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What Exalts Stradivarius? Not Varnish, Study Says

Discussion in 'The Sound Hound Lounge' started by Brian D, Dec 6, 2009.

  1. Brian D

    Brian D Member

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    By HENRY FOUNTAIN

    Published: December 4, 2009

    In a finding that is sure to add to one of the longest-running debates in music, a detailed analysis of the varnish on five instruments made by Antonio Stradivari reveals that he coated the wood with a rather humdrum mix of oil and resin. Those looking to the varnish as the secret to the master Italian violin maker’s renown, the study suggests, had best look elsewhere.

    “It’s a very basic recipe,” said Jean-Philippe Échard, a chemist at the Musée de la Musique in Paris, who, with other researchers in France and Germany, analyzed tiny samples of wood and varnish from the museum’s Stradivarius collection, four violins and a viola d’amore dating from 1692 to 1724.

    Their study, published online on Thursday by a German chemistry journal, Angewandte Chemie International Edition, found that a drying oil, linseed or walnut, was used as a first coat to seal the wood. That was followed by a coat of oil and pine, fir or larch resin, with red pigments added in all but the earliest instrument. The recipe was probably little different from that used by others in the town of Cremona. “The ingredients were simple, so probably the skill was in his hand and eye,” Mr. Échard said.

    In the centuries since Stradivari’s death, musicians, critics and luthiers — makers of stringed instruments — have debated what gives many of his 600 known instruments their brilliant tone. Perhaps it was the wood he used or the patterns he developed, which are widely copied today. Or perhaps, some suggested, there was a secret ingredient in his varnish — egg or animal-hide proteins in the base coat, and amber, myrrh or some other more exotic substance in the top coat — that stiffened the wood just so.

    Earlier studies had found traces of minerals and proteins in the wood, fueling the debate. One group found evidence of volcanic ash; another suggested that bacteria or fungi played a role.

    In a study published in the spring in The Strad magazine, Stewart Pollens, a former conservator of musical instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, found evidence of proteins and gums, although, like the European group, he suggested the varnish was largely oil and resin.

    But studies of Stradivari’s varnish have been hampered by the lack of samples, which is understandable given the rarity, and value, of the instruments. Most researchers have relied on a single sample, or on surface measurements of an intact instrument, although Mr. Pollens’s studies included three samples of wood taken from instruments that were restored.

    Joseph Nagyvary, a retired professor at Texas A&M University who created an outcry several decades ago when he suggested that there were minerals in the varnish of old Italian instruments, used samples from cellos by other makers. “We never had the privilege of getting a sample from a Strad,” he said. “I tried that for 30 years and got nothing but insults.”

    Dr. Nagyvary, who has experimented with varnishes of his own, using ingredients like shrimp shells to add protein, said the new findings were “something of great interest.”

    “We have to take them seriously, but there are many other claims,” he said.

    Mr. Échard’s group had access to the museum’s collection, but even so it took days to decide where on each instrument to take its samples. Often this was from an area under the tailpiece, which was both unobtrusive and less likely to have been retouched.

    “What we are sure is that what we have sampled from the violin are the best representative samples from Stradivari’s technique,” Mr. Échard said. “If we’ve missed things, it’s maybe because they are not there anymore, or they’ve never been there.”

    Douglas Cox, a violin maker in West Brattleboro, Vt., said he was not surprised by the findings. “The simplest explanation is most likely to be true,” he said. The recipe “is not all that different from varnishes found on fine furniture from the same area.”

    Mr. Échard said Stradivari took a painterly approach to finishing his instruments. The pigmented top coat, he said, may have been applied much the way Rembrandt or Titian applied glazes to soften flesh tones.

    Perhaps that, Mr. Échard suggested half-jokingly, is what makes some of Stradivari’s violins special.

    “Maybe a player, when seeing a beautiful instrument, he plays better,” he said. “Maybe this is the secret.”

    Original link with pictures here.
     
  2. Pietro

    Pietro 2-Voice Guitar Junkie and All-Around Awesome Guy

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    What? It wasn't nitro? But they relic so nicely!
     
  3. daddyo

    daddyo Guest

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    Oh, no - the finish does not the instrument make. Who would've thought?
     
  4. angus99

    angus99 Member

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    The original Dumble.
     
  5. Julia343

    Julia343 Member

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    The ones that survived were not built when Mercury was in retrograde. Hence the great tone. Other builders of his time built when Mercury was in retrograde.
     
  6. HammyD

    HammyD Member

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    I have read excerpts from Nagvary findings and i recall he said that the fact that the wood was transported by water, and effect altered the composition. I forget the minutae, but it goes along with this most recent study.

