In his influential 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” critic Walter Benjamin used the word “aura” to describe an artwork’s “presence in time and space” — an explanation of the thrill, or chill, we get from standing before a Jackson Pollock, say, or a Michelangelo, rather than a photograph of the same. Writing in the age of radio, photography, and newspapers, Benjamin believed that aura could not be transmitted or copied: “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element” — that rare thing that makes art worth preserving and reproducing in the first place.
Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that musical instruments have aura — that the very sounds they make are its manifestation, and that, no matter how sophisticated our technology, we may never reproduce those sounds perfectly. As Hank Green explains in the SciShow video above: “For centuries, musicians, instrument makers, engineers, and scientists have been trying to understand and reproduce the ‘Stradivarius’ sound. They’ve investigated everything from the materials their maker used to how he crafted the violins. But the mystique is still there.” Can science solve the mystery?
At heart, the question seems to be whether the aural qualities of a Stradivari instrument can be plucked from their time and place of origin and made fungible, so to speak, across the centuries. Antonio Stradivari (his name is often Latinized to “Stradivarius”) began making violins in the 1600s and continued, with his sons Francesco and Omobono, until his death in 1737, producing around 1000 instruments, most of which were violins. About 650 of those instruments survive today, and approximately 500 of those are violins, ranging in value from tens of millions to priceless.
Green surveys the techniques, materials, physics, and chemical composition of Stradivari violins “to understand why Stradivarius violins have been so hard to recreate.” Their sound has been described as “silvery,” says Green, a word that sounds pretty but has little technical meaning. Rather than rely on adjectives, researchers from diverse fields have tried to work from the objects themselves — analyzing and attempting to recreate the violins’ shape, construction, materials, etc. They’ve learned that time and place matter more than they supposed.
The wood of a Stradivari violin “really is different,” Green says, “but because Stradivari never wrote down his process, researchers can’t quite tell why.” That wood itself grew in a process over which Stradivari had no control. The alpine spruce he used came from trees harvested “at the edge of Europe’s Little Ice Age, a 70-year period of unseasonably cold weather … that slowed tree growth and made for even more consistent wood.” We begin to see the difficulties. One researcher, Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus of biochemistry at Texas A&M University, recently made another discovery. As Texas A&M Today notes:
[Stradivari and fellow maker Guarneri] soaked their instruments in chemicals such as borax and brine to protect them from a worm infestation that was sweeping through Italy in the 1700s. By pure accident the chemicals used to protect the wood had the unintended result of producing the unique sounds that have been almost impossible to duplicate in the past 400 years.
Perhaps we cannot duplicate the sound because none of us is Antonio Stradivari, working with his sons in the early 18th century in Cremona, Italy, building violins with a unique crop of alpine spruce while fighting unseasonably cold weather and worms.