This article was published in the April 2017 issue of Strings Magazine.
Please answer the following: The tone of a Stradivari instrument is deemed superior due to:
• extraordinary craftsmanship
• weather conditions during the growth of the trees
• rare components emulsified in the varnish
Here’s another option to add to the list: chemical seasoning, in this case, treating the wood with a cocktail of mineral preservatives. A recent study found “reproducible differences” in the chemical composition of wood from several Strads when compared to modern maple samples. These differences, however, also include the transformation of the cellular structure due to time and vibration, begging the question: Does this study reveal anything new or significant?
Minnesota-based master luthier David Folland shares his thoughts, as he has long experimented with wood treatment and its effect on tonal properties. His initial reaction: “We have known metal salts were used to treat and preserve violin wood for a very long time . . . . There have been articles published about what we are finding in the wood of old Italian instruments for decades, and they often, but not always, show similar salts, and many other substances are present. Often, in an analysis of several nice, old Cremonese instruments, some will have a mineral presence, some will have none, and the ones that have minerals will have different minerals in different proportions.”
A New York Times piece referenced the new study, noting that the violins were treated, but the Cremonese cellos exhibited no mineral treatment. There was also no indication that the instruments that had been chemically seasoned are superior-sounding to those that have not.
In addition, it is difficult to know from the findings if the presence of these minerals in the wood is due to a specific treatment, or as part of the varnish procedure—with the salts being absorbed into the wood over time— or for some other reason. Whether by accident or by design, the presence of these minerals represents a tantalizing idea for those hoping to discover the secrets of the old Italian masters.
But the reality of how the minerals affect sound—if they do at all—is probably subjective, nuanced, and relative. Joseph Curtin and Claudia Fritz’s blind-listening tests have demonstrated that there is hardly a definitive “Strad sound,” and that fine modern instruments robustly stand up to old ones.
Folland’s conclusion, both from the results of blind tests and his own research and experiments: “It is doubtful the mineral salts found in some of the old Italian instruments contribute to an improvement in their sound, or even have much of an effect at all. The quality of an instrument, and the way it sounds, is immeasurably more the result of hundreds of minute, interrelated details, and of the skill, knowledge, and experience of the maker (and, in the case of those old instruments, the restorer) than it is the result of a secret wood treatment, lost varnish, or special wood.”
Going forward, while this study may spark a trend in experimentation, it’s simply one more data point, taken from several tiny slivers of wood.
Folland cautions, “The chemistry work might be accurate, but to be useful, that chemistry must be properly interpreted, and put it in a realistic frame of reference.”