Andreas Preuss

Stradivari's secret was a concept?

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What and how Stradivari worked in his workshop will always remain a mystery. But from pure facts how many instruments he produced average over the years tells a story of a man who worked with principles far ahead of his time:

Fast, efficient and perfect.

I calculated the averages from the Goodkind book and came to the following figures

1700 - 1715        12 violins and 1 cello

1716 - 1725      15.5 violins and 1.5 cellos

1726 - 1737           7.5 violins

And this does not reflect the entire work volume of the shop, because they made with three people in the workshop fittings, cases, strings and even bows (because they couldn't order them in Mirecourt) as well

This makes clear to me what mindset he had. He wouldn't waste a minute on something where he didn't know the result. Every single work procedure followed rules to get the perfect result he wanted in the minimum of time.

I think if we replace the word SECRET with the word CONCEPT, we are getting actually to the point, because a concept doesn't look at ONE gimmick, a concept tires to build consecutive steps so that the entire process brings the best results. I am pretty convinced that in order to understand what Antonio Stradivari was doing in his workshop, we need to figure out what he was doing for which reason to make the next step possible. And this becomes pretty complex. So no wonder that none of those smart people in the past figured it out.

Now if someone is asking me, how do you think Stradivari made his instruments?

Of course, I can't give a  irrefragable theory on this. I can only say that back in the 18th century the common concept was alchemy. It was the idea to transform Lead into Gold but not in the literal sense. (even though some modern Alchemists tell Physicists that their theories are nonsense) Transforming lead into gold is only an analogy to transform a something worthless into an ideal form or simply to enhance its qualities to its optimum. If we apply this mindset on what result Stradivaris intended to get from 'imperfect' material wood, this makes sense to me.

This gives me, without having any proof for it, the idea that he worked with alchemical ideas. At least it seems that the wood he used was not left in its natural state. This would support the idea that alchmeical procedures were used to improve the material qualities.

When I looked into it I translated it like this:

Alchemical procedures follow 7 different transformative processes described with the terms

  1. Fire
  2. Water
  3. Wind
  4. Earth
  5. Putrefication
  6. Filtration
  7. Agglomeration

However, the order might be changed and some of the procedures can act together. So we can interpret the transformation of materials like this:

The raw wood is steamed (Fire and water) and thereafter needs to dry (wind). Earth would be the ground on the wood and putrefication filtration and agglomeration describe the process to make the varnish. (At least recent scientific research points into the direction that the wood might have undergone some treatment.)

I know it is very weird, but in the end things which were going around in Antonio Stradivaris mind mustn't make sense to our modern scientific way of thinking. This might be in the end his biggest secret.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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From what I can gather the secret is there's no secret.  But I do think that every maker naturally sounds and plays a little bit like himself, to the same extent that painters and writers are recognizable.

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I do agree on CONCEPT. I think that is what folks call "Cremonese method". But I cannot agree with the alchemy... There was strong guild system in every industry ad I don't get why would Lutemakers' (or Violinmakers') guild be different from Woodcarvers' guild or Shoemakers' or Carpenters' or whichever.... The guild was there to protect the craft and it was kind of "closed company". I assume masters of Cremonese guild invented new effective and consistent methods of making the instruments and only members were allowed to make and sell instruments and the method was learned by apprentices and journeymen and not allowed to be taught to someone outside the guild. It would be not too far stretched (IMO) to think that someone using their method ilegally (unauthorised) could easily loose his arm if caught... And since folks didn't move as much as today, only few makers left Cremona with the method. That's possibly why Cremonese instruments were generally superior to those from other areas. Instruments were just utility goods back then, although very nicely made and often decorated, but that was common even in most simple things like kitchenware of the era....

Use of any "alchemy" method could be merely incidental use of generally used (al)chemical treatment agains fungus or commonly accepted method of drying wood that later got forgotten to modern ways.

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30 minutes ago, Blank face said:

If he had a concept, it might have been a more progressive than alchemy, rather something like this (and more elaborated used by his epigones like Vuillaume):

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodity_fetishism

Today we think alchemy is a 'bad'concept because we know modern science. However in the days of Stradivari modern science wasn't known to common people, because Isaak Newton 1642-1727)a contemporary of Stradivari was just developing the laws of modern science (Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica published in 1687) 

Alchemy as such has various advantages over science especially when it comes to violin making.

Scienxe is based on experiments to develop a formula which acts to predict events. 

