Stradivarius: Unsurpassed Artisan or Just Lucky?

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Biology 103
2003 Third Paper
On Serendip

Stradivarius: Unsurpassed Artisan or Just Lucky?

Sarah Kim

There are about seven hundred Stradivarius violins still intact from the 17th century, and they are among the most sought-after instruments in the world (3). Most, if not all, of the greatest violinists of modern times believe that there is something in the Cremonese violins that provides superior tonal quality to all other violins. Skilled violinists can even distinguish between different qualities in the sound produced by individual Stradivarius violins. The challenge for scientists is to characterize such differences by physical measurements. In practice, it is extremely difficult to distinguish between a Stradivarius instrument and a modern copy on the basis of measured responses because the ear is a supreme detection device and the brain is a far more sophisticated analyzer of complex sounds than any system yet developed to assess musical quality. There have been many theories as to why Stradivarius violins produce such legendary brilliance and resonance, none providing a conclusive answer.

To understand the factors that affect the quality of sound produced by violins, the functioning of the violin must be understood. First of all, sound is produced by drawing a bow across one or more of the four stretched strings, but the strings themselves produce almost no sound. The energy from the vibrating string is transferred to the sound box, which is the main body of the violin. The bridge, which supports the strings, acts as a mechanical transformer; it converts the transverse forces of the strings into the vibrational modes of the sound box (4). The bridge itself also has resonant modes, playing a role in the overall tone. The front plate of the violin is expertly carved with f-holes which boost the sound output at low frequencies, through the Helmholtz air resonance. The Helmholtz air resonance describes the action of the air bouncing backwards and forwards through the f-holes (1). Then, front and back plates are skillfully carved to get the right degree of arching and variation in thickness. Even the tiniest changes in the thickness of the plates and the smallest variations in the properties of the wood will significantly affect the specific resonance in the frequency range (1).

There are many theories as to the "secret" of Stradivarius violins. Of course what was obviously first explored was the exact size of the violins and ratio of the parts of the violin to each other. It was proposed that perhaps the magic lay in some perfect ratio of measurements in the pieces of the violin, but instrument makers have disassembled their violins, calibrated every dimension of the pieces to within the hundredth of an inch, and replicated the measurements perfectly in new instruments, but failed to duplicate the Stradivarius magic (2). Another factor to consider is that almost all Cremonese instruments underwent extensive restoration and improvement in the 19th century. For example, in the 19th century, both the bass bar and the sound post were made bigger to strengthen the instrument and increase the sound output. The bass bar is glued underneath the top plate to stop energy being dissipated into acoustically inefficient higher-order modes. The sound post is a solid rod wedged between the back and front plates which causes the bridge to rock, making the plates vibrate with larger amplitude, producing a stronger sound (1).

Some tests suggest that early Italian makers, such as Stradivari, may have tuned the resonant modes of the individual front and back plates to exact musical intervals (1). They would be identified by the traditional flexing and tapping of the plates, in essence, the violin maker's brain providing the interpretative computing power to perform nodal analysis. This would be consistent with the prevailing Renaissance view of perfection, which was measure in terms of numbers and exact ratios. Unfortunately, there is no historical evidence to support this case, and physicists have used lab equipment to analyze the vibrational patterns of Cremonese violin front and back plates and had craftsmen carve new plates that faithfully reproduce the patterns, yet still the extraordinary and brilliant tone of Stradivari's violins is missing (2). Also, top players regularly return their instruments to violin makers to optimize the sound by moving the sound post and adjusting the bridge, showing that there is no unique set of vibrational characteristics for any particular instrument, even a Stradivarius (1).

