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“Secrets” of Stradivarius Debunked

by Peter Zaret

What is it in the tone of a Stradivarius that many people think makes it distinctive? Put into tangible language is it the power of the tone? Is it soft but has excellent carrying power? Is it the color of the tone? Is it edgy or dull? Is it clear and resonant with an easy response? In my opinion, the only probable aspect of a violin’s tone is power. Power can be measured in decibels. The really good violins (ones that are called “concert”) violins are powerful.

There are numerous articles on the “Secret of Stradivarius'” but to the best of my knowledge nobody can say what it actually is in the tone the musicians and authors of these articles think that makes a Strad superior. Could it be they don’t want to appear ignorant and say it is superior?

A lot of articles say it is a certain chemical, or a fungus, or the wood had denser and narrower growth rings due to the fact Stradivarius lived in a mini ice age. There are theories he used borax as a preservative, or boiled the wood or submersed it in ponds.

Changes, Changes, Changes

Here is my theory. First of all a Stradivarius in no way shape or form sounds the way Stradivarius heard his violins. He lived from the second half of the 17th century into the first half of the 18th century. In the time since his death in 1737, the bass bar shape has changed, the neck has been lengthened, the fingerboard has been lengthened, the neck has been mortised, the tailpiece, bridge, pegs, have had their shape changed and improved. Most of all the strings have been changed and improved. In his day the strings were made of what is now called catgut. Even the E string was catgut. Within the last few years even gut wound strings have for the most part been replaced with composite materials, and wound with metal such as aluminum, silver, chrome, titanium, etc. The E string is mostly steel nowadays. The only Strad not modernized is the Medici tenor viola of 1690, according to Sacconi.

Even the bow has been improved. It was made longer and had more of an inverted curve to give it more strength. Why did the bow need more strength and length? It was for the most part to produce more sound.

Most of the improvements or changes have been directed toward giving the violin more power and at the same time keeping the tonal quality warm and rich. Stradivarius and Vivaldi were contemporaries. The orchestra of their day was mostly strings. We are talking about the second half of the 17th century and the first half of the 18th century. It was in the 19th century that the standard orchestra was dramatically expanded with woodwinds, brass and percussion. To keep up with these additions more and more strings were required to maintain the overall balance with the expanding color of the orchestra.

As a comparison, the harpsichord was the main keyboard instrument of the day in the early 1700’s. Toward the latter part of the 19th century the 9 foot grand piano was the standard keyboard instrument. There has to be no explanation of the difference in power and overall sound here. It is my conviction, in line with what I have written in the article so far, that power or volume, is the most important aspect of a good violin tone. This was particularly true for music from the Romantic and Contemporary periods. Vivaldi and Stradivarius were from the Baroque period. I have played concertos with orchestra or been in an orchestra when a violin soloist appeared and I can tell you that being heard is the number one problem for the soloist.

Soloists Want To Be Heard

I was with my wife a few years ago to the Blossom Festival, which is the summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra, and heard a concert of orchestral excerpts from Rogers and Hammerstein Musicals. I have played most of them from time to time. During the concert, I don’t remember which musical was being played but I knew a violin solo was coming in a couple of minutes. I told my wife to listen for the solo. After the solo was played I asked her what she thought of how the solo was played and she said “What solo?”

I have heard many violin concertos played from over the years and quite often I know the soloist is playing as I can see his bow moving. I can also hear him or her very well during the cadenzas.

What good do tonal colors do if you can’t be heard. (That is if you don’t want to hide in the second violin section).

Typically during rehearsals of a violin concerto, when I was concertmaster of the Norfolk, Virginia Symphony, the conductor would stop the rehearsal and we would work on “balances”. Balances simply meant the orchestra had to play softer so the soloist could be heard. I cannot remember one instance when the soloist drowned out the orchestra. As a matter of fact, I can’t ever remember a piano soloist drowning out the orchestra.

When I was studying violin with my most influential teacher the very famous violinist Joseph Fuchs, I can still hear him asking me for more sound. No matter how loud I played in the forte passages it was never seemed to be enough. He himself had a huge, rich and warm tone. How many times have you seen a conductor lean over to the violins and plead with them for more sound?

Has anyone ever heard a violinist criticized for having too BIG a sound? Why do we now have electric violins? The answer is obvious. It is to make them louder. Why did Paganini name is favorite Guarneri the “Canon”. Why don’t we have violins in a marching band? Why does an orchestra have 35 violins and only 3 flutes. The answer is always the same. The violin is just not loud enough.

The great violinists are always looking for more power. The development of electronic amplification lead to the resurrection of the Guitar in the 20th century which had fallen out of use during the Classic and Romantic periods. Even a violin can drown out a Classical Guitar without amplification.

Off Limits?

It is my belief that everything has been changed and or improved on the traditional violin with one exception: the thicknesses of the top and back. For some reason luthiers are “allowed” to change or improve the strings, bow, bridge, bass bar, tailpiece, neck, fingerboard, pegs, etc. But the thicknesses of the top and back are to stay the same as Stradivarius. These thicknesses were outlined in Sacconi’s book the Secrets of Stradivari and in other books on the subject. All the thicknesses were different but Sacconi came up with an average. The average is the one most makers have been following. I have found this type of thinking is the main flaw in the search for the so called “secret”. It is in this area I have been able to surpass the so called “old Italian sound”.

These thicknesses are studied, and examined for clues as to why the Stradivarius violins sound so good. But do they? I have played on Strads that were very weak. Some had a dark quality, some had a bright quality. What impressed me the most was each one sounded different. I saw no consistency or identifiable trait that was common to all of them.

It is my firm belief that the main connection between the tone of a violin and the value of a violin is that if is worth so much money in the first place for what it is, it makes it more cost effective to work on it to enhance the tone. Tweaking the bass bar, the soundpost, the bridge, strings, etc. all can improve a violin over time. It is not worth the time to work like that on a cheap fiddle.

My Discoveries

I have worked for years on the problem of thicknesses until a few years ago when I realized it was achieving very little. I decided to take drastic action. I knew it would be possible to improve the sound on a good violin when I did experiments on the bass bar. The tonal colors and power can be greatly changed manipulating the bass bar. Regraduating the top and back to roughly Sacconi’s dimensions also helped. In general with the thinning of the top and back the tone got darker but not louder.

I gradually zeroed in on the area of the violin near the bridge. That is where the energy comes from. The bow activates the strings which in turn activate the bridge which in turn activates the top and the rest of the violin.

I did experiments on the top directly under the bridge and gradually produced better and better results. The closer to the bridge the more impact on the sound. I now get much more power, richness, clarity, no wolf tones and many other positive qualities. The shape and dimensions of my innovations are pictured on my website. The thickness of the top under the bridge in violins I produce vary from 8mm thick to up to 12mm thick. According to Sacconi the thickness of the top under the bridge varies from 2.4mm to 3.2mm.

The Catch 22 I get into from time to time is when a student brings in one of my $1,500.00 violins for a lesson and it sounds better than the teachers $300,000.00 violin. The teacher quite often cannot cope with the situation. I get comments such as “the tone will disappear”, “the top will collapse”, “the violin will fall apart”, etc. As of today this has never happened. Many people who have a vested interest in something don’t want to know the truth. It is very comforting to live in a state of illusion.

I go to conventions displaying the violins, violas, cellos (I can’t get the bass in my car) and the reaction is usually disbelief. I get words such as “wow”, “incredible”, “amazing”. From time to time I get a criticism that the violin is “too loud”. I try to explain a violin can never be too loud. Usually the better the player the more positive feedback I get. The better players know how important it is to project when you are playing a concert.

The violins I display are for the most part well made Chinese instruments with my improvements. I own three fine old Italian violins and the new violins sound much better. I maintain they will sound as good or better than any Stradivarius or Guarnerius. If anybody reading this article wants to try one of these instruments I will be glad to show them or ship one for free!