This episode was written and produced by Elizabeth Nakano.
Stradivarius violins are reputed to have an exquisite sound that cannot be replicated or explained. Why is that? And what, exactly, is a Stradivarius violin anyway? This episode features interviews with The Strad magazine’s managing editor, Christian Lloyd, and violin maker Joseph Curtin.
MUSIC FEATURED IN THIS EPISODE
African by Kingpinguin
Whiskey Boomed by Aj Hochhalter
Champion by Dexter Britain
Spring by Cathedral
The Races by David A Molina
Horizon Rainfall (Piano and Strings) - Instrumental by Future of Forestry
Journey Towards Home by Shawn Williams
CLASSICAL MUSIC FEATURED IN THIS EPISODE
Violin Concerto in D Major, OP. 61 - III. Rondo: Allegro by US Marine Chamber Orchestra
String Quartet no. 2, Op. 68 - I. Andantino; allegretto by Steve's Bedroom Band
3 Fantasy Pieces for String Quartet - No.1 by Steve's Bedroom Band
I. Allemanda by Steve's Bedroom Band
Phantasie by Steve's Bedroom Band
(*all tracks have been edited for this episode)
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, and hosted by Dallas Taylor.
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Can you tell the difference between a Stradivarius violin and a modern violin? Take the informal test here!
Our classical tracks came from Musopen. Check them out at musopen.org.
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Check out SONOS at sonos.com.
View Transcript ▶︎
You're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz...I'm Dallas Taylor.
[music clip: Antonious from the MET]
The music you are hearing right now isn’t coming from just any violin. This is a Stradivarius violin, a family of instruments so distinguished and mysterious that it has become legendary. This one in particular is named Anotnius and it’s being played at The Met, however these instruments are spread all over the world. Stradivarius violins are renowned for their supposedly unique sound. They’re also among the most expensive, most respected, and most studied instruments in the world.
A single Stradivarius violin is valued in the millions of dollars. This is because only a handful of these instruments still exist and it is impossible to make more. Eventually, one by one, they will become too fragile to be played. With enough time, all of them will fall silent.
The sounds of Stradivarius violins are considered so precious that they are preserved in a digital archive. To do this, a group of musicians and sound engineers took over a concert hall. There, they recorded every possible note and note transition a Stradivarius violin can make (or at least every possible sound they could think of). The entire process took 5 weeks.
During that time, the surrounding city of Cremona, Italy had to keep noise to a minimum. This was so other sounds wouldn’t leak into the recordings. It was so important that the city’s mayor diverted traffic [SFX] around the concert hall, some women were asked not to wear stilettos on the cobblestone streets [SFX], even kissing teenagers were shooed away from the vicinity.
But… why such fuss over this kind of violin?
Christian: I think for the Stradivarius violins matter hugely on the grand scheme of things. The whole industry of violin making today is built on the legacy of Antonio Stradivari.
That’s Christian Lloyd. He’s the managing editor of The Strad. It’s a magazine that covers news and research about stringed instruments.
Christian: I also take care of the violin making sections of the magazine, which involves the historical, technical and anything to do with the sound of the violin.
Let’s start with the basics.
Stradivarius violins are the work of Italian craftsman Antonio Stradivari.
Christian: Antonio Stradivari is generally considered to be the greatest violin maker ever. He was born in the 1630s and he died in 1737, which means that he had a very, very long life and he was working all the way through that life as a violin maker and he finished, probably about 1,100 instruments in his lifetime. That's not only violins but also violas, cellos, harps, mandolins and guitars.
Christian: Of those instruments, probably about 650 have survived until the present day. We have fragments of many others. About 550 of those are violins.
All of Stradivari’s instruments are called “Stradivarius.” So, there are Stradivarius violas, Stradivarius guitars, and so on. Stradivari himself came up with that word. It’s how he labeled his finished instruments.
Christian: People say Stradivarius because if they actually look at a label, then it says Antonio Stradivarius inside. But that's because Stradivari was very respectful of the Roman civilization being Italian himself. And he liked to sign his name in the Roman style, putting a U-S on the end, but his name was actually Stradivari and that's how he was known in his day.
Picture the body of a modern-day violin. You’re probably imagining a hollow, kind of pear shaped piece of wood with a crescent cut into either side. Maybe you’re also seeing those thin, squiggly holes on the front. Those are called f-holes.
Well, that shape was pretty much defined by the time Stradivari was born, but he was confident he could make it better.
Christian: He was changing the sizes, the proportions, the width of the top plates and back plates and the thicknesses, just to see whether they would make a difference in the sound quality and in the ability of the musician to create a large range or pallet of tone colors with the instruments.