A claim had been made by one of the last famed Cremonese violin makers, Joannes Baptista Guadagnini, that Stradivari's secret laid in using wood that had been dry-aged, with no extra treatment (3). The problem was that in Venice, from 1700 until 1720, when Stradivari produced his most prized and valued violins, wood supplies were tightly controlled by government authorities. People would have been thrown in jail for simply walking out and cutting wood from the forests. Authorized woodcutters felled trees and dumped the longs into rivers where they were carried downstream to the capital. By the time violin makers had access to the wood, it had been sitting in water for weeks or even months at a time (2). When wood shavings from Cremonese instruments were examined, residue of bacteria and fungi showed up, just as you'd expect in wood which had been sitting in water. This suggests that perhaps Guadagnini was deliberately misleading people so that nobody could replicate the great masters.

One of the most widely known theories is that the secret lies in a special kind of varnish used. Scholars from Cambridge University used electron microscopy to identify many of the ingredients of the varnish itself and the materials used to smooth the surface before the varnish is applied (1). They concluded that most could have easily been bought from the pharmacist shop next to Stradivari's workshop and that there is no convincing evidence to support the idea of a secret formula. Joseph Nagyvary has a slightly different take on the varnish issue. He claims that the local lumberman and the local apothecary simply happened to supply Stradivari with the ideal wood and perfect varnish; the production of his magnificent and extraordinary instruments was just a lucky accident (3).

The secret to producing such amazing tonal quality, he claims lies in the varnish. Nagyvary proposes the idea that the insect-repelling mixture of "salt of gems" (which are finely crushed crystals) and borax that the Cremonese violin makers used as varnish is what fossilized the wood to a perfect pitch (3). He believed that the violin makers treated their wood with mineral solutions, which is not a far-fetched idea, as the alchemy books of the time had plenty of recipes for mineral-rich wood preservatives used by furniture makers to protect chairs and tables against damage from insects and general rot. Salt of gems was commonly used as well to add stiffness to the wood and make the finish glitter. Nagyvary's idea is that the accidental chemical reaction of phosphates and wood lifted Stradivarius's violins to a whole new level.

The finish of the most pristine of the surviving Stradivarius instruments has a brittle, almost glassy look. If Stradivari's varnish contained sugar or a polysaccharide, the molecules would have attached to one another and to the wood, stiffening it so it could vibrate more efficiently (4). Fruit-tree extracts were widely used in wood varnishes as well, and Nagyvary claims that the pectin creates polymers which continue to add to the superior brilliance of the Stradivarius tonal quality (3). Unfortunately, ultraviolet photography has revealed that many fine-sounding Italian violins have lost almost all their original varnish. These violins were recoated during the 19th century or later (1). Therefore, the composition of the varnish may have had little to do with the overall superior tonal quality of the Stradivarius violins.

Another important finding by Nagyvary is that violins acknowledged to be great by expert listeners all look similar on the sound analyzer. He found that the sound pattern almost exactly reproduces that of a human voice (2). He built violins to match the spectrogram tests of the Stradivarius violins, results registering between 4,000 and 6,000 kHz, the zone where the human ear is the most sensitive. Shunsuke Sato, a top violinist, played both a Stradivarius violin and Nagyvary's replica as a test. Though Nagyvary's violin exhibits an uncommon brilliance and resonance, the Stradivarius violin sounded much warmer and even the untrained ear could hear a distinct difference (3).

A new theory which has emerged attributes the climate of the time period to the uncommonly amazing sound of the Stradivarius violins. A tree-ring dating expert, from the University of Texas, and a climatologist, from Columbia University, claim that the wood used by Stradivari had developed special acoustic properties as it was growing because of a "Little Ice Age" (4). They propose the idea that an extended period of long winters and cool summers gripped Europe from the mid-1400s until the mid-1800s. The peak coldest point of this ice age was during a seventy year period from 1645 until 1715, known as the Maunder Minimum. This change in climate affected wood density, yielding uncommonly dense Alpine spruce for Stradivari, creating superior tonal quality. Stradivari was born the year before the Maunder Minimum began and produced his most prized and valued instruments from 1700 until 1720, right at the end of the period. These experts write that the narrow tree rings which personify the Maunder Minimum in Europe played a role in the enhanced sound quality of instruments produced by the Cremona violinmakers and that the narrow tree rings would not only strengthen the violin but would also increase the wood's density (4).

