Antonio Stradivari, by Edgar Bundy, 1893: a romanticized image of a craftsman-hero

A Stradivarius is a violin or other stringed instrument built by a member of the Stradivari family, particularly Antonio Stradivari. According to their reputation, the quality of their sound has defied attempts to explain or reproduce, though this belief is controversial. The name "Stradivarius" has also become a superlative applied to designate excellence. To be called "the Stradivari" of any field is to be deemed the finest there is.



The Spanish II (1687–1689) in the Stradivarius collection of the Palacio Real, Madrid, Spain

Born in Italy in 1644, Antonio Stradivari is believed to have been a disciple of Nicolo Amati, of the Amati family of luthiers of Cremona.[citation needed] In 1680, Antonio set up shop on his own in Cremona, though his early violins are generally considered inferior to those of his "golden age", between 1698 and 1720.[citation needed]


It is not uncommon for violins to be labeled or branded "Stradivarius", as the name has been used since by other manufacturers. However, it is generally believed that there are fewer than 700 genuine instruments in existence, very few of which are accounted for.[citation needed]

The fame of Stradivari instruments is now a modern phenomenon and they appear in numerous works of fiction. The fictional detective Sherlock Holmes is described as having owned a Stradivarius, with detail given to how he purchased the instrument for fifty-five English shillings in the story The Adventure of the Cardboard Box. A famous, if perhaps apocryphal, story about the Duport claims the instrument's visible dent was made by the boots of Emperor Napoléon I of France, who tried his hand at playing it.

The reputation of the Stradivarius is such that its name is frequently invoked as a standard of excellence in other unrelated fields (such as ships and cars); for example, the Bath Iron Works' unofficial motto is "A Bath boat is the Stradivarius of destroyers!" In 1924, The Vincent Bach Corporation began releasing a line of trumpets which would later become known as Stradivarius Trumpets, in an attempt to capitalise on the Stradivari name.


While Stradivari's techniques have long been fertile soil for debate and not fully understood by modern craftsmen and scientists, it is known for certain that the wood used included spruce for the harmonic top, willow for the internal parts and maple for the back, strip and neck. There has been conjecture that this wood was treated with several types of minerals, including potassium borate (borax), sodium and potassium silicate, and vernice bianca, a varnish composed of Arabic gum, honey and egg white. He made his instruments using an inner form, unlike the French copyists, such as Vuillaume, who employed an outer form. It is clear from the number of forms extant that he experimented with some of the dimensions of his instruments throughout his career.[1]

 Market value

A Stradivarius made in the 1680s, or during Stradivari's Brescian period from 1690–1700, could be worth several hundred thousand dollars or more on auction, at today's prices. Depending on condition, instruments made during Stradivari's "golden period" from 1700 to 1720 can be worth several million dollars. Some reproductions as with the Antonius Stradivarius cremonensis made in Czechoslovakia and Germany in the early and mid 1700s by a different maker are said to be worth between two to three thousand dollars.

 Controversy over sound quality

Above all, these instruments are famous for the quality of sound they produce. However, the many blind tests from 1817 to the present (as of 2000) have never found any difference in sound between Stradivari's violins and high-quality violins in comparable style of other makers and periods, nor has acoustic analysis.[2] In a particularly famous test on a BBC Radio 3 program in 1977, the great violinists Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman and the violin expert and dealer Charles Beare tried to distinguish among the "Chaconne" Stradivarius, a 1739 Guarneri del Gesú, an 1846 Vuillaume, and a 1976 British violin played behind a screen by a professional soloist. The two violinists were allowed to play all the instruments first. None of the listeners identified more than two of the four instruments; two of the listeners identified the 20th-century violin as the Stradivarius.[3]

The violinist Christian Tetzlaff formerly played "a quite famous Strad", but switched to a violin made in 2002 by Stefan-Peter Greiner. He states that the listener cannot tell that his instrument is modern, and he regards it as excellent for Bach and better than a Stradivarius for "the big Romantic and 20th-century concertos."[4]

Biotech violin blind test

A golden age Stradivarius and a biotech violin were played as part of a five-violin blind test in September 2009 at the 27th “Osnabrücker Baumpflegetagen,” a German conference on forest husbandry. The tone of the engineered instrument was considered superior by the most listeners during the test. [5]

The violin, christened "Opus 58", was crafted by Swiss violin maker Michael Rhonheimer from wood treated with fungus by Empa researcher Francis Schwarze. The remaining non-Stradivarius violins were also made by Rhonheimer, two from untreated wood and one more from treated. All violins were played by British violinist Matthew Trusler. The Stradivarius played belonged to Trusler himself; made in 1711 in Cremona by Antonio Stradivarius it is valued at two million dollars.