Christian: Most instrument makers even today, will only use one mold to make their instruments on. Stradivari used at least 12 molds. And probably even more than that.
Stradivari’s interest in acoustics wasn’t unusual for that period. He was living in a time and place of musical innovation.
Christian: There's a romantic myth about Stradivari, there were a few portraits in the Victorian era just based on what they thought Stradivari might look like in his workshop by himself, studying an instrument, deep in thought.
Christian: He lived in Cremona, which is a small town now, on the banks of the River Po in northern Italy. It's between Milan and Mantua.
Christian: Cremona had a reputation as a musical hub. In fact, Cremonese musicians, have been known to be performing at the court of Henry VIII in the 1500s, and also in the French court at that time. In fact, Cremona was the birthplace of Claudio Monteverdi, who was known as the father of the opera. And for that reason, we can assume that Cremona had the ability to attract very, very ambitious people who wanted to extend the borders of what music can be and what music can do.
Stradivari’s experimentation yielded mixed results. His early violins are generally considered to be of lesser quality than the instruments he made later in life. But his craftsmanship was recognized and appreciated.
Christian: The phrase in Cremonese society was, as rich as Stradivari, because he was getting commissions from the courts of James II in England. He was getting commissions from the Pope, which meant that he could not only bring his expertise to bear, but also some of the finest materials and equipments that 18th century Cremona had to bear as well.
Christian: He was a very rich man. What people don't realize is that Stradivari was not just a lone craftsman. He had the biggest workshop in Cremona, and we think that not only was he working, but he was also employing his sons and apprentices in his workshop at the same time.
The violins Stradivari produced later in his career were incredibly influential in the violin world. His design was widely copied. In fact, it’s basically the one we use today.
But this legacy isn’t what Stradivarius violins are best known for.
Christian: So many people have tried to find the secrets of the Stradivari sound.
Christian: You talk about a pallet of tone colors and a Stradivari violin can give you a bright sound, a dark sound, a noble sound and mellifluous sound, anything that you want to express in your playing, you can get out of a Stradivari, which is an ability that you can't get from all violins.
Over the years, scientists and academics have put forth a lot of theories as to why Stradivarius violins sound the way that they do. Thousands of dollars and hours have been spent in a quest for answers.
Two popular theories center around the instruments’ wood.
Christian: It's believed that he got all his wood from the Val di Fiemme, which is a large forest in the Dolomite mountains of Italy. Recently, it suffered a terrible storm and almost a million trees were felled. And so the wood makers are desperately trying to salvage some of the wood from that, because obviously people are still searching for Stradivari's wood.
Researchers have speculated that the wood was also treated with minerals from local alchemists that somehow led to a superior sound.
Christian: But there's also a theory that Stradivari's wood from the 17th century was particularly dense, and the reason for that was because of what they call the Little Ice Age.
Christian: There were long hot summers and very cold winters, during that certain point of history. And because of that, they say the wood grew to be much more dense because there was so little growth per year, and that was particularly useful for making resonant wood that Stradivari would be able to employ.
Another popular theory points to the varnish Stradivari used.
Christian: He gave it a kind of rich, red golden luster, especially in the later part of his career when he was very successful. So for that reason, his instruments have always stood out among the others. In fact, one of them has the nickname The Red Diamond.
Some researchers have gone as far as to say that it was Stradivari’s chemistry over woodworking that defines the sound and longevity of his violins.
Christian: He was able to use the best materials for his varnish. For instance, the best dye that is red is from the Cochineal Beetle of Mexico. And this was so expensive that people would put thousands upon thousands, in order to get a ship load of Cochineal back to Europe from South America. Stradivari was one of those people and he was able to push the boat out and make the instruments as red as he could.
Christian: For that reason also they've had this mystique attached to them, there must be something in the varnish that makes them extra special.
There are plenty of other hypotheses, too. Researchers have studied the glue Stradivari used.
Christian: The quality of the strings.
Solar activity around Stradivari’s lifetime.
Christian: The length of the neck and the fingerboard.
The design of the f-holes. Stradivari’s instruments are routinely studied all the way to the millimeter and beyond.
These violins have undergone countless CT scans, X-rays, and chemical analyses. While some theories have become less popular or been disproven entirely, there is still no consensus as to why the sound of Stradivarius violins is so treasured.
Is there actually something special about the sound of Stradivarius violins? Can people even hear the difference between a Stradivarius and another kind of violin? To find out, researchers assembled a group of elite violinists, and they put Stradivari’s instruments to the test. We’ll find out how much truth there is to the lore… after the break.
