Though evidence suggests the first modern violin appeared in the early 1500s, Antonio Stradivari is widely credited with perfecting the instrument in the mid-1600s in Cremona, Italy. Stradivarius violins, often called "Strads" by enthusiasts, are known for their unique design and excellent sound. A 284-year-old Stradivarius housed at the Ashmoleon Museum in England is worth $15 million; it is considered to be the most valuable Stradivarius in the world.
Stradivari made over a thousand instruments in his lifetime, beginning with his first in 1666. Approximately 650 of them are still intact today. The violins crafted in his early years were made in the classic Amati style, which had been passed down for generations. Eventually, Stradivari broke free of these constraints and perfected his own designs. The years 1700 to 1725 are considered to be the golden period for Stradivarius violins. Particularly noteworthy Stradivarius violins include the 1704 "Betts" (today in the United States Library of Congress) and the 1716 "Messiah," an instrument that Stradivari kept to himself until his death. The instruments made when he was in his 80s weren't as immaculate, but one famous example is the 1733 "Khevenhuller."
Identifying a Stradivarius Violin
Unique characteristics of a Stradivarius violin include sound boxes superior to even those made today, broad edges, wide corners, a deep red varnish and black edging. However, thousands of forgeries have been made. Real (and some fake) Stradivarius violins have the Latin inscription "Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Faciebat Anno" on a label showing the maker, where it was made and the date it was made. Most copies made after 1891 have English labels showing where the instrument was made. Authenticating a Stradivarius can only be accomplished by an expert who does a comparative look at its design, wood and varnish.
The Sound of a Stradivarius
Stradivarius violins are prized and coveted for their refined, rich and resonant sound from the lowest to the highest notes. They are equally adept at producing deep and dark tones as well as bright and brilliant tones. The sound created by a Stradivarius is also powerful and projects well at any volume. There's more shape and core to the sound than in many other violins; the sound can be said to blossom. The design of a Stradivarius allows for good sound from the slightest pressure on the bow. In this sense, players may find it easy to play a Stradivarius.
Studies have been done in an attempt to isolate the secret of why Stradivarius violins are so special. In 2003, scientists at Columbia and Tennessee universities surmised that a significant drop in temperature due to decreased solar activity in the 17th century may be a factor. Cooler winters and summers produced slower tree growth, which led to denser wood with better acoustics. In 2006, other American researchers said the distinct sound comes from a chemical treatment used to destroy woodworm and fungi. There is some speculation that Stradivari used wood from ancient churches, or that the varnish is a factor. Many current violin makers and players simply cite Stradivari's superior violin design as the reason for the instruments' greatness.
- BBC News: Entertainment and Arts: What Makes the Stradivarius Violin So Special?
- Stradivarius: The History of Stradivarius Violins
- Stradivarius: History of The Violin
- Smithsonian: Encyclopedia Smithsonian: History and Culture: Stradivarius Violin
- NPR: The Sweet Sound of a Stradivarius
- Encyclopedia of World Biography: Antonio Stradivari Biography
- Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images