Cremona’s string instruments

Sound and Mysteries in the Marriage between Nature and Culture

The story behind the most famous string instruments in the world.

The end of an era.


The string instruments constructed over the span of 200 hundred years in Cremona, a little village in Lombardi, northern Italy, are the best sound machines ever created by human beings. Their dark, melancholic sound, is powerful and versatile. Their deep and clean tone can still be heard in concert halls around the world. But sadly not for long. The formula behind the violins, violas and violoncellos’ produced by Andrea Amati (1505-1577), Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesú (1666-1739) remains an alluring enigma of Western music.

The three master luthiers of all times, Andrea Amati, Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesú hail from Cremona. They had their ateliers in front of Piazza Domenica along the same street. It was here that string instruments acquired its modern appearance; for instance, the violin grew his fourth string in Andrea Amati’s (1505-1577) workshop. He was the pioneer in Cremona’s great luthier lineage.

With his death came decades of devastating events in Cremona: The plague arrived with French and German troops in 1629, and brought famine and death in its wake. Many people died, and Niccolo Amati (1596 -1684) was the only one who survived from the Amati family. Without children to employ in the Amati workshop, he turned to non-family members and hired the likes of Francesco Ruggeri (1645–1700), Andrea Guarneri (1624c–1698) and the most famous of all, Antonio Stradivari (1644c–1737). The golden age of Cremona’s string instruments had begun.

If Andrea Amati was the first master luthier, then Antonio Stradivari is surely the best known of them all. But ever since Paganini toured Europe with his Il Cannone violin, a 1743 del Gesú, constructed by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesú, his instruments were held in the same esteem as Antonio Stradivari’s. “No other luthier comes close to these three luthiers”, says Dr Bruce Tai, Assistant Professor of the Department of Chemistry of The National Taiwan University, whose research group has recently studied numerous wood instruments crafted in Cremona. Herein lies the enigma, what did these two individuals contribute to the making of their instruments?

Nicollo Paganini, whose virtuosity was attributed to a pact with the devil, lost an amazing Amati violin gambling. A fan or some would say perhaps the Devil himself, had gifted Nicollo a Guarneri del Gesú violin upon hearing of the fate of his Amati violin. The instrument stood by Paganini’s side throughout his career. He called it Il cannone, in English it stands for a model against everything else is measured, the canon of all violins. He donated Il cannone to his hometown, Geneva. It was insured to the value of US$ 4 million by the city of Geneva. Paganini had a glamorous lifestyle, he was infamous for his challenges with gambling and was a proclaimed philanderer. It is also been said Paganini killed three lovers and breathed their souls into his Guarneri del Gesú as he mourned them.

Paganini shed light on the last great families of luthiers from Cremona, Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesú who had been dead for forty years and forgotten under the shadow of Antonio Stradivari, and perhaps his own. He had a relatively short career and allegedly spent some time in jail for murder. After Giuseppe, there were two renowned luthiers in the family called Pietro Guarneri del Gesú, one left for Venice, and the other for Mantua.

 World-renowned fame and merchandising

How did the string instruments conquer Western music? According to Dr Jesus Perez Magallón specialist in Renaissance and Baroque Studies from McGill University, the violin reached its zenith in the seventeenth century and reigned throughout the eighteenth and the nineteenth century. The harpsichord and other instruments similar to the piano cannot be physically carried around, they required a place to be heard either a church or a theatre. Violins and string instruments were transported easily. Other instruments lack the violins fluency, its volubility, and its emotional versatility. Thus, the violin appears in an array of compositions and genres written during the Baroque and well into the nineteenth century. The violin is considered the ultimate Baroque and Romantic instrument.

Around the 1950’s there was a second revival of the craft in Cremona. Today you can find many workshops in the city like Marino Violins, Carlos Roberts liutaio or Carlos & Neuman, Gaspar Borchard liutaio, among others. Nearly 140 workshops have opened in the city between 1950’s and 1960’s.

The city of Cremona offers numerous musical events, along with a world-class museum dedicated to violin making. In September 2013, the Violin Museum opened in Cremona. It is the most comprehensive museum to date. Its total cost is thought to be in the region of €10m-€12m (the main investor is Giovanni Arvedi, a local steel magnate and now arts patron). Not only the city of Cremona, but the region of Lombardia advertises itself as the home to Stradivari spruce. Of late, there are almost 200 violin-makers crafting new instruments. String instruments are omnipresent in Cremona. Once can find violins in the façade of classy shops next to wines and cold cuts. There is almost an aftertaste of cultural tourism and regional branding everywhere.


The Devil’s trick

In the composition of the instrument, apart from the craftsmanship, a luthier has to be cognizant of the wood and the nature of trees. According to Aaron S. Allen, musicologist from The University of North Carolina at Greensbor the Cremona’s luthiers got their wood from ‘la foresta dei violini’ in Italy. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the region was called val di Fiemme. It is now part of the Parco Naturale Paneveggio, Pale di San, in the province of Trentino Martino.