Stradivarius violins are reputed to sound superior to other violins. But what happens to that reputation under scientific scrutiny? Researchers decided to find out.
Joseph Curtin: It used to be thought, "Well, if it's an old Italian, it's good. If it's new, it's probably less good. If it's factory violin, it's probably terrible." But those aren't scientifically based.
That’s Joseph Curtin. He’s a violin maker.
Joseph: Like most makers, I grew up with a set of beliefs about violins. That old violins were better than new violins, that violins got better with playing, that Stradivari was the greatest maker of all time, that a lot of old Italian violin makers sounded mellow under the ear and yet still projected in a hall in comparison with new violins, which supposedly sound loud under the ear, but fail to project. There was all these sort of interesting things that were taken for granted.
Joseph also conducts –acoustical research.
Joseph: Most of the research in the violin world has traditionally been historical research. Who made what instrument when. Who influenced who. I became interested in how the violin works and how that might be understood through scientific research.
Joseph: I remember my physicist friend, in response to some theory I was coming up with about why old Italians might be better than new ones. He said, "Before you start inventing theories to explain a phenomenon, you should probably make sure the phenomenon actually exists."
Joseph: That struck me as common sense, but then you think “how could we test that?"
Every four years, the city of Indianapolis hosts an international violin competition. Some of the most gifted violinists in the world attend. During one competition year, Joseph teamed up with another researcher named Claudia Fritz. She was also interested in comparing Stradivarius violins to modern violins. Joseph and Claudia rented a hotel room in the city, and they got 21 highly-talented violinists to participate.
Joseph: They would walk into a hotel room, they would be asked to wash their hands, they'd be asked to pick their bow that they're gonna use and stick with it.
Joseph: The protocol would be explained. We're gonna lay out six violins on a bed, and you are going to try each one for a minute or whatever the protocol was. Or you'll be handed violin A and violin B, and asked to compare them.
Three of the violins were new. The other three were made by Stradivari. But the violinists didn’t know which one they were playing… and neither did the researchers, for that matter. This type of test is called a double-blind.
Joseph: Blind testing invites you to respect the primacy of your own perceptions, rather than your expectations.
Joseph: The idea of double-blind testing is that the subject is not at all in contact with the researcher or anyone who knows anything about the particular thing being passed back and forth.
Joseph: What blind testing allows us to do is tease out which part of the value has to do with, in this case, the violin's performance as a musical tool versus the part of the violin that's part of cultural history.
Joseph and Claudia were worried blindfolds would make people feel too disoriented. So, they turned to a particular piece of eyewear: welding goggles. Anyone who handled or saw a violin needed to wear a pair.
Joseph: I found at a welding store some relatively inexpensive goggles that kind of wrapped around your eyes like sunglasses, but were darker. And then we put some black tape along the bottom edges, because you could look straight down and as we tend to hold instruments under our chin, that was a little crack in the system.
Joseph: And we also keep the lights in the room low. Violins all look similar enough that even if you can see a darkened silhouette, you're not gonna be able to recognize the violin.
In addition to the violinists’ sight, there was another sense that Claudia and Joseph had to address.
Joseph: We also tried to neutralize the smells. A lot of new violins might smell of varnish solvents and polish, whereas an old violin might smell of eau de cologne of the last player, or stale cigarette smoke. You never know. There's just all these scents, and even unconsciously I think we can tell the difference between things by scent.
Joseph: So we put a dab of an essential oil underneath the chin rest of each violin in hopes that that would neutralize that.
Here’s how the test worked: A researcher wearing welding goggles presented violins to the players. Meanwhile, Joseph and Claudia sat behind a partition.
Joseph: In that way, we could truly isolate the researchers from the player, or to the extent that was humanly possible there.
The violinist would be given time to play the instruments. And then Joseph and Claudia would ask him or her a series of questions.
Joseph: Which do you think is better? Which do you think is worse? Which do you think has more tone colors?
Joseph: Which do you think would project better in a hall? Which is easier to play?
It took 3 days to conduct the test, and the results were not what Joseph expected.
Joseph: The results were pretty clear. The most favorite violin easily was a new violin. The least favorite was a Stradivari, and no one could tell old from new at better than coin toss statistics.
The results of the blind test immediately made waves–and not just in the music community. Mainstream publications around the world wrote about the test.
Joseph: Stradivari is right up there with Coca Cola and Ferrari in terms of recognition by people who don't know anything about the violin. He's really crossed over into the culture in a way that other violin makers never have.
