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 ‘Sabionari’ (1679)
- The ‘Giustiniani’ (1681)
- The ‘Hill’ (1688)
- The ‘Rawlings’ (1700)
- The ‘Vuillaume’ (1711?)
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.