Alchemy is somehow the opposite. The process of transformation is observed and measures are known to trigger the result. 

Arent we permanently trying to predict in violin making outcomes from certain data points? And how successful and reliable is it really?

Alchemy in a wider sense is very progressive. It is not asking how the shape is calculated from the beginning to bring optimal results. Through observations during the building process the optimal shape is found without any data checking. 

 

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Perhaps he just knew how to construct a fine instrument with the best quality materials available. Natural materials too so hardly alchemy other than naturally occurring.

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Marin Mersenne, 8 September 1588 – 1 September 1648, had already written Harmonie universelle. In those 800 pages, apart from watching sawdust dance on wood and using Audacity to compare waves, just about every bit of physics that you can use in your modern workshop was available for a smart and skilled luthier. All Antonio had to do was walk to the naval yards, take a small measured sample of wood from each of the huge trunks lying there and measure the speed of sound in the wood by listening to the pitch. With a few days effort he could have more of the best wood than he could use in his lifetime.

Add an amazing ear and great craftsmanship and you have your answer to the secret.

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Alchemy (or better say- that way of thinking) was a strong part of every scientist's knowledge and principles of it was very wide spread among every educated kratfsman, I can believe also Stradivari also knew those and perhaps applied some natural basic chemical processes to wood, as everyone did. But only if you find something really unusual, extra terrestrial  in his wood treatment than you can have a evidence he did something what others did not . As far as I remember there is no such findings, only  very good knowledge about choosing right material and extremaly fine work. But who knows...

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21 minutes ago, Uncle Bob said:

Marin Mersenne, 8 September 1588 – 1 September 1648, had already written Harmonie universelle. In those 800 pages, apart from watching sawdust dance on wood and using Audacity to compare waves, just about every bit of physics that you can use in your modern workshop was available for a smart and skilled luthier. All Antonio had to do was walk to the naval yards, take a small measured sample of wood from each of the huge trunks lying there and measure the speed of sound in the wood by listening to the pitch. With a few days effort he could have more of the best wood than he could use in his lifetime.

Add an amazing ear and great craftsmanship and you have your answer to the secret.

Hmmm, Stradivari didn't know French and was not able to read the book. And if the contents were known in Italy I doubt that it was 'common' knowledge of craftsmen. And in the end it is not about physics but music theory. So I am afraid I can't follow this thought.

I am well aware that the word 'alchemy' implies for many people some sort of Voodoo hokuspokus. I am certainly not into those things. I started to think about it differently when I read some interpretations of the old scriptures (which are for 21st century people not understandable any more because of their encrypted character). I started to understand that it is about building a strict order of procedures. However each procedure in itself is a kind of flexible because it looks on getting a certain result. I find this way of thinking interesting for violin making. 

 

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11 minutes ago, mathieu valde said:

Alchemy (or better say- that way of thinking) was a strong part of every scientist's knowledge and principles of it was very wide spread among every educated kratfsman, I can believe also Stradivari also knew those and perhaps applied some natural basic chemical processes to wood, as everyone did. But only if you find something really unusual, extra terrestrial  in his wood treatment than you can have a evidence he did something what others did not . As far as I remember there is no such findings, only  very good knowledge about choosing right material and extremaly fine work. But who knows...

 

4 hours ago, HoGo said:

I do agree on CONCEPT. I think that is what folks call "Cremonese method". But I cannot agree with the alchemy... There was strong guild system in every industry ad I don't get why would Lutemakers' (or Violinmakers') guild be different from Woodcarvers' guild or Shoemakers' or Carpenters' or whichever.... The guild was there to protect the craft and it was kind of "closed company". I assume masters of Cremonese guild invented new effective and consistent methods of making the instruments and only members were allowed to make and sell instruments and the method was learned by apprentices and journeymen and not allowed to be taught to someone outside the guild. It would be not too far stretched (IMO) to think that someone using their method ilegally (unauthorised) could easily loose his arm if caught... And since folks didn't move as much as today, only few makers left Cremona with the method. That's possibly why Cremonese instruments were generally superior to those from other areas. Instruments were just utility goods back then, although very nicely made and often decorated, but that was common even in most simple things like kitchenware of the era....

Use of any "alchemy" method could be merely incidental use of generally used (al)chemical treatment agains fungus or commonly accepted method of drying wood that later got forgotten to modern ways.

I don't see any contradiction to the guild system. The guild was an organizing and protecting system for the individual craftsmen and would regulate the use of certain materials but to my knowledge would not make prescriptions how to use the materials.