Many people were understandably upset. Joseph and Claudia had called into question a long-standing and deeply-held belief.
Joseph: There was a lot of pushback. One of the main criticisms, and a fair one, was it was in a hotel room not a concert hall. As one famous violist said, "You can't test a Stradivari in a parking lot."
Joseph: We didn't feel this invalidated our results. It meant that we couldn't extend the results to concert halls. More cynically, people said, "Oh, you just got the three worst Strads you could find, and the three best new instruments. I remember reading out one of these criticisms to Claudia, and she laughed and said, "If we wanted to cheat, we don't need to touch the violins. We can just fiddle the numbers."
Joseph and Claudia didn’t stop after that first study. They ran two more double-blind tests in two different cities. But these tests were even more complicated. There were more violins to evaluate. Players were given more time to play them. And instead of being held in hotel rooms, they were conducted in concert halls. Joseph and Claudia also invited more people to listen and give their opinions.
Joseph: We had an audience of some 50 people. Violin makers, musicians, experienced listeners, and we had them judging.
Joseph: As in Indianapolis, the most preferred instrument by a good margin was new. The least preferred happened to be a Strad, but there was also a new instrument which was almost as badly judged.
Joseph: Why would we assume that old violins could necessarily do better than new violins? I think what these studies have shown is that on a level playing field, new instruments can do very well.
Joseph: One can't assume because you have a very valuable old Italian instrument, that it will out-perform a new instrument that's valued at a fraction of that in terms of money, at least.
The sound of Stradivarius violins continues to spark debate and scientific questions. Many Stradivarius enthusiasts outright dismiss all of Joseph and Claudia’s studies.
Joseph makes it clear that their work was not a criticism of Antonio Stradivari the man. Instead, they were questioning the mystique attached to the instruments.
Joseph: I think the evolution of old Italian sound is ongoing. It's kind of one of the great constructions of the Western musical imagination.
Joseph: What one needs to remember is first of all, virtually all the Stradivaris used today have been re-engineered over the centuries in incredibly important ways acoustically. If you took a Stradivari straight from his workbench and a bow that was available at the time, most of the standard repertoire would be unplayable.
Joseph: It's as simple as that. It is not the same instrument.
You heard that right: that famous Stradivarius sound might be a more recent development.
Of course, there are other reasons to value these instruments–such as Stradivari’s place in violin-making history.
Joseph: Stradivari is, I believe, the greatest violin maker who ever lived. No one of comparable originality and influence has come along since then.
We value objects for all kinds of intangible reasons, and our knowledge of how expensive, or rare, or famous something is can color our perceptions of an item’s true qualities. However, while a famous piece of art, an item owned by a historical figure, or indeed a Stradivarius violin may just be the sum of its parts, these items are infused with something else…
Christian: When you buy a Stradivari, you're also buying into the history and heritage of that particular Stradivari. Every instrument has a provenance to it and you can get to see who's owned it and which famous players have played it in the past. And that's going back a hundred years or 200 years. And when you pick up an instrument, then many violinists tell you that you can feel the soul of Jasha Heifetz or Bronislaw Huberman or any of the great violinists of years gone by and you can feel that you're standing in their footsteps and you're also buying into their heritage and the heritage of the composers who composed great concertos for the great soloists of yesteryear, all inspired by the same colors and tones that they could hear in the instrument that you have in your hand.
Joseph: There's many many layers of narrative, there's a sense of richness, there's all the things about objects or works of art that we value that come into play and these are very important, and it's not as though it's a kind of snobism in that "I only like expensive wines or expensive violins."
Joseph: There's no shame in valuing things because of their history at all.
Joseph: It's something human. I think it's inevitable, part of being human.
Twenty-Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, a sound design team dedicated to making television, film, and games sound incredible. Find out more at defactosound.com
This episode was written and produced by Elizabeth Nakano, and me, Dallas Taylor, with help from Sam Schneble. It was sound designed and edited by Soren Begin. And mixed by Jai Berger.
Thanks to Christian Lloyd and Joseph Curtin for speaking with us.
The first piece of music in today’s episode is from a Stradivarius violin owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Many of the Classical music tracks in this episode were from musopen.com. That's m-u-s open.com, check out our website for the full track list. The rest of today’s music is from Musicbed. Which you can find at musicbed.com
If you want to test whether you can hear a difference between a Stradivarius violin and a modern violin go to our website, 20k.org. We have a link to an informal test.
And let us know how you did. You can tweet at us, find us on Facebook, or find us online at 20k.org.
Thanks for listening.