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Classic musical science and Stradivarnish

It won’t necessarily be music to the classical purist’s ear, but chemists have been instrumental in revealing the secret beneath the varnish on a Stradivari violins, and the secret is: there is no secret.

Antonio Stradivari is perhaps the most famous instrument maker of all time. He is especially celebrated for his violins, which he made in Cremona circa 1665 till his death in 1737. The “legendary” varnish on his instruments has fascinated musicians, violin makers, historians, and others ever since and has led to repeated speculation that there was a secret ingredient that endowed a Stradivari violin with its unique and beautiful tone.

Stradivari violin

Now, European researchers have taken minute samples from carefully selected parts of five violins and subjected them to microscopic and spectroscopic analysis. Although the different instruments were made over a period of three decades it turns out that their varnishes are all very similar. It is only the red pigments that seem to vary through Stradivari’s career and, for those listening in black and white, the colour of a violin has no aural impact.

I asked the creative director at ClassicFM, Tim Lihoreau, what he thought about the discovery. I almost expected an angry, or at least resistant, response along the lines of, “how could the scientists shatter the illusion,” but he was actually rather encouraged by the analytical chemistry:

“At first, I was surprised by this news,” Lihoreau told me, “I’d always heard that it was something in the varnish that made Strads so special – the vintage Rollers of the fiddle world, as it were. Having said that, in many ways it only adds to the mystique of the Cremonese creator – that, in some ‘weird science’ way, it’s his magic art that is the key: a blend of all his crafts, coming together to make such legendary instruments.”

Anyway, more on that story and others in my latest SpectroscopyNOW column.

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