Alchemy in its essence it is a philosophy which tries to transform things to the better and in this sense not so much different from our modern science. It encompassed therefore many aspects other than early chemistry. What I find interesting is that everything is described in procedures which become a concept when used in combination of several procedures. 

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2 hours ago, Andreas Preuss said:

Today we think alchemy is a 'bad'concept because we know modern science.

 

My remark wasn't about science vers. alchemy, but about organizing a shop and selling it's products in an economical modern way. But maybe this wasn't what you were thinking of, although you started with production numbers.

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My concept of Strad's shop is that of very skilled and experienced folks working quickly and efficiently to produce instruments that work well.  Efficiently means not doing anything extra for no reason, and frankly I don't see anything about alchemy that looks like it would give an advantage over just plain old trial/error and experience.  

And thus far, I am not convinced that any secret treatment was used on the wood that could give an acoustic benefit, other than a few centuries of age after they finished them.  Some preservatives may have been applied to the wood, but only for the mundane purpose of preventing loss to worms, mold, or fungus.

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7 hours ago, Andreas Preuss said:

At least it seems that the wood he used was not left in its natural state. This would support the idea that alchmeical procedures were used to improve the material qualities.

If there should have existed any procedures concerning the improvement of acoustical wood properties - then this procedure was used not only by Stradivari, but all the Cremonese makers must have used and known this wood - treatment. 

Why not to look for such an "chemical" wood treatment   ?

However, which properties should be " improved" and in which direction ?

1) sound speed ?

2) damping ? More or less ?

3) variation of directional e-moduli ? 

4) density ? 

We have a big variability in natural wood properties ? Is that not enough ? Until now I didnt´hear of any kind of wood property, in which the old-italians have values out of the area. 

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One more thing to think about is this.... we live in an age when you can compare hundred of violins within one town going through few shops... I believe STrad didn't have a chance to inspect and compare as many instruments in his lifetime (other than his own) and thus he lacked the knowledge if his instruments are better than other. You can hardly remember how the instrument you made few weeks ago sounded compared to the one on the bench once it's gone away. He just had some goal in his head and the is certainly not constant no matter how you try.

IMO he just made the best out of the wood he had at the moment. Adn the result we see now is selection (bed ones are long gone) and tweaking by generations of best luthiers...

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21 minutes ago, Danube Fiddler said:

Why not to look for such an "chemical" wood treatment   ?

However, which properties should be " improved" and in which direction ?

1) sound speed ?

2) damping ? More or less ?

3) variation of directional e-moduli ? 

4) density ? 

We have a big variability in natural wood properties ? Is that not enough ? Until now I didnt´hear of any kind of wood property, in which the old-italians have values out of the area. 

I am convinced if there was a wood treatment method this was used by all Cremonese makers. not only Stradivari.  What distinguishes Stradivari from other makers are more rigid working procedures and better control of the entire assmenbly.

The problem I am getting here with your answer is different. This is actually exactly my point: We always argue in the framework of our modern knowledge using words you are using: 'sound speed', 'e-modulus' and probably 'damping'. I am really asking myself if there was such an intent? In alchemy there is simply a sort of axiom which  says 'Without treatment no material will act to its best properties' It is possible, that they made things where we fail to find explanations because they simply don't fit our logic.

However, I quoted the possibility that steam was used to improve the material and I tested it. Maple loses between 7-15% weight (mostly something around 10-12%, damping goes down and sound speed seems to go up. e-modulus I think is calculated from those factors.

 

 

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45 minutes ago, Don Noon said:

My concept of Strad's shop is that of very skilled and experienced folks working quickly and efficiently to produce instruments that work well.  Efficiently means not doing anything extra for no reason, and frankly I don't see anything about alchemy that looks like it would give an advantage over just plain old trial/error and experience.  

And thus far, I am not convinced that any secret treatment was used on the wood that could give an acoustic benefit, other than a few centuries of age after they finished them.  Some preservatives may have been applied to the wood, but only for the mundane purpose of preventing loss to worms, mold, or fungus.

No objections to your first paragraph.

For the second, I am not sure. At least I can say that after developing a 'solid' method for wood treatment, the sound of my instruments is pretty different. (All the roughness and surface noise is gone) But we cannot exclude the possibility that the wood treatment originally was not intended for sound improvement.

