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What if Stradivari made a violin from modern wood?


sinebar
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I played these violins in a noisy room about 17 to 20 years ago, so I really don't know how the more recent ones sound. Theses were student-made instruments that he modified. The Strad copy was very smooth, i.e. not harsh -- maybe deficient in treble. The performer said she it was unusual because she had to bow quite close to the bridge, which confirms that impression. It sounded much like an Andreas Guarneri I played (which I didn't like). The Strad copy was no match for the older, well played-in, Becker.

I really cannot answer the question of whether he was going in the right direction tonally. Perhaps he overdid it a little. His Web page claims he can now duplicate the sound spectrum of great instruments quite closely. Other, famous violinists were quoted in the past as saying that he was definitely on to something different, and expressed interest in his results, although praise was less than effusive. It is true that Yehudi Menuhin owned one of his instruments. The best way to find out how they perform now is to try one.

I also posted descriptions of these on another thread. The Guarneri copy just didn't have it (a violinist friend also agreed), but it was *very* new, and not played in at all, so I really can't give a fair judgement. The Guarneri copy was quite flexible or weak, and bent considerably on bringing up the string tension, according to a maker who worked on it.

Nagyvary has gotten a lot of criticism because of his lack of violin-making credentials, and because he has changed his story several times. I too have been quite critical., but that doesn't necessarily mean he is wrong about everything, and I must give him credit for trying a different approach and for publishing original observations. I only wish he had published more reviewed papers on his observations. As sparse as his publications are, he has published more than most.

I'd like to expand on this comment a little. The nature of string instrument making is such that much of the art can be communicated only by hands-on experience, especially by apprenticeships, etc. But I believe that attempts to discover what makes a better violin lead to more rapid progress if knowledge were shared more openly, in published, carefully reviewed papers. I find review to be very helpful to enforce more accurate and better reasoned presentation. Michael just mentioned a number of experiments that have been kept secret. There are probably many others. They each may discover a little something, but not enough to accomplish the job. But progress is best made by open exchange of information, because that's how knowledge can best be combined.

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If you're an amateur bystander, involved for your own entertainment, that attitude is reasonable, but the makers who are putting out enough instruments to do experiments are professionals, and generally don't see the need to inform their competition about everything they've learned.

However, that's a philosophical comment, and in reality things aren't that bad--there's a lot of sharing going on among professionals--it just isn't being done by their mothers/publicists in Scientific American every time they burp. Your list is far short of what's been discussed in professional circles, as you might reasonably expect. A lot of violin makers function on the basis that there can't be a fair *exchange* of information between parties when one of them has nothing to contribute. As litttle as you think I contribute, a lot of my friends think I'm a traitor to say anything at all. :-)

Vuillaume, by the way has been variously accused of baking his wood, treating it with nitric acid, and, apparently, sulfuric acid, though I've never paid any attention to the particularly uninformed source you quote. I think every maker is justifiably afraid that a few hysterical bleeting sheep will take something he does (or in Sergio Peresson's case, something he doesn't actually do) and use it to crucify his work, as has been attempted with Vuillaume, and more recently, Peresson, which may account for some privacy in experimentation. A maker with no reputation to lose, however, can only gain one through any publicity he's able to drum up. :-)

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If AS is still alive and with centuries of experience behind him

Who knows what he could come up with?

Unless you got enough magic to bring him back we will have to settle for <empty> discussion.

I almost agree that wood is everything until

I remembered the famous Fiddle made of Gold.

No, I think gold beats wood, for sure.

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Michael, I know there is a lot of information being passed informally, and maybe even formally. I have watched the state of violin making evolve in Chicago over the last 20 years or so. I've seen what apprentices and assistants have produced, and I like it. You are certainly right that you have a lot of incentive not to give out information to someone who has nothing to give in return, although you have been most generous with information on this forum. I must admit that even in science, private communications fosters a lot of fortuitous cooperation and serendipity. It's also faster than publishing. Maybe you are right that personal communication makes better sense in the violin world. My point is that formal publication spreads information farther, more permanently, and often in a more tightly reasoned form.

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I agree, a certain amount of publication is indeed used or misued for publicity. Scientific American is written for public information, and is not generally a good vehicle for advancing the state of any art. As for the uninformed source, I assume you are talking about Vuillaume's wood treatment. I did mention that not everything in print was necessarily true. But we're losing sight of the central point: has the wood been fundamentally altered by age or treatment? Or was it specially selected for some characteristic? Does it have fundamentally different properties than most new wood used for instruments?

I also have edited a previous post.

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That's correct. The accusation was also made that they were too flat, when in fact they're no flatter than the del Gesus they're modeled on. They're also generally quite a bit thicker than del Gesus of similar arch height. One final feeble attempt at knifing his reputation was made in a letter to STRAD magazine shortly after Peresson's death, proposing that his violins were overvalued by a factor of 10X, but offering no basis for this insult. There's not even safety in death.

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Ok, I'm no expert and I don't have alot of facts to offer but here is an experience I had last week. In Minneapolis, there is the Cremona show of modern makers best. Several professional players were trying out the new ones. After two hours of waiting, they brought out the GB Gaudigini. When it was played, even someone at my level could tell the tone apart from any of the new ones. Musicians came in from the hall to find out what that great instrument was.