Overall, science has not provided any conclusive answer on the existence or otherwise of any measurable property that would set Stradivarius violins apart from the finest violins made by skilled craftsmen today. However, the really top soloists and the violin dealers remain convinced by the legend of the Stradivarius violins. Perhaps this is due to certain snobbery on the part of the violinists, attempting to set themselves aside as elite. Perhaps it is the dealers who do not want people questioning whether simply the name of Stradivari alone is worth a million dollars. Certainly, the secret of the Stradivarius violins is elusive. I would find it interesting, in light of this new study on the climate of the 17th century in Italy, to have scientists grow a crop of trees in controlled climates to produce exceptionally narrow rings, then attempt to recreate the magic of the Cremonese violins. This may be the real key to unlocking Stradivari's secret. Personally, I find it intriguing that science cannot find an answer to the brilliance of the Stradivarius violin's sound. Highly trained individuals can detect the difference between a Stradivarius and a new modern copy, however good the copy may be. Skilled individuals can detect the difference between the sounds of an Italian Cremonese sound and those with a more French tone. Experts can even tell apart an individual Stradivarius from another Stradivarius. Yet do not know how to characterize such properties in meaningful physical terms.

 

References


1)Science and the Stradivarius, PhysicsWeb, April 2000

2)Stradivari's Secret, Discover, July 2000

3)Stradivarius: Artisan or Accidental Chemist?, November 2001

4)Cool Weather May Be Stradivarius' Secret, CNN.com, December 2003

 

 

Continuing conversation
(to contribute your own observations/thoughts, post a comment below)

01/05/2006, from a Reader on the Web

I enjoyed your article about the sound of Stradivari violin's, and why they do sound as they do. Have been reading about them for a number of years and now have some tools and plan on trying to make a violin. Do not expect it be in his league but want to build one for the enjoyment. I remember reading on book on his violins that said he built a few out of willow wood, so I question the ice age thing, also don't think the varnish was it, but have my own ideas. Have read where they only used the wood from a certain side of the tree facing a certain direction, etc. I have my own thoughts on what he did but, like everyone else your just not sure, even if you got the sound right is it what he did? Maybe yes, maybe no. I want to thank you for the article learn some new things from it. Best to all Glen Stone

 

Additional comments made prior to 2007
I enjoyed your article, but you may be overlooking one critical fact: namely, the every violin is individual, thus, some violins of very humble origins sound as good as or even better than some Strads! I think the quality of the workmanship of any great instrument maker will give a "star" quality to the sound. Strads, good as they are, are basically no better than other very high quality instruments. They are works of art, thereby, prized for their beauty. But, frankly, I have heard many instruments by unknown or little owned makers, that, with proper adjustment, have concert quality sound. The myth of Stradivari is just that, a myth ... Frank Rocca, 29 December 2006

 

 

I have a theory of the Spruce wood that Strad used or harvest. Due to the little Ice Age or used for the Venetian Navy is that Strad harvest or mined spruce wood from salt or fresh water marshes. The ancient forest trees would be uncovered due to the receeding waters. It was known that he made close to a 1,000 violins and few Cello thats alot of spruce? ... Timothy P. Doyle, 3 February 2007

 

 

Actually if you look at the empirical date you will see that moderns do really well against cremona instruments from that period, and that few can tell them apart, like you mentioned ... Joe Palina, 30 June 2007

 

 

I just wanted to express my appreciation for you boldly stating your opinions on this subject. I believe you really hit the nail on the head when you used the term "snobbery" when it comes to the people most closely associated with these types of violins. I tried to help out wikipedia by putting some of this information that could possibly suffice as reasoning for the quality of Stradivari's violins, but I was repeatedly shut down by people like this with certain agendas. Having studied environmental science for a respectable amount of time, I can say that I would personally be very surprised if climate and nature generally speaking had nothing to do with the unusual quality of these instruments. I think it is completely ridiculous to ignore the incredibly rare state the climate was in at the time these violins were built. It is just amazing that people will do anything to hide a truth that could contradict something they believe in... or that makes them look good or provides them with material wealth. Thanks again, because that is one hell of an article with a fantastic aim and level of boldness ... Noah Berger, 28 July 2007

Comments

Beaux's picture

Placebo Effect

Picasso paintings come to mind - so many "experts" claim how wonderful his paintings are. I think they're shite. Didn't do to well when he was alive though did he?
Anyhow, I think perhaps those playing a Strad, do so delicately because they're handling something so expensive/famous/delicate, thereby effecting it's sound, and those listening interpret it as "warm" or "wonderful", or because it's been determined by "experts" to be the crem de la crem - and put's that predisposition in everybody's mind

I know nothing really, I just like to analyze and theorize things - I have never had the privilege of listening to a Stradivarius

yasmin's picture

buy a violin

hi
i want to buy a violin and i want to ask: if i want to buy a strad violin how can i know if it's true or copy?

Anonymous's picture

You cant buy a strad, theres

You cant buy a strad, theres 700 or so, every violin has an owner, and unless you know them personally and have over a million, you aint gettin one. If someone trys to sell you one, its fake.

protenor (nz)'s picture

Stradivarius violins

I have seen on a BBC documentary that Stradivarius violins have many more partials from the harmonic series present in their tone and the energy for the excitation of these frequencies are symmetrically distributed. By symmetrically I mean the following.

In all acoustic instruments especially in wind instruments such as saxophones and clarinets, there are two kinds of vibrations whose needs require sacrificing or else the product of both of them, which is the measurable degree of excellency, will be so seriously compromised as to make its performance uncompetitive.

For example, it was easy to anticipate in a tennis match between Bjorn Borg, the best player, and his wife the least of the four in the doubles match, Bjorn's opposite no 2 player Chris Evert Lloyd and her husband the third best player that Evert's team would have the greatest chance of winning, for the reason that 3x2=6 and 1x4=4. And this is exactly what happened. I realize that the difference between the players could affect this formula, but while they are all reasonably in the same professional league, this formula holds true. So just like there was a huge controversy at one stage in the scientific field as to whether light acted like a wave in mid ocean (standing with vertical movement only) or like a particle, such as a surf wave breaking on a beach, until they realized that it performs like both, so also in the saxophone particularly it is noticeable that there is firstly the linear generating vibration that travels from the impact of the reed onto the tip and side rails of the mouthpiece to travel longitudinally through the material of the walls of the mouthpiece neck, body, bow and bell of the saxophone. This vibration requires as sensitive material and as thick as possible to enhance the initial pulse and to allow it to continue as sustained as possible. This vibration gives the texture to the tone and is acoustically the most important vibration, because it directly expresses the skill of the performer and if the performer can feel the feedback from this vibration will really be advantaged in fine tuning his skills much like a monitor speaker helps an electric lead guitarist to play more sensitively like leading or correcting a guided missile to its target as opposed to firing an artillery shell at its target, which would be the case when the performer can neither hear nor feel any feedback from his playing. I believe that the resonance factor is the degree of excellency of how well the material of this instruments mouthpiece and instrument comply with fulfilling the needs of this generating vibration. For example, a saxophone mouthpiece made in thick walled top quality rod rubber will far more fulfill the requirements of this generating vibration than solid sterling silver. However, this is not the only requirement, and so in as much as the rod rubber fulfills the requirements of the generating vibration by being far more sensitive than silver and by being thick, it is able to allow much more of this vibration to build up to greatly make up for the acoustic sacrifice that single reed instruments with conical bore make in resonance than do its double lip brass equivalents with more cylindrical bores and flared bells. Conversely however the three dimensional reflecting vibrating air column that constitutes the wind instruments tone, requires the exact opposite of the generating vibration, which commonsense tells us will suffer by not being able to reflect anywhere near as efficiently from the inside walls of the sensitive sound absorbing rubber compared to solid spun cast sterling silver. So also it can be seen that it is the multiple of both together that defines the superior compromise between these two needs as can be illustrated metaphorically by using a for example ball park figure of eight factors involved here:

1.8+0=8 1. 8x0=0
2.7+1=7 2. 7x1=7
3.6+2=8 3.6x2=12
4.5+3=8 4.5x3=15
5.4+4=8 5.4x4=16
6.3+5=8 6.3x5=15
7.2+6=8 7.2x6=12
8.1+7=8 8.1x7=7
9.0+8=8 9.0x8=0

So just like it is easier to gain points in an exam from the first 50% of each question and so it pays to try to answer at least half of all questions than all of less than half, so too the actual real performance is valued by the product of both factors, making 4x4=16 the ultimate choice in with reference to the law of symmetry.

It needs to be remembered that there are at least three principles here in an artistic performance(i) the arithmetic such as 1+1+1+1+1 which can be described as - or a space of an inch on a rule and represents the competency factor (ii) is like < which is geometric progression such as we add < to - for one but to < form then on. This is the professional area and is represented by the generating vibration factor and the third principle is the artistic factor such as how many permutations are possible with each factor which is represented by each upper partial that is allowed to exist in the air column which goes exponential far sooner than the professional as can be seen in only eight nine steps where I take it to nine because after that the harmonic series goes up in intervals less than a tone: for example taking A 440 as the fundamental on a violin where the body does not allow that note to be heard but the second in the harmonic series is heard as the fundamental which is the octave above. For those who do not know what the harmonic series is, it is the inverse square law applied to the amplitude of the fundamental note which can best be seen by using a guitar string as an example. If the fundamental is 12" long the first harmonic is half that length and the rate of vibration or pitch is what it takes to keep the sum the same. For example,if A 440 was represented by a 12" oscillating guitar string then the half length of that would be A 880. The third in the series a third the original length is now the fifth above that which is 3x440 = 1320cycles per second, the fourth 4x440 which is A1760, the fifth harmonic 5x440=C#2200, the sixth 440x6=E2640 and the seventh (dominant seventh in fact) above that 7x440 = G3080 and the eighth 8x440=A3520 and the nineth 9x440 = B3960. Now the intervals have been proportionally decreasing at the rate of 12, 7, 5, 4, 3, 3, 2, 2, but if we look at the tenth harmonic it cannot be even 2, which it needs to be in order to at least attain to C#, so we take it that the intervals are no longer rational and fall within the scope of the field of A major or minor so we usually do not consider them within the normal field of study.

Suffice it to say that the material that the reflecting or nodal vibrations reflect of are the ones that have the huge potential such as the series 1, 2, 6, 24, 120, 720, 5040, 40,320 for only 8 factors such as the number of changes that eight bells can ring without repeating a change compared to 7 which is 5040. I apply this to our eight choices where 4x4=16 gives us that optimum possible results which is represented by the 40,320 or the million dollar plus price tag on Stradivarii violins. Antonio was too inspired to be achieving his remarkable violins by anything than sheer discovery by intelligent observation by trial and error through untold man hours of personal labor. People who would rob this man of his true glory deserve to go into utter darkness on this subject.

