Legendary Renaissance Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737) made violins that are regarded today as some of the most valuable instruments on the planet. Some Stradivari violins can sell for tens of millions of dollars, and their desirability is accredited to their sound. Specialist violin dealer Simon Morris describes a Stradivari instrument as having “a real magic aura to it .. partly for the reason that people have tried to figure out what is the so-called ‘secret of Stradivari’?” In an attempt to answer this mythical riddle, craftsmen over the last few centuries have tested theories ranging from the wood having been soaked in seawater, to the varnish containing volcanic ash — yet none were validated.
In 1999, Stradivari’s most famous violin, “The Messiah” (estimated value $20M), became the center of an uproarious controversy when Metropolitan Museum conservator of musical instruments Stewart Pollens suggested that it was a fake. In response, tree ring expert Henri D. Grissino Mayer came to The Messiah’s rescue — he found that the rings in the wood used to create The Messiah matched perfectly with samples taken from the forest in the Femme Valley corner of the Italian alps, where Stradivari harvested the wood to build his instruments. This finding laid waste to the claim that the priceless instrument was not a genuine Stradivari — and it also revealed something unexpected: an indication as to why the instrument’s sound is considered so illustrious.
The rings of the spruce trees gathered to support The Messiah’s authenticity are packed extremely tightly — wide rings imply a year of faster growth, whereas these tight rings show that these trees grew very slowly each year during the time Stradivari was harvesting wood for his instruments. Meteorologic evidence shows that during the 1300s and late 1800s there was a period of cold conditions called “The Little Ice Age”. This was likely due to a reduction in sunspots, indicating a more inactive and possibly cooler sun. This period of climate change had severe affects as it reduced temperatures in Europe and North America: the Baltic Sea froze over, as did many European rivers and lakes, the snowline dropped, glaciers advanced, and as a result there was increased social unrest as many people suffered starvation and poverty due to crop failure. So, while the sun’s power over the Italian Alps was reduced, trees grew very slowly. And when these trees were harvested by luthiers, their tightly packed fibers gave life to some of the world’s most beloved instruments. Because of the historically magical combination of climate and altitude, this forest of dense trees has come to be called “Il Bosco Che Suona” — the Musical Woods.
Like Stradivari, retired forest ranger Marcello Mazzucchi also has a skill for spotting ideal trees in these Musical Woods. “I’m really more of a tree listener,” he says. “I observe, I touch them, sometimes I even hug them. Look carefully and they’ll tell you their life story, their traumas, their joys, everything. Such humble creatures.” Whether instruments are made from wood, bone, hide, shell, metal, plastic, or any number of natural and manmade elements, it takes a keen ear, an engineer’s mind, and a billowing passion for music to create an instrument that can inspire listeners throughout time and space.
Thank you to all the instrument makers! We would not be human without you.
Photo by W.carter (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons