The violins of Antonio Stradivari are renowned throughout the world for their perfect proportions, vigorous and bright tonality, responsiveness, and remarkable flexibility in the hands of different musicians playing continually new music throughout the ages.
The gifted instrument maker, who lived in the town of Cremona in northern Italy, did not, however, spring out of nowhere with his masterpieces and take the world by surprise. Rather, his work was the pinnacle of achievement of over two centuries of expert craftsmanship, experiment, and development by the Cremonese and Brescian schools.
The Hill brothers, themselves musicians, instrument makers, and authors of the most authoritative study of Stradivari, published in 1902, picture the legendary genius as a rather plodding, earnest, quiet fellow who methodically persisted in his attempts for perfection. But this continual searching throughout 70 years of professional work resulted in a stunning number and variety of violins, no one of which is exactly like another in proportion or tone. Herein lies his genius, and his departure from his teacher, Nicola Amati, who perfected the recipe used by his family in three previous generations, albeit a magnificent one, which brought him the reputation of being the finest living Italian violin maker until his death in 1684.
Young Stradivari, born in 1644, was apprenticed to Amati at the age of 12 or 14. A violin recognized by the Hills as an early Stradivarius bears the label “Alumnus Nicolai Amati, faciebat anno 1666,” the customary signature of a student, and by the following year, the pupil was signing his own name. After several years of apprenticeship, he stayed on awhile in the prestigious Amati house as a paid worker, making the small, light, beautiful instruments for which his teacher was noted.
The Cremona makers were fortunate to have superb materials readily at hand: pine and spruce, whose straight fibers do not easily warp, and maple, which has a slightly higher density and transmits vibrations more slowly.
Earlier makers had used cedar, poplar, lime, or pear, but maple became the favorite because it is easier to model and more beautiful, and produces a brighter tone. Although theories circulate about Stradivari’s mystical understanding of the acoustical qualities of wood, the Hills maintain that the choice, while discriminating, was based on what was in stock and on what a client would pay (some offering to buy more expensive imported wood). The wood supply in Italy was ample, however, and the climate suitable for drying the wood in the sun and air for about five years, as was necessary before it could be used without fear of warping.
Working diligently in his little shop, Stradivari produced an estimated 1,116 instruments, violas, cellos, and, by far the most numerous, his celebrated violins. The method of creating these violins began with choosing a fine maple log and cutting it either “on the slab” (vertically across the grain) or “on the quarter” (in pie-shaped wedges).
The former produced one flat piece, which might be used for the back. In the latter method, two pieces were often required to form the back; when joined at the thicker end, the wedges produced a mirror image symmetrical with the center line. Very slowly and carefully, Stradivari shaped the back and belly (usually composed of two pieces of pine) with saws, gouges, planes, and calipers. Thickness has a marked influence on tone and the early makers recognized the necessity of the back’s being slightly thicker in the center: for example, ten sixty-fourths of an inch in the center, graduating to six sixty-fourths at the flanks. The bellies are usually about six sixty-fourths all over. Guided by intuition and a keen eye, Stradivari varied these measurements according to the quality of the wood and its curvature, which is also a significant factor, a flatter instrument producing a stronger, harder tone.
Stradivari was a superb draftsman, and he drew outlines of his instruments, from which he created molds for shaping the sides. Some of these molds are still in existence and the craftsman either had many or, more likely, was somehow able to adjust them to constantly changing dimensions.
Belly and back are held together by ribs, one twenty-fourth of an inch thick, which when wet were bent to the shape of the mold with hot bending irons. These were glued in place and further supported by wedge-shaped linings that Stradivari, unlike those before him, extended into the center blocks. Whereas Amati used willow for these linings and pine for the various blocks that strengthen corners and support the neck, Stradivari used willow, a light but strong wood, for both. Furthermore, he reduced the size of the blocks as much as possible in order to leave the sides freer to vibrate.
Once shaped, the back was glued to the maple sides and the belly followed, after the addition of bass-bar and sound holes. The former is a narrow strip of pine glued to one side of the belly in order to inhibit vibrations on that side and produce graver bass notes.
In this Stradivari basically followed the example of his teacher; in the sound holes, he left the signature of his skill and ingenuity. Although meticulous in his measurements, the instrument maker was never rigid or redundant in his carvings, for each set of sound holes was perfectly suited to the arching and proportions of that instrument. These graceful holes, shaped like a cursive f, affect the vibration of the instrument and thus the tone, and are extremely difficult to cut because of pine’s tendency to split. Using compasses, Stradivari determined the precise position of the top and bottom of the sound holes; he traced the longitudinal line with the aid of a small template, then left the form of the wings and the curve of top and bottom to his artistic eye and free hand.