    Fungus-Treated Violin Outdoes Stradivarius



    The five instruments played during the test. Visually, there is very little difference between them.
    ScienceDaily (Sep. 14, 2009) — At the 27th “Osnabrücker Baumpflegetagen” (one of Germany’s most important annual conferences on all aspects of forest husbandry), Empa researcher Francis Schwarze’s "biotech violin" dared to go head to head in a blind test against a stradivarius – and won! A brilliant outcome for the Empa violin, which is made of wood treated with fungus, against the instrument made by the great master himself in 1711.

    September 1st 2009 was a day of reckoning for Empa scientist Francis Schwarze and the Swiss violin maker Michael Rhonheimer. The violin they had created using wood treated with a specially selected fungus was to take part in a blind test against an instrument made in 1711 by the master violin maker of Cremona himself, Antonio Stradivarius. In the test, the British star violinist Matthew Trusler played five different instruments behind a curtain, so that the audience did not know which was being played. One of the violins Trusler played was his own strad, worth two million dollars. The other four were all made by Rhonheimer – two with fungally-treated wood, the other two with untreated wood. A jury of experts, together with the conference participants, judged the tone quality of the violins. Of the more than 180 attendees, an overwhelming number – 90 persons – felt the tone of the fungally treated violin "Opus 58" to be the best. Trusler’s stradivarius reached second place with 39 votes, but amazingly enough 113 members of the audience thought that "Opus 58" was actually the strad! "Opus 58" is made from wood which had been treated with fungus for the longest time, nine months.

    Skepticism before the blind test

    Judging the tone quality of a musical instrument in a blind test is, of course, an extremely subjective matter, since it is a question of pleasing the human senses. Empa scientist Schwarze is fully aware of this, and as he says, “There is no unambiguous scientific way of measuring tone quality.” He was therefore, understandably, rather nervous before the test. Since the beginning of the 19th century violins made by Stradivarius have been compared to instruments made by others in so called blind tests, the most serious of all probably being that organized by the BBC in 1974. In that test the world famous violinists Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman together with the English violin dealer Charles Beare were challenged to identify blind the "Chaconne" stradivarius made in 1725, a "Guarneri del Gesu" of 1739, a "Vuillaume" of 1846 and a modern instrument made by the English master violin maker Roland Praill. The result was rather sobering – none of the experts was able to correctly identify more than two of the four instruments, and in fact two of the jurors thought that the modern instrument was actually the "Chaconne" stradivarius.

    Biotech wood, a revolution in the art of violin making

    Violins made by the Italian master Antonio Giacomo Stradivarius are regarded as being of unparalleled quality even today, with enthusiasts being prepared to pay millions for a single example. Stradivarius himself knew nothing of fungi which attack wood, but he received inadvertent help from the “Little Ice Age” which occurred from 1645 to 1715. During this period Central Europe suffered long winters and cool summers which caused trees to grow slowly and uniformly – ideal conditions in fact for producing wood with excellent acoustic qualities.

    Horst Heger of the Osnabruck City Conservatory is convinced that the success of the “fungus violin” represents a revolution in the field of classical music. “In the future even talented young musicians will be able to afford a violin with the same tonal quality as an impossibly expensive Stradivarius,” he believes. In his opinion, the most important factor in determining the tone of a violin is the quality of the wood used in its manufacture. This has now been confirmed by the results of the blind test in Osnabruck. The fungal attack changes the cell structure of the wood, reducing its density and simultaneously increasing its homogeneity. “Compared to a conventional instrument, a violin made of wood treated with the fungus has a warmer, more rounded sound,” explains Francis Schwarze.
     
  7. HammyD

    HammyD Member

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    Nagvary did some experiment, but I can't recall the details (I read it in Scientific American '86 or something.) I do recall he tried treating the wood to affect the inner cells as your describe, as well as applying the varnish in much the same way you would "tap tune" carve a top. I also recall he found out Strad had two sets of "daybooks." One with his secrets and one to share with students!

    Nagvary actually had pieces of an original Strad that I believe was cut down to 3/4 size for a wealthy individual for his young daughter.
     
  8. musicofanatic5

    musicofanatic5 Member

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    Wow, an innalekshul thread and posts about musical instruments, not about Robin Ford or why PRSeses dust Gbsns. Cool!
     
  9. HammyD

    HammyD Member

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    Thanks for the info, Joe!
     
  10. gixxerrock

    gixxerrock Member

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    Ha Ha, reminds me of the 80s guys who routed out their old strats for humbuckers and a Floyd.
     
  11. kovachian

    kovachian Member

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    He made all kinds of stringed instruments, including guitars. I think this one could use a Charlie Christian pickup and a piezo.

    [​IMG][​IMG]
    [​IMG]
     
  12. JohnSykes

    JohnSykes Member

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    Lol
     

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