditions is less resonant and unlikely to survive the stresses placed on a violin.
"Much of Europe was gripped by the little ice age between around 1400 and 1800," said Grissino-Mayer, noting that the period of cold weather and long winters peaked between 1645 and 1715. Trees growing during that peak period, the so-called Maunder Minimum, "showed the slowest growth rates of the entire last 500 years," he said.
Intriguingly, Stradivari was born one year before the start of the Maunder Minimum. He produced violins from 1666 until his death in 1737. Other studies have shown that Stradivari used violins built from spruce wood contemporary to his lifetime, and Grissino-Mayer believes this would have been locally obtained.
Still, scientists like Grissino-Mayer don't discount the unique talents Stradivari and his contemporary artisans brought to producing wonderful-sounding violins. "They didn't only have better materials the skills of the maker will have a considerable effect on the tonal quality of the final instrument," said Grissino-Mayer.
"It's an interesting idea, but there is little supporting evidence," said Topham, the violin maker and tree ring expert. "They have come up with a theory based on just a few examples [of Stradivari's work], which are not representative of his entire output."
Topham has examined or repaired over 80 Stradivarius violins. He notes that while some of Stradivari's early violins do bear wood with narrow tree rings, others have wider spacing. He also argues that the spacing of tree rings across the range of Stradivarius violins he has examined lack consistency.
Nevertheless, John Montgomery, secretary of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers who is based in Raleigh, North Carolina, said of all the so-called secrets of violin production, "the most important element is wood selection." Wood inhibits or favors vibrations depending on its characteristics, said Montgomery, and the wood chosen by early, great instrument makers was excellent.
"The good news is that we continue to find wood with great properties today," he said, adding that well-made new instruments can sound as outstanding as old masters.
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