It just seemed to me that the new makers in Cremona weren't achiving the same quality in tone of the old guys. Keep in mind I'm not talking about projection or anything, although the Gaudigini did fill the room with sound. Fred

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Michael, you win. You are correct that many of us here are indeed not professional luthiers, and therefore out of the loop. But you sure know how to torment musicians, luthiers, and scientists.

Let's see, the best instruments are hopelessly unaffordable, and so expensive and rare that most of us will never get to play one. Most of our professional performers do not have access to them either. Even world-class performers have to rely on wealthy patrons and kingmakers. The quality can rarely, if ever, be reproduced today. Someone, maybe with the assistance of McCrone, maybe not, has discovered some critical differences in the wood and/or varnish, but it's a secret. Even you know only part of the secret, and you don't know enough to reproduce the difference. For those of us who covet great instruments and are insatiably curious, you've just about done us in.

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Nowadays if you ask violin makers of modest means about how they graduate plates and about varnishing or wood treatment, you would immediately get a dirty look. These people would think, by asking these questions, you are indangering their livelihood. The point I am trying to make is: this kind of knowledge cannot be learned from any one. You have to do experiments by yourself.

From the data in the literature, we all know that Strad tops are not graduated (uniform thickness 2.2 to 2.4mm). If the wood is not treated, you cannot get to that kind of "thinness". If you are a plate tuning aficionado, I can tell you the pitches between treated and untreated spruce could have 3 semitones difference.

After playing the 3 silver medal violins at the vsa convention and listening to a professional playing them in a small room, my personal feeling was: they all came fairly close to Strad in every respect. I really appreciated that Baroque Violin Shop let us play the Strad in their shop.

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The SEM work done in England many years ago was not well done. Or I should say it was the first step, they observed the mineral ground and did the "overall" chemical analysis. The trouble is the small chips from a Strad violin are not easy to come by. The proper tool would be a STEM (scanning-transmission electron microscope). With this tool, you can zoom in submicron area by submicron area and particle by particle. You can get the chemical composition from the x-ray emission, You can shoot electron beam thru the substance and get diffraction pattern. With the data of chemical composition and crystollographic info, we are in a better position to access what substances are there in the wood, whether they are naturally occurring or are added from treatment. An optical microscope suffers several drawbacks: it does not have the required depth of field and resolution, it can't do chemical analysis.

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Hi David,

In reply to:

From the data in the literature, we all know that Strad tops are not graduated (uniform thickness 2.2 to 2.4mm). If the wood is not treated, you cannot get to that kind of "thinness".


I agree completely!

In reply to:

After playing the 3 silver medal violins at the vsa convention and listening to a professional playing them in a small room, my personal feeling was: they all came fairly close to Strad in every respect. I really appreciated that Baroque Violin Shop let us play the Strad in their shop.


Maybe I read something over too fast ... But I searched the pegbox for vsa and silver medal and did not find anything. Could you give more details? Do you know if the wood of these instruments was treated in any way?

Regards,

tarisio

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I don't know of any makers advertising their wood treatment.

There are many, many Becker instruments with 2.4mm tops (perhaps LaFolia knows the thicknesses of his?), and absolutely no complaints about them regarding thickness. I know a number of other makers who work to the same range of graduations as Stradivari with no problems, whose work is well-known and respected. As with the rumors about Vuillaume and Peresson, negative comments about graduation and a host of other things made by amateurs and wickedly-intended dealers easily become "widely-known facts" unless confronted, which they rarely are.

The results of the VSA competition are at http://www.vsa.to The server is unreliable.

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Thank you for this information, Michael. Maybe I read the "too thin without treatment"-theory in Hills' book or in Sacconi's. No, it couldn't be Hill. But I took this as most probable and thus for granted. I couldn't imagine that contemporary makers use this thin graduation without any stiffening treatment.

But ... as you said that makers do not advertise their treatment: Maybe these modern thin instruments are treated but we don't know.

So - and I agree to you - rumours published by amateurs and dealers (and luthiers!) often become facts. And thus there are at least 100 different "discoveries of lost secrets" around.

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This is a fascinating thread for any individual who is basically an outsider to the violin making profession, but who is interested in the progress of research in this field.

I am interested in the reasons for secrecy. Are they related to eventual financial gain, ego or some other factor, or a combination of many factors? Whenever we as a species have made great strides in any field, the basic science has had to be shared openly and completely for eventual progress to be made.

In this particular example, we are surely not talking simply of immediate benefits to a few people but of squarely getting better instruments for posterity. It seems to me that from the philosophical standpoint, future generations will look down upon us for not advancing knowledge openly, in any given field, which somewhat demeans the best of human aspiration and accomplishment.

I believe an open approach to be better, in all fields, and especially in a field where much would still depend on the art and skill of the individual. I do not believe the best interest of this incredible instrument is served with any other approach, and surely that is our/your real responsibility.

