Hear Musicians Play the Only Playable Stradivarius Guitar in the World: The “Sabionari”

What makes one arti­san stand out in a field of high­ly skilled com­peti­tors? When we think of clas­si­cal instru­ments, we think of the Stradi­vari fam­i­ly, famed mak­ers of vio­lins, vio­las, cel­los, and oth­er instru­ments. But the Stradi­var­ius’ suc­cess may owe as much to chance as to supe­ri­or crafts­man­ship. A Texas A&M pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of bio­chem­istry, Joseph Nagy­vary (also a vio­lin­ist and vio­lin mak­er), dis­cov­ered that Stradi­var­ius instru­ments were soaked in chem­i­cals “to pro­tect them from a worm infes­ta­tion that was sweep­ing through Italy in the 1700s.”

“By pure acci­dent,” this method of pest con­trol, Texas A&M Today writes, had “the unin­tend­ed result of pro­duc­ing the unique sounds that have been almost impos­si­ble to dupli­cate in the past 400 years.”

So, there you have it, the secret of the Stradi­var­ius sound: borax and brine. There’s more to it than that, of course, but the chem­i­cal bath advan­tage makes for a fas­ci­nat­ing bit of triv­ia. To the ear, it mat­ters lit­tle whether a sound is the result of acci­dent, inten­tion, or some mea­sure of the two.

If it sounds sweet, it is, and Stradi­var­ius instru­ments (in playable con­di­tion, any­way) sound like the voic­es of angels. Hap­pi­ly, the Stradi­var­ius exper­i­ment was repeat­able hun­dreds of times, and not only for the famed orches­tral instru­ments with which we’re famil­iar, if only by rep­u­ta­tion. The fam­i­ly made around 1000 instru­ments, 960 of which are vio­lins. They also made a cou­ple hand­fuls of gui­tars, five of which exist in com­plete form. These are:

The first, and ear­li­est of these instru­ments, the so-called Sabionari, was made by Anto­nio Stradi­vari him­self and hap­pens to be the only playable gui­tar of the five, due to a restora­tion by three mas­ter luthiers. All of the Stradi­vari gui­tars are ten-string (five-course) instru­ments, with dou­bled notes like a mod­ern 12-string gui­tar. But, “as with all Stradi­vari instru­ments,” The Strad points out, “the ‘Sabionari’ was mod­ern­ized,” con­vert­ed to six-string in a process that sounds espe­cial­ly vio­lent in rela­tion to what we now view as a pre­cious muse­um piece (espe­cial­ly as Andrés Segovia signed the gui­tar in 1948).

In the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry, Ital­ian luthi­er Giuseppe Mar­conci­ni “changed the neck, peg­head and bridge, and added new lin­ings and braces.” The orig­i­nal parts he removed were long gone, so restor­ers had to fit new ones to the body. Curi­ous­ly, Marconcini’s 150-year-old parts were “infest­ed by wood­worm,” but “the insects spared the orig­i­nal sound­board and brac­ing wood by Stradi­vari.” Effec­tive pest con­trol not only pre­served the wood; it also con­tributed to the sound we hear above in these many videos fea­tur­ing the Sabionari, with play­ers Krish­na­sol Jimenéz, Ugo Nas­ruc­ci, and Rolf Lisl­e­vand, who plays a live­ly Taran­tel­la below and gives us a taste of how the instru­ment was like­ly used to accom­pa­ny dances.

Where it was once “extreme­ly rare” to hear the sound of a Baroque gui­tar, we can now all, thanks to the inter­net, enjoy Stradi­var­ius gui­tar per­for­mances. You can see many more here, and learn much more about the 1679 gui­tar itself, here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Musi­cian Plays the Last Stradi­var­ius Gui­tar in the World, the “Sabionari” Made in 1679

What Makes the Stradi­var­ius Spe­cial? It Was Designed to Sound Like a Female Sopra­no Voice, With Notes Sound­ing Like Vow­els, Says Researcher

Why Stradi­var­ius Vio­lins Are Worth Mil­lions

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.