Where exactly did the Antonio Stradivari, Amati and Gesu del Guarneri get their wood?, we asked Dr BruceTai, Professor of the Department of Chemistry of The National Taiwan University, whose research group has recently studied numerous wood instruments crafted in Cremona.

Dr Bruce Tai: By historical consensus, the spruce came from the southern slopes of Alps, and the figured (tiger-stripe) maple came from the Balkans. The plain maple was probably local with origin Northern Italy. The exact forest locations are unknown though. But let’s not forget, Antonio Stradivari made superb violins too with second class wood.

George Simons: You have had the privilege to listen to a large number of famous Stradivari and del Gesú violins. Which violin has been the most memorable?

Dr BruceTai: The “Lady Tennant” Strad, played by Yossif Ivanov in a recent recital in Taipei. It has a magical power.

Its name stuck with the violin after a Scotish businessman bought it for his wife, an amateur violin player. It is said he purchased for US$2,032,000 at the Christie’s auction in New York in 2005. The Stradivari Society of Chicago has since lent the instrument to a world-renowned violin player.

The most famous and expensive violin in the world is the Lady Blunt, a Stradivarius violin made in 1721. It was dubbed after Lady Anne Blunt, Lord Byron’s granddaughter, who owned it for 30 years. After the 2011 Japanese tsunami, Lady Blunt’s violin was auctioned by the Nippon Music Foundation to raise money for the victims. 6 people offered US$13 million. Two bidders remained in the online auction, and an unknown Russian collector got it for US$15 million, according to Tarisio, a classy web-based auction house specializing in string instruments.

Cremona’s string instruments can be valued for well over US$ 10 million, similar to those at the Stradivarius Palatino, which are probably the most outstanding collection of Stradivarius in the world on public display at the salon of the Royal Library of the Royal Palace in Spain. It is composed of three violins, two cellos, two violoncellos and a viola. Many music institutions and Culture Foundations have heavily invested in string instruments around the world.

“In Taiwan, the Chi-Mei museum has a stunning collection, says Italian luthier, Emiliano Marinucci shakes his hands as if doing this jogs his memory. Mr Marinucci is himself a luthier and responsible for the Thys de Castella Collection of rare instruments in Switzerland. “Among the string instruments in Chi-Mei, there is a cello by Andrea Amati of 1566, it was completely painted with the arms of Charles IX of France. Probably one of the world’s first cellos constructed in the Amati Workshop.

The hidden formula

After interviewing Marinucci, I took a stroll down Madrid’s Plaza Callao and found myself at a bookstore as usual. In the section dedicated to spy’s novel and roman noir, I found a bestseller by a musicologist Joseph Gelinek, The Devil’s Violin. There I found the next clue. He gives away the best secrets of an Italian purveyor of musical-instrument wood from the eighteen century: “The fir tree of val di Fiemme in the Alpes are the best; but they must be cut down only in the last fourth of the moon’s period, because it is then that the lymph of the tree has descended to its roots and so the wood has no tensions (…), but if you cut it down in any other phase of the moon´s period then the instrument will not sound as good as it could”.

Gelinek might not be entirely wrong. A study carried out by climatologist Lloyd Burckle from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and the dendrochronologist Henri Grissino-Mayer from Tennessee University has found that the most productive period of the two greatest luthiers in history coincides with the Little Ice Age. This was a period of cooling in Europe spanning from 1645 to 1715. In those 50 to 70 years, the winters in Central Europe became colder due to cyclical lows in solar radiation or changes in the ocean circulation. The trees tended to grow slower, and its wood got denser, and so the instruments made out of those woods achieve a better sound than any other wood instrument ever made.

Late one night, after working on this article, The Red Violin (1998) showed on cable TV. Directed by Francois Girard, the movie tells the story of an instrument created in the XVII century by an Italian master in the craft, Niccolo Bussoti. The instrument’s peculiar reddish colour comes from the last varnish Bussoti (played by Carlo Cecchi) gave using the blood of his wife the same night of her parturient death. Then, the violin passes from one owner to another, seeing passionate stories throughout History, like the one of English virtuoso Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng) and his lover, Victoria Byrd, who attempts to murder him after she discovers him engaging in sexual intercourse with the same gipsy from whom he acquired the instrument. The violin even travels to Mao’s China, where it is kept a secret in the house of a music teacher Chou Yan (Liu Zi Feng), because of the communist censorship imposed to all expressions of Western culture, and even its musical instruments. After many adventures, the red violin arrives at a fancy auction house in Paris, where Samuel L. Jackson develops a saccharine interest for the instrument. It was a good movie to watch.