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To be frank, I've lost most of my desire to post to this type of argument, as it's not usually very productive and only (usually) results in somebody or several somebody's feelings getting hurt.

This discussion has a few interesting quirks that most of these type of discussions lack, though, so here goes.

I'll throw out a few ideas just to see what kind of response they get.

First off, I don't think that we should necessarily be discussing this "secret" as if it were "Strad's secret". Although he was undoubtedly in possession of whatever technology "it" was, and did apply "it" to his own violins. The result being that he, because of that fact, AND ALSO because of his competence as a maker in every other regard, produced some of the finest violins ever made.

Notwithstanding those facts, can we safely assume that the first time this unidentifiable or unreproducible quality roughly designated as "Cremonese" makes it's appearance, is somewhat before Strad himself does?

Wasn't it also present with the violins produced by Amati? If so, can we assume that whatever process Strad used probably came initially from the Amati shop?

(Or, possibly in its application to violins, from Leonardo da Martinengo, [early sixteenth century Venice violin making tradition] who Saconni points to as the possible predecessor [tutor] of Amati, or to the [and this is strictly supposition] generally available woodworking techniques extant then?)

And since the violin in its finished or modern form is also somewhat attributable to Amati, then this is where the (lost) tradition probably starts for the violin.

Also, if I'm not mistaken, in addition to Amati, Strad, and the Guarneri family, Jacob Stainer is credited with having been in possession of this same 'technology' - in addition to (according to Sacconi) some other early Italian (Cremonese) and Venetian makers of, from the early sixteenth through the seventeenth, and up until mid way through the eighteenth centuries - ending approximately with the violins of Guarneri del Gesu, after which the old school of violin finishing (making) disappears, and the modern method supplants the old.

Michael, have you observed that these typically 'Cremonese' traits exist to one degree or another in any of these various non-Stradivari instruments of that time period? I admit that my reading doesn't encompass much theory in regard to exactly which violins are considered to exhibit those particular traits - and which don't.

Who else here has had sufficient experience with the actual instruments from this period to form an opinion, and what is your opinion regarding the elusive qualities regarding either finish or tone of those instruments?

If the above represents the actual case, and I think I will assume that it does, for the sake of the argument. (not being in possession of the 'first hand' facts or experience myself, you understand... <g>)

Then I think we can safely eliminate arching, thickness and probably even the idea of one particular 'brand' of wood as the principle ingredient regarding what's missing from modern makers and whatever quality it is that distinguishes 'Golden Period' violins from those violins that start from the time that the older technology disappeared.

From my point of view the only possible answer lies in the direction of wood preparation either due to some simple preparatory system or some specific surface preparation as in ground or sealer. And I say this because of the fact that the Varnish itself has fairly well been convincingly eliminated as the causative factor.

Personally, I feel that if someone has re discovered the old masters methods with any degree of certainty, they should either dispense with the knowledge, knowing that it will still be the same few violin makers who are willing to apply the knowledge within the context of all of the other skills necessary in order to be able to come up with the best instruments, or I wish they'd just keep the knowledge to themselves.

My opinion is that the violin makers of today are more properly challenged to have to understand what and why the makers of the past did and to create their own methods to accomplish those tasks. Either that or let the Cremonese sound die a natural death, and let's get on with making violins that aren't the result of some secret cloistered knowledge available to only the select few.

Then again, maybe that would be a good thing also, then the rest of us would be obliged to work that much harder to come up with a contemporary equivalent.

Since I'll never have the opportunity to study the violins in question nor (in all likelihood) the opportunity to access any 'hidden' information, my vote always goes towards the idea of creating a modern equivalent. Nothing will ever erase the mystique of the old Italian violins anyway, so most makers would probably make better use of their time simply getting in the shop and building. At least, that's what I do. Playing every violin they can, and learning what they can about things that parallel their craft couldn't hurt either.

If Stradivari made a violin from modern wood, I believe he'd probably just choose the best available wood (from where ever he happened to be living) and apply those same techniques that were available during his time using the closest available ingredients he could find, to make and sell violins so that he could pay his cable bill, and then call it a day... maybe even drink an ice cold Miller Genune Draft, which, if I knew him, I'd offer him one. <g>

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Out of even madder curiosity, "treated" how? It doesn't sound any stupider than many of the other suggestions I've heard.

One guy I knew actually soaked (immersed) his finished white violins in acetone for a half an hour or so. The Acetone turned reddish brown, and the finished violin had a lovely easily produced tone. (I played it after he had varnished it and strung it up.)

He claimed that acetone didn't disturb the glue at all, and it all evaporated from the wood fairly quickly, etc.

How were you thinking of treating - just soaking?

How long has that stuff been around anyway? I know I've heard it discussed in relation to violin wood before, but for the life of me I can't remember in what regard.

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I occasionally do green wood turning and the wood has to be treated with Ethylene glycol to stop it cracking and it also slow over a period of days to weeks replaces all the water in the cells of the wood with glycol making it supposedly incredibly stable.

I just wondered if anybody had tried treating either the spruce or maple or both for a few weeks before working it .

Sounds like an interesting experiment to try.Have no idea what effect it has on the tone.

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