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6 hours ago, Bill Merkel said:

From what I can gather the secret is there's no secret.  But I do think that every maker naturally sounds and plays a little bit like himself, to the same extent that painters and writers are recognizable.

That's what I am trying to explain here. This one thing called secret doesn't exist, because in reality we are looking on a pretty complex method. The problem is only that we don't know the framework for this method. The question I am asking in this forum is, can the philosophy behind alchemy answer this question? 

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1 hour ago, Andreas Preuss said:

That's what I am trying to explain here. This one thing called secret doesn't exist, because in reality we are looking on a pretty complex method. The problem is only that we don't know the framework for this method. The question I am asking in this forum is, can the philosophy behind alchemy answer this question? 

Speaking As a trained blacksmith,I see alchemy as a method of understanding more than a dogmatic practice. A language of sorts, that while not perfect per say ,was also not entirely without truth.That understanding builds the idea that we have some input to our surroundings  , vs being simply subject to them. That by mixing , basic elements , entirely new materials are born. I think the basic philosophy guides and informs ,leads to experiment vs rote copies , encourages the practice of seeing from other view points, and helps establish a certain languages and discourse between the worker and worked. Perhaps not strictly speaking useful by moderns , but can,t help but think the basic philosophy still is valid, and wthat what we think guides outcomes and that Strad probably did apply at least a few of the concepts. 

 

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I find it hard to believe any approach that would make Cremona violin making a great exception to the general Italian arts and crafts. I much prefer to think what our favorite makers did would almost entirely within the shared practices of the broad arts, of course with some particular variations and specializations for violin work.

Try reading Cennini to get of sense of the arts around that time.  The many different aspects of arts and crafts are treated in a very unified and practical way.

And while yes, the discussions of mixing, preparing, and manipulating materia is not scientific or modern, neither is it alchemical. There is no mention of balancing earth and air, or of the mystical.  It's all more flat footed and practical than. It tells exactly how make aqua marine, or verdgris, or white lead. How to make glues are turn paper or cloth transparent, etc.  But it's all very direct and functional, an very much a contrast to alchemical texts.

Also, many of the practices in traditional arts are truly old. Pliny and Vitruvius describe some Roman pigment methods, and these were still basics in the Italian arts centuties later.

Also, I very much doubt that the best makers like Del Gesu and Strad did anything greatly different than other Cremona makers, just a little better. 

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A few comments,

Strad could very likely understood Spanish from his youth, could have learned French, probably picked up German later on.  Cremona passed from Spain to France, and then to Austria during his lifetime, and it's always good business to speak the ruler's language.  As successful as he was, I'd bet he was a polyglot, and could read letters with orders in them from all over Western Europe.  No reason to think he couldn't read books if he felt like it.

Alchemy was trendy during Strad's lifetime.  Even Newton believed in it.  Go look it up.

All that said, I suspect that Strad was more into process than theory.  One innovation he may have made, however was to invent the viral rumor, as in "Strad's got a magical secret nobody else does........."  :lol:

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It is clear that Antonio was a craftsman who stayed busy and had a high standard for productivity and quality. I think he quickly rejected things that did not give him good results.

Working wood by hand in a shop with other workers, give you time to talk and time to reflect. Put yourself in Antonio's shoes for a moment. Consider what a great craftsman who knows, sound, materials, tools, craftsmanship and art, thinks about. Consider the craftsmen you know that come close to being as good or better than Antonio was. Think about what they have in common. What they have in common, they have in common with Antonio.

Did he examine and go out of his way to figure out how others got their results? Did he listen to others and try to learn, test and expand on everything they knew? Of course he did.  Did he have things he stuck to that no one could possibly talk him out of? Of course he did.

Innovation, material science, alchemy, math, magic and philosophy have been part of luthery since strings were stretched and played. The violin may have been fairly recent, but he was taught by the best and the previous forms and variations were there for Antonio to study. I am sure that he knew the relevant alchemical theory. I am also sure that he put practical and reproducible results first.

The clearest line between Alchemy and Science is the ability to reproduce results. Many alchemists were scientific and many scientists practiced alchemy. In Antonio's case, he was probably informed by the doctrine of signatures, but it never got in the way of his doing what he had tried and tested. He may have waited for the right phase of the moon to make pegs, but  I doubt it ever got in the way of his putting together an instrument.

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After reading about everything on Stradivari, it is in his last year's that his most famous violins where made, that's after he done made over hundreds of instruments, so the secret is learning from you're work.

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