A quick search on Google about The Red Violin led me to a paper by a professor of biochemistry at Texas A&M University called Joseph Nagyvray. He might well have been the inspiration to Girard’s movie and McKellar’ bestseller.

Professor Nagyvray analyzed minuscule samples of several string instruments from Stradivarius, Guarneri del Gesú and Guadagnini. He concluded that the best sound came from instruments made by Antonius Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesú because of the salts used to varnish them. “The Stradivari’s legend was firmly established along with the most prominent myth, which concerns his alleged secret and lost varnish recipe”, says Nagyvray in his research published online. This corroborates musicologist and bestselling author Joseph Jelinek’s theory.

Recently, in December 2016, the New York Times reported on a study carried out by Dr Bruce Tai, professor of chemistry at National Taiwan University in collaboration with Chimei Museum in Taiwan. We contacted him. Dr Tai. Would you please tell us what were your findings and by which means did you find it?

Dr Bruce Tai: We used 5 techniques to assess wood of 6 instruments, four Stradivari and one Guarneri. We used solid-state carbon-13 nuclear magnetic resonance to investigate the composition of organic fibres. It is a radar signal which detects the chemical environment of different carbon atoms. It showed hemicellulose had significantly degraded after 300 years.

“We applied inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry to quantify the metal elements in the wood. Unnatural elevations in several metals suggested the wood had been intentionally treated with mineral solutions. X-ray diffraction was applied to investigate the crystalline properties of cellulose in the wood, and it has remained stable after three centuries. Then, we applied a thermogravimetric analysis; it is used to record the weight loss as the wood shavings were heated to drive off moisture. It showed that historical maple absorbed less moisture.

“We also used differential scanning calorimetry in order to measure the combustion pattern of wood when heated slowly. It revealed a difference between the maple in Stradivari violins and his cellos. The high-frequency vibrations in the violin had somehow rearranged the wood fibres over the centuries”.

G.S.: What are the main quantification of minerals gathered in your results and how do these differ from Prof. Nagyvray’s?

Dr Bruce Tai: Our analyses could not detect all the elements in the periodic table; hence we can only say that sodium, potassium, calcium, aluminium, copper and zinc have increased. We have some ideas about alchemical ingredients that could have led to cause such changes, but more data needs to be collected.

“Our data, continues Dr Tai, is in general agreement with Prof. Nagyvary’s data published in 2009, both suggest the Stradivari’s maple was treated with some minerals before manufacturing them. Due to more advanced instrumentation, our data is more progressive than Prof. Nagyvary’s”.

The death of an era

For 200 years, many talented violin makers have tried to reproduce the acoustic qualities of Stradivari’s, Amati’s and Guarneri del Gesú. Perhaps the best reproduction of a Guarneri del Gesú comes from Parisian luthier Jean Baptist Vuillaume (1798-1875). Paganini trusted him with the cleaning and repairing of his violin. Vuillaume produced an exact replica and not even Paganini was able to distinguish from the authentic violin.

Today, one of the most renowned luthiers can be found in Brooklyn, New York, Samuel Zygmuntowicz. His violins were used by Isaac Stern, and when auctioned in 2001, one fetched US$130’000, the highest amount ever paid for a modern violin.

As far as Western music history, Dr Bruce Tai findings point towards the end of an era. The argument is rather simple: like any other living organism or goods, the Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesú’s, among other rare instruments of the XVIIth and XVIIIth century, will deteriorate over time. The news is that we might have arrived at that point in the journey of string instruments.

“We found, explains Dr Tai, that hemicellulose decomposition is quite severe even in carefully maintained Strad instruments. Eventually, the wood cell walls will become loosened. This may be detrimental to the brilliant tone of Stradivari violins. My estimate suggests that many Strad violins being played today will lose their brilliance in 100-200 years. This process may be accelerated by heavy playing. But only time will tell.”

“We know Stradivari’s maple is very different from modern maple due to chemical treatment, aging, and long-term playing. We are beginning to analyze the spruce as well. Whilst there is much more to study, it appears to me that the remaining secrets of Stradivari are hidden in the wood”, says, Dr BruceTai.

On the other hand, Italian luthier Marinucci says as regards Stradivari’s workshop in Cremona, which is open to specialists, “we know that his guitars, his harps, his mandolins and obviously his bows and strings too, were constructed on different acoustics calculations. He never stopped searching for the perfect sound. So he employed different techniques and intuition; production back then was more like a constant search with very little modifications, like in a laboratory”.

After six decades working in his workshop, Antonio Stradivari died in 1737. Guarneri del Gesú had a shorter life, after only four decades of production he died in 1747. It took only three decades for Cremona, the mecca of string instruments, to pass into oblivion, and other important manufacturers appeared in cities around Europe. By then the Spanish Empire was crumbling in Italy and the economy of the whole region around Cremona was hit hard. Ever since, in Cremona, there is a sense that time stood still somewhere in the seventeenth century forever.