One day Stradivari offered a glass of wine to a lumberjack, the price for a secret coded in the Roman calendar. A night when the Moon is unusually not involved.
I immediately anticipate the detractors of Stradivari in favor of Guarneri del Gesù: I too prefer the more seductive, robust and grave sound of Guarneri’s violins rather than the steeper Stradivari, nevertheless this article is not about music aesthetics, it is about the phenomenology of a soundboard, the perfect union between earth and sky.
In fact, although their technical knowledge derived from the same luthier master, Nicolò Amati, and both during the beginning of their careers were making violins in the classic Amati style, as well as they were purchasing the soundboards sourced from the same Paneveggio forest, Stradivarius vibrates with a timbre richer in the higher overtones compared to Guarneri. So rich to be unbearable to some. If the unique geography and weather conditions of Val di Fiemme-Paneveggio forest produces the best soundboards on the planet, the revelation that costed a glass of wine might have caused the difference between Guarneri and Stradivari violins. And be alchemically very relevant too.
History of a fascination – The Stradivari’s secret has attracted my interest since childhood, and perhaps it was my father who instilled me this curiosity. As a child I spent many summer holidays in a little house close to the forest in San Martino di Castrozza. One summer (I was eleven) my father took us from the little house of San Martino to the lake of Paneveggio, to an official “finding out what the Stradivari’s secret was about” family outing. We parked the car in the red spruce trunks deposit ( in 1970’s the wood deposit was road side and unfenced) and waited for the fate to be accomplished. The actual fate was that my father soon managed to miss the car key and so we got trapped in the deposit for long hours. But an entire afternoon in a wood deposit was not spent in vain, in fact a lot of locals arrived and tried to help us with the car. At some point a man involved with the red spruce industry told us lightheartedly that the secret was just the time of cutting, and the official time of November-December was wrong. In fact, that fateful man added, Stradivari didn’t buy Nevember-December wood. It was strange that my father, a lover of latin culture, once we got home, didn’t open Ovid’s Fasts and Vergil’s Eclogues. The fact that Stradivari followed cutting times other than the traditional ones was enough for him. Not for me. I wanted the exact day (but, as a child, I could not suspected it was a night instead). But, before that, I owe to the reader the how and why of a soundboard.
For centuries violin makers have tried and failed to reproduce the pristine Stradivarius sound, probably because they still continue to trust two traditions: the scientific tradition, who uniquely looks at the biochemistry of wood, for both identified and unidentified chemicals, and the official cutting tradition, that stubbornly continues to require the soundboards wood to be cut down as if it was building timber.
Cutting periods – The timber red spruce trees in the Paneveggio area are brought in November-December, as most building timber from the dawn of times, but today the resonant wood for soundboard is just chopped down from that bulk after a previous test: so they get the most resonant among already poorly resonant wood pieces. No wonder, today the people in the wood industry cannot dedicate too much time and energy to harvest a niche product. The best effort they can do is to await the waning moon of the winter solstice; these trees are then cut down with the top to the valley and left whole with the branches for a few days, this to make sure that the liquid, the plant has still circulating, be called back in the branches and leaves. This wood is called “Mondholz”, or timber moon.
Biochemistry of wood – Many modern chemists theorize that chemicals used on the instruments – not merely the wood and the construction – were responsible for the distinctive sound of these violins. One for all, Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus of biochemistry, researched on the assumption that the wood of the great masters underwent an aggressive chemical treatment and this had a direct role in creating the great sound of the Stradivari and Guarneri. He found many chemicals in the wood, among them borax, fluorides, chromium and iron salts. Borax has a long history as a preservative, going back to the ancient Egyptians, who used it in mummification and later as an insecticide. What Nagyvary probably didn’t want to take into consideration was that actually “all” luthiers soundboards of the same period underwent the same preservative treatments, as the ancient chemistry indicated, but not all luthiers soundboards were Stradivari and Guarneri’s. And above all, the supposition still doesn’t explain the difference between Stradivari and Guarneri.
Indentations – There also was much debate on Stradivari’s preference of the red spruce with “indentations”, that’s to say a wood texture characterized with the presence of many minute inflexions more or less marked and lined up in the radial direction in the annual rings. Some authors believe that it is “one of the secrets of the manufacture of the Master”, but this was the trend throughout the Italian violin school tradition starting from Amati brothers and their apprentices, Stradivari and Guarneri family. Currently many Italian luthiers still prefer the wood with indentations for two main reasons – alleged harmonic qualities and better aesthetic value.
Geography and meteorology of the area – The soundboards are chopped from red spruces, Picea abies Karst., which is the same all over the world, it is not a typical variant of the area. The violins forest lies the ultimate and the highest part of Val di Fiemme, Dolomite mountain range, which then runs through the gravelly Val Venegia against the Pale di San Martino plateau, into Paneveggio natural park. The current cutting area is the one around Sentiero Marciò trail (in the picture below, the lower arrow at around 1540 m.). The unofficial ancient cutting area, the one Stradivari was allegedly said to prefer, has been identified in Pian dei Casoni ( the higher arrow at around 1680 m.).
The weather in the area is always windy, and exceptionally thunder-storming on summer months, in fact the warm mediterranean sea is just 104 km south-east. Winds in the area alternately come mostly from the Sahara region and Siberia. So, it is not an exaggeration to say that Val di Fiemme-Venegia-Paneveggio is a meeting point between two extreme climate regions.
Little Ice Age – A more modern theory attributes tree growth during a time of global cold temperatures during the Little Ice Age associated with unusually low solar activity of the Maunder Minimum, circa 1645 to 1750, during which cooler temperatures throughout Europe are believed to have caused stunted and slowed tree growth, resulting in unusually dense wood. But, the Little Ice Age affected both Guarneri and Stradivari works, as well as Nicolò Amati. Additionally the modern