Trusler played all instruments behind a curtain. Conference participants along with an expert jury participated in judging; 113 listeners misidentified the sound of Opus 58 as the Stradivarius'. 90 out of 180 listeners preferred the tone of Opus 58, while the Stradivarius itself coming in second with only 39 votes.

The wood used to make Opus 58 had been treated the longest, nine months. Schwarze treated Norwegian spruce with the fun­gus Physi­por­i­nus vit­rius and syc­a­more with Xy­laria lon­gipes. These fungal species reduce wood density without degrading the compound middle lamellae, when kept to earlier stages of decay.

Microscopic analysis of treated wood, along with resonance frequency testing to measure five physical properties (density, modulus of elasticity, speed of sound, radiation ratio, damping factor) have revealed a reduction in density, accompanied by relatively little change in the speed of sound. According to this analysis, treatment improves the sound radiation ratio to the level of cold climate wood considered to have superior resonance. [6]

Theories and reproduction attempts

The Antonio Stradivari violin of 1703 on exhibit, behind glass, at the Musikinstrumentenmuseum, Berlin

Nonetheless, some maintain that the best Stradivariuses have unique superiorities.[7] Various attempts at explaining these supposed qualities have been undertaken, most results being unsuccessful or inconclusive. Over the centuries, numerous theories have been presented, and debunked, including an assertion that the wood was salvaged from old cathedrals. Dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, has proved this false.

A more modern theory attributes tree growth during a time of unusually low solar activity during the Maunder Minimum "Little Ice Age" from ca. 1645 to 1750. During this period, temperatures throughout Europe were much cooler causing stunted and slowed tree growth, which resulted in unusually dense wood.[8] Further evidence for this "Little Ice Age theory" comes from a simple examination of the dense growth rings in the wood used in Stradivari's instruments.[9] Two researchers, Henri Grissino-Mayer, a University of Tennessee tree ring scientist and Lloyd Burckle, a Columbia University climatologist, published their conclusions supporting the theory on increased wood density in the journal Dendrochronologia.[10]

In 2008, Dutch researchers announced further evidence that wood density caused the claimed high quality of these instruments. After examining the violins with X-rays, the researchers found that these violins all have extremely consistent density, with relatively low variation in the apparent growth patterns of the trees which produced this wood.[11]

Yet another possible explanation is that the wood originated and was harvested from the forests of northern Croatia.[12] This maple wood is known for its extreme density due to the slow growth from harsh Croatian winters. Croatian wood was a commodity traded by Venetian merchants of this era and is used for crafting musical instruments by local luthiers to this day.

Some research points to wood preservatives being used in that day as contributing to the resonant qualities.[13][14] Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus at Texas A&M University, has always held the belief that a wide range of chemicals improve the sound. In a 2009 study co-authored with Drs. Renald Guillemette and Clifford Spiegelman, Nagyvary burned minute quantities of the violins and measured their chemical composition. The authors concluded that the smoky remains of the wood shavings consisted of "borax, fluorides, chromium and iron salts."[15]

While the sound of Stradivari's instruments still has not been fully explained by modern research tools, devices such as the scanning laser vibrometer are aiding researchers in testing the theory that the careful shaping of belly and back plate, in order to "tune" their resonant frequencies, may be an important factor.[16]

Glues and varnishes used by Stradivari have been analyzed extensively, and the sound and quality of his instruments have been attributed to these components as well. However, a 2009 study found nothing unusual about the varnish used.[17] If Stradivariuses are in fact superior, there remains no consensus on the most probable or important factor beyond that of exceptional craftsmanship.

Violin maker Carleen Hutchins, who died at age 98 on August 7, 2009, was convinced that her scientific experiments could reproduce the same qualities to be found in the Stradivarius.[citation needed] Whether she did or not is subject to debate.

Stradivari instruments


  1. ^ The Violin Forms of Antonio Stradivari by Stewart Pollens, Biddulph (1992) ISBN 0-9520109-0-9.
  2. ^ Beamen, John (2000). The Violin Explained: Components, Mechanism, and Sound. Oxford University Press. pp. 89–90. ISBN 0-19-816739-3. Retrieved 2009-01-23. 
  3. ^ Marchese, John (2008). The Violin Maker: A Search for the Secrets of Craftsmanship, Sound, and Stradivari. Harper Perennial. pp. 133–134. ISBN 978-0-06-001268-4. 
  4. ^ Norris, Geoffrey (2005-02-10). "Debunking the Stradivarius Myth". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2009-08-08. 
  5. ^ "Fungus-Treated Violin Outdoes Stradivarius". Science Daily. 14 September 2009. Retrieved 2010-01-22. 
  6. ^ Francis W. M. R. Schwarze, Melanie Spycher and Siegfried Fink (24 April 2008). "Superior wood for violins – wood decay fungi as a substitute for cold climate". Wiley Interscience. Retrieved 2010-01-22. 
  7. ^ Inskeep, Steve; Hoffman, Miles (2004-06-24). "The Sweet Sound of a Stradivarius". National Public Radio (U.S.). Retrieved 2009-01-23. 
  8. ^ Associated Press (8 December 2003). "Cool weather may be Stradivarius' secret". CNN. Retrieved 2007-06-24. 
  9. ^ John Pickrell (7 January 2004). "Did "Little Ice Age" Create Stradivarius Violins' Famous Tone?". National Geographic News. Retrieved 2007-06-24. 
  10. ^ Rachelle Oblack (10 March 2008). "10 Non-Military Historical Events Drastically Changed by the Weather". Retrieved 2008-06-11. 
  11. ^ Stoel, Berend C.; Borman, Terry M (2008). "A Comparison of Wood Density between Classical Cremonese and Modern Violins". PLoS ONE 3 (7): e2554. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002554. Retrieved 2008-07-04. 
  12. ^ Hill, W.H.; Hill, A.F.; Hill, A.E. (1963). Antonio Stradivari: His Life and Work. New York: Dover Publications. ISBN 0486204251. Retrieved 2008-07-03. 
  13. ^ Paul Marks (29 November 2006). "Why do Stradivari's violins sound sublime?". NewScientist. Retrieved 2008-05-25. 
  14. ^ Charles Choi (10 June 2002). "Secrets of the Stradivarius: An Interview with Joseph Nagyvary". Scientific American. Retrieved 2008-05-25. 
  15. ^ Texas A&M University. "Secrets Of Stradivarius' Unique Violin Sound Revealed, Professor Says." ScienceDaily 25 January 2009. 25 January 2009 <>.
  16. ^ Andrew W. Brown (2004). "Documentation of Double Bass Plate Modes Using the Scanning Laser Vibrometer". University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna. Retrieved 2007-06-24. 
  17. ^ Fountain, Henry (December 4, 2009). "What Exalts Stradivarius? Not Varnish, Study Says". The New York Times. pp. A14. Retrieved December 4, 2009. "Those looking to the varnish as the secret to the master Italian violin maker’s renown, the study suggests, had best look elsewhere." 

Further reading

  • Hill, William Henry; Hill, Arthur F.; Hill, Alfred Ebsworth (1902). Antonio Stradivari, His Life and Work (1644-1737). London: W.E. Hill & Sons. OCLC 8179349. 
  • Faber, Toby (2004). Stradivari's Genius: Five Violins, One Cello, and Three Centuries of Enduring Perfection. New York: Random House. ISBN 0375508481. 
  • Vannes, Rene (1985) [1951]. Dictionnaire Universel del Luthiers (vol.3). Bruxelles: Les Amis de la musique. OCLC 53749830. 
  • William, Henley (1969). Universal Dictionary of Violin & Bow Makers. Brighton; England: Amati. ISBN 0901424005. 
  • Walter Hamma, Meister Italienischer Geigenbaukunst, Wilhelmshaven 1993, ISBN 3-7959-0537-0
  • Violin Iconography of Antonio Stradivari 1644–1737, Herbert K. Goodkind, Larchmont, New York, 1972.
  • How Many Strads?, Ernest N. Doring, William Lewis & Son, Chicago, 1945
  • Millant, Roger (1972) (in French). J. B. Vuillaume: Sa Vie et son Oeuvre. London: W.E. Hill. OCLC 865746.