Stradivari: the myth

December 19, 1997

THOMAS Levinson's romantic story ("The holy grail of sound", THES, December 12) was well titled; like the holy grail, the pursuit of the "secret" of Stradivari is the quest for a fantasy which has beguiled many physicists and chemists. And like many such stories his is full of inaccuracies. For example, spirit varnish is much more difficult to apply than oil. Sacconi did not say that there was glue under the varnish; the Mittenwalders did that on cheap instruments. There is of course no evidence that Stradivari made any varnish himself. Most of Nagyvary's scientific statements about violins have now been disproved by other scientists.

Stradivari set out to create a reputation that he was the greatest violin maker. He was helped by two things. He was a meticulous craftsman whose instruments looked beautiful - that is really the one thing that distinguishes them. And few things are more susceptible to suggestion than the sound of a violin. That has been demonstrated in a number of ways but particularly in several scientifically conducted blind tests since the last century, in which sophisticated audiences have failed to distinguish the sound of a Stradivari from any other instrument. Indeed in such experiments in Cambridge, they have even failed to distinguished varnished from unvarnished instruments.

The reasons are detailed in my book The Violin Explained (OUP, 1997). The fundamental misassumption is that physical measurements describe what we hear. The sound spectrum of every note on every violin, Stradivari included, is different, but our hearing mechanism cannot distinguish those differences; that is why blind tests give random results.

Many outstanding instruments have been made since 1750. Among them are those of J. B. Guadagnini and Lupot, while John Lott's violins have been mistaken for Stradivari. And a remarkable number of the great soloists have preferred a Guarneri del Gesu. The craftsmanship is not so fine, the all important sounding board is often very variable in thickness and they are harder to play. But they have greater projection in an auditorium. We know why, both in terms of mechanics and physiology. To suggest that no one has made instruments as good as Stradivari, until, by applying scientific discoveries it can now be approached, is simply attempting to relaunch the myth that gave Stradivari his reputation.

Sir James Beament, FRS Queens' College, Cambridge

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