The worlds violin prodigies and great artists are the best qualified to judge and it is my belief that since the loss of faith in the possibility to produce the best and most flexible tones on a violin without vibrato, that the performances since have dropped so much that there is no more such beautiful sounds to inspire men like Stradivarius to desperately try by the hardest but surest way, of trial and error, to make violins worthy of such performance. F=ma and this formula condemns vibrato because it prevents the tidal wave build up of tone that overwhelms such makers as Stradivarius to devote their lives to making instruments to do justice and help such artists go as far that way as possible. In other words there has not been any violinists worthy of such instruments since there ceased to be instrument makers of that caliber. I will end this like the first installment of a serial that ends part way through the choicest parts.

Regards John

william brady's picture

stradivari

I have been reading quite a bit about stradivari violins, it intrigues me as to how a person can distinguish a strad. from not a strad. all the violins made with a strad label inserted with the year of manufacture are supposed to be copies made in different countries. if the labels were taken out how would anyone know if it was a strad or just a copy? is there that many geniuses around today that can tell the difference? I would like to know as I have a strad and would like to know if it is genuine or not, but I believe all genuine strads have been accounted for, how can anyone tell?

A. Fiddler's picture

"if the labels were taken out how would anyone know"

Partly because most so-called "copies" aren't even close. The labels might say they are, but in fact they're not and anyone who has seen even a few pictures of real Strads can tell they're not.

Another part is that makers, like everyone else, are children of their time and place. Very few are so skilled and have such fine powers of observation that they can completely avoid putting any of their modern understanding into their work. So even a highly-skilled modern maker who is doing his utmost using traditional tools and methods to make a true copy will leave signs that a real top-rank expert can spot.

Anonymous's picture

I have the same dilemma as

I have the same dilemma as the comment above. I have a violin that has been in my family for 150+ years and it is not marked either. I recieved a phone call from a distant relative that is a family historian, saying that she has tracked me down with the violin, and that it is a strad. There is a label that says it was rebuilt in 1916 in Salt Lake City, UT., but nothing else with any identifiying markings.
Who should I go to to verify authenticity?

A. Fiddler's picture

Your fiddles might be very valuable, even if not in dollar terms

A fiddle (a "violin" and a "fiddle" are really the same thing, the words just came to us via different languages. Most people who play in orchestras call theirs a violin; most who play for dancing call theirs a fiddle. But there's no rule about it.) has at least two different kinds of worth, and they might be VERY different indeed.

One is musical worth (how well does it sound), and the other monetary (how much could you get for it). There might also be a third kind: emotional (this is the fiddle Grannie loved and played all her life).

Beginning in the last part of the 19th century, there was a big increase in people's desire for music in the US. Tens of thousands of violins, varying greatly in quality, were produced in German-speaking regions of Europe and shipped here. Most were labeled with the names of the world-famous makers - Amati, Stainer, Stradivari, Guarnieri del Gesu - even though most of them didn't look even a little bit like the real work of those makers. But today, we look at one of those fiddles with its hundred or more years of wear on it and think "I wonder whether this could really be a Stradivarius" (or Stainer, or whatever the label says).

The chances of it being real are maybe one in a hundred thousand. In the case of a Strad, maybe one in a million. That's the bad news.

The good news is that it might be a really lovely musical instrument, capable of giving endless hours of pleasure to player and listeners alike. A lot of fiddles that aren't worth much in the marketplace, where fiddles are sold as though they were paintings, by their maker's name and their physical condition with their musical value running a distant third, are really fine "players".

Most people who've looked at a few hundred fiddles can tell right away whether your instrument isn't a real whatever.

So you could go to, for example, the music department at your local college or university and a professor there could just glance at it and tell you that your fiddle is not a real Strad, if that's the case. (If you ask at a shop and the person there looks at it and offers to "take it off your hands" for a few hundred dollars, that's a hint that you might have something.)

Determining what it is, especially if it's by a less-prestigious but still very good maker, is much more difficult. For that, you'd have to pay a fee to one of the few recognised experts in the field. Usually, the more your fiddle is worth in monetary terms, the higher the fee. A fiddle by a maker of middling prestige can still bring anywhere from $5000 to $100,000 depending on who the maker was and what condition it's in, so the fee might run into the thousands of dollars. Getting such an opinion is not something to do lightly.

But the likelihood that you have even a middling (in money terms) fiddle is poor. Most likely what you have is one of those "violin river" fiddles that flowed out of factories in Bohemia, Bavaria, and Saxony in the thousands during the late 19th century.

That's especially true if it doesn't look beautiful. Most good fiddles look it. They might have their varnish worn off in spots, be chipped and cracked and even broken, but they look like the maker really cared - which in fact he did. It's very hard to do good work without caring.

Good players in good shape can sell for $500 - $1500, maybe $2500 if very good. That's true even if they were made by an unknown maker. Maybe $5000 if old and from somewhere in what's now Italy.

So if you're lucky, you have a "violin river" instrument that's a good player. If you're very lucky you have a somewhat-$-valuable instrument by a good unknown maker. If you're extremely lucky, you have a $-valuable instrument by a middle-rank maker. Don't even think about having a fiddle by a top-ranker - that kind of luck can't be measured.

Hope that helps.

Jackie Claflin's picture

my violin

I have a child`s violin. the label inside reads Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Faciebat Anna 1713 Made in Checkhoslovakia then on the upper left corner there is an odd emblem with I believe HB part of the emblem. Can you tell me if it is worth anything? thank you for your time

Keld Jensen's picture

Stradivarius: Unsurpassed Artisan or Just Lucky?

Is there an elusive secret to Stradivari's accomplishments? There are many conflicting opinions and studies. Stradivari (he latinized his name on the labels to Stradivarius) worked roughly 55 years on his own creations, some of the time in poor health or lowered productivity. One article suggests there are approximately 3000 instruments documented and attributed to him. This means he completed an average of 1 instrument per week, with no time off for good behavior. This seems incredible given the acknowledged fine quality of his work. Most modern day experts of similar skill build 1 per month. It would be good to be a fly on the wall of his workshop to see what was actually going on. It should also be remembered that Stradivari did not achieve star status during his life, only later when violinists agreed the different sound that his own models produced was an improvement. But the most interesting point brought forward is the improvements and fixed defects in later repairs by good restorers, and herein lies in my opinion much of the answer; subsequent fine tuning of the instruments. Strad violins trade on their fame and hence get the best repairers working on them. There is relatively little original material left in many of his instruments but the repairs and modifications are by and large skillfully done by experts who understand sound and structure completely. So the instruments continue to improve. But I have also read that there are strads around with less enticing sound and even "wolf notes". Some artists prefer other makers' instruments by choice! I believe any number of violins by famous as well as obscure makers have the potential to be considered among the greatest sounding instruments in the world. It all depends on who looks after their condition. How much money gets spent on restoration depends in large part on its status as a marketable investment. My own violin has a most delightful mellow tone which turns heads, with a quick and easy response all the way up the fingerboard making for secure and easy playing. But it is built loosely on a lesser model by an unknown maker with a random mix of wide and narrow grain spruce and variable maple, and we don't even know how old it is. The inconsistencies in tone (there are a couple of slight wolf notes and a dulled C) can be attributed to many poor repair jobs and maybe slight defects in original construction, and possibly to a finish which suffers from crackling, pock marks, bubbles, and overvarnishing later on. But I am fully convinced that if a great modern day restorer got his hands on it, the sound result would be as good as anything coming out of Stradivari's shop. Unfortunately I don't possess the resources to fine tune the instrument to such a degree and will have to enjoy it the way it is. So there is nothing mysterious going on at all, just economics which justify a major investment getting a $50,000 facelift by a skilled artisan versus $50 spent on a cheap trade instrument. The choice is dictated by the means of the owner and the value potential of the finished restoration. No one so far has shown any inclination to pay $millions for a work by an unknown provincial maker, regardless of how it sounds after that facelift. Keld Jensen, Jan 27 2008

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