The so-called “mystery of Stradivari” has long confused me. How is it possible, I wondered, that with all of the tools of modern technology, and all of our increased understanding of the way the world works, we can’t seem to find a way to make instruments that can at least equal those of some guy working in Cremona, Italy, over 300 years ago?
Not surprisingly, I’m hardly the first person to find this perplexing: it is a long-standing, indeed quasi-iconic, mystery throughout the classical music world.
It confused Joseph Curtin too. But Curtin is hardly your run-of-the mill ruminator. He is one of the most recognized violin-makers working today, a MacArthur Fellowship-winning artisan who combines premiere craftsmanship with an unabashed enthusiasm for acoustics and rigorous scientific methodology.
He is also a delightfully frank, open and approachable fellow.
“This idea is deeply embedded in our culture: the secret of Stradivari. As soon as you start looking at the concept from a scientific point of view, though, it starts subdividing into many different questions.
“Was Stradivari the greatest violin-maker who ever lived? I would say that he probably was, so far as we know. The unknown genius is the person who made the first violin; that was probably Andrea Amati. Suddenly, from nowhere, comes this fully developed instrument. Stradivari didn’t design it, so let’s just say it was Amati. I’m not sure where scholarship will end up; not a lot is known. But out of Amati’s shop came these fully-formed instruments that didn’t really change much thereafter. This was in the 1500s.
“By the time of Stradivari, in the late 1600s, and Giuseppe Guarneri, his great contemporary, violin-making had already been going on for a couple hundred years. What they did was refine it and take it in a certain direction, a direction that went along with the way music was developing. That provided the players with what they wanted: more power. They did things to the design: they lowered the arching and changed a number of physical parameters that made the instrument more suitable for the emerging repertoire.
“Now, I’m not a person who is very knowledgeable about violin-making history. But I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that if you were to take a violin straight from Stradivari’s workshop with a bow from the time, most of the current repertoire would be unplayable. And it would probably be inaudible too, at least in many modern venues.
“A Stradivari or any old instrument is really a reengineered object. It’s not just the restoration – fixing all the cracks and everything else. It’s a different instrument: the setup is so different. The bridge and the bass bar have been redesigned. Often the top and back plates have been re-graduated and made thinner, which has profound effects upon the sound. And then there are the effects of often-extensive restoration. But that’s completely ignored by this heroic idea of this instrument coming mysteriously out of nowhere in the early 1500s and then brought to perfection by Stradivari and Guarneri …”
Well, that’s certainly interesting. But however lovingly re-engineered it may be, surely that’s just a way of maintaining, protecting, their uniquely compelling sound? But what is that sound, exactly? How can we characterize it?
“This is very, very interesting. If you think of Stradivari as almost a brand, it’s instantly recognizable and highly esteemed – Stradivari: old violins, great sound. Now think of other iconic music: think of Tom Waits and you can probably hear his voice. Or think of your father’s voice and you’ll immediately recognize something. Same thing with Frank Sinatra. Now think of the sound of a Stradivari. What comes to your mind?
“You’ll probably just hear a violinist. You may think of Itzhak Perlman – he plays a great Strad. Maybe you hear Heifetz, or whoever your favorite player is. You hear their sound, and they play a Strad or a Guarneri. But let’s try and track it back a little bit: how much is the violinist and how much is the instrument? The question becomes, Can the players tell the difference? That was the radical thing with the blind listening test.”
Curtin the scientist, together with his inquisitive colleagues Claudia Fritz, Jacques Potevineau, Palmer Morrel-Samuels and Fan-Chia Tao, decided to conduct an experiment in 2010. They selected 6 premiere violins – 3 classical greats (two Stradivari and one Guarneri ‘del Gesù’) and 3 contemporary instruments – and led 21 expert violinists who were gathered for the 8th International Violin Competition in Indianapolis to a hotel room, put goggles on them so they couldn’t see which instrument they were playing, and asked if they could tell the difference.
The results were astounding: the majority of these expert players unknowingly preferred a newer model.
“There was a clear favorite, which happened to be a new violin, and there was a clear least-favorite, which happened to be a Strad. In the middle there were violins that certain people loved, others hated, and the rest held in qualified regard.”
This naturally raised a lot of eyebrows. But then came criticisms of the experiment. What can you determine in a hotel room? And why just ask the violinists themselves? Why not judge things properly, using expert listeners sitting in a proper hall?
So Joseph and his colleagues did a follow-up experiment again in Paris in 2012, a much more comprehensive set-up that involved 10 soloists with 12 violins (6 new and 6 old), professional listening environments, expert listeners and even an orchestra.
What did they find? Pretty much the same sort of thing. Neither the soloists nor the listeners could tell the difference between the new violins and the old. And something like 6 out of the 10 violinists preferred a new violin to an old.
“I remember once when I was speaking to Gabriel Weinreich, one of the top physicists who went into research in musical acoustics. I had a theory of why this or that happened; and he said to me, ‘You know, before you start making theories to explain a phenomenon, it’s best to make sure the phenomenon actually exists.’
“You can look around forever for the secret of Stradiavari, but unless you can define what you’re looking for, you’re not going to find anything.”
For a complete overview of Ideas Roadshow videos and other resources featuring Joseph Curtin, click here. The eBook called The Science of Siren Songs: Stradivari Unveiled which contains the unabridged Ideas Roadshow conversation with Joseph is available on Amazon.
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