Stradivari smoothed the interior of the violin with glass paper and made sure that the body, once glued, was completely airtight, as the slightest gap would create a buzzing sound. Then came the demanding task of adding the purfling, three narrow strips that follow the outline of the instrument on the front and back, decorating and helping protect the body of the violin.
Stradivari cut a small groove along this line with a sharp knife, then inserted the purfling and tapped it in place with a small hammer. Modern instrument makers do this as soon as the back and belly are cut, but Stradivari waited until the body was assembled. The Hills believed this method “left the maker a free hand to correct and alter the curves, and Stradivari undoubtedly did so, as it is very rare to find the curves of the back and belly of any of his instruments in exact agreement: in some, indeed, a considerable difference exists.” The sweep of the purfling highlights the curves of the instrument, and in varying the thickness of the purfling and its distance from the outer edge, Stradivari again left his mark of elegance and balance.
Stradivari carved the neck and head from one piece of wood. The heads are always scrolls, never figures, first traced onto the wood using templates, then carved with utmost accuracy and symmetry. The neck was glued into place and the belly temporarily removed in order to drive in several nails through the interior blocks to help hold the neck.
The instrument maker then added numerous small pieces: a smooth fingerboard of maple, sometimes veneered in ebony or inlaid with ivory purfling (a set of instruments for the Grand Duke of Tuscany bore the Medici arms in mother of pearl); a tailpiece to match the fingerboard; pegs and pegbox; and a bridge in any of several designs similar to those made today. No one really knows how long construction took to this point, and a vital and time-consuming step was still to come.
The composition and application of varnish on a stringed instrument is extremely important. Some believe it is paramount, the key ingredient to the luscious tone and long life of a Stradivarius. Hard varnishes produce a metallic or glassy sound, while thick, heavy oils inhibit vibration.
Somewhere in between lies the light, transparent, elastic coating of the Italian master, which gives rise to a full, woody tone. Much has been written on the subject of Stradivari’s unique recipe and countless attempts have been made to duplicate it, all without success. We know only that the varnish was composed of gum, oil, and coloring ingredients, but the balance and subtle variations remain a mystery. Whatever the proportions, we know from one of two extant letters of Stradivari, in which he apologizes for a delay in delivery, that the varnish required a long time to dry. Numerous coats, possibly seven or eight, were applied and dried in the sun. Initially Stradivari produced a golden varnish in the tradition of his master, but soon moved to deeper, warmer tints of reddish orange and even brown.
A romantic story surrounds the varnish of Stradivari, which suggests that the recipe may still exist somewhere, though many experts think it unlikely. A Signor Mandelli wrote in the mid-19th century to a descendant of Stradivari, Signor Giacomo Stradivari, and beseeched him for some clue about the varnish. In reply, Giacomo confided that a “Bible, inside the cover of which was written, in the handwriting of Antonio Stradivari, the famous recipe for the varnish and the way to apply it, was destroyed. Previously, however, I made a faithful copy of the same, which I have jealously guarded.” He added in a later letter, “I have never confided the secret, even to my wife or daughters.” Giacomo wrote that he had turned down an offer by a Frenchman of 1,000 francs in order to safeguard the recipe for future Stradivarius who might once again put it to use.
Today estimates vary about the number of surviving instruments by Stradivari. Herbert K. Goodkind (Violin Iconography of Antonio Stradivari, 1644-1737) lists 630 violins, 15 violas, and 60 cellos.
It is sad to consider how many have been lost forever, but the prizes that have been passed down through the generations, lost and recovered, brought to life in the hands of Niccolo Paganini, Nathan Milstein, Jascha Heifetz, and other virtuosos, or finally donated to museums, testify to the ceaseless innovation of their maker.
Until 1690 Stradivari made violins similar in size to the Grand Amati, measuring 14 inches. These are noted for their bright sound and quick response. The beautiful “Hellier,” made in 1679, one of the few inlaid violins of Stradivari, foreshadowed with its larger proportions a later development.
Along the lines of the Brescian school, Stradivari began making a larger instrument, the “Long Strad,” in the 1690s in order to create a darker, fuller sound. These violins have wider purfling, bolder sound holes, and varnish of a deeper color; the entire design is adjusted to meet the proportions of the body, lengthened by five sixteenths of an inch. Later, Stradivari returned to a smaller size, improving still further the sonority of his instruments, as heard in such masterpieces as the “Betts” of 1704, the “Alard” of 1715, and the “Messiah” of 1716. This last, with its velvety red finish, was made when Stradivari was 72.
Today a great many concert violinists and collectors are willing to pay considerable sums for an instrument made by Stradivari. Prices have soared to over $1 million; however, a more representative range is from $150,000 to $350,000. The condition of the violin and the period in which Stradivari made it are determining factors in the cost, with the small violins of his late period bringing a higher price than the earlier long ones.
The foremost factor, of course, is the extent of the buyer’s desire to own one of these treasured instruments and, one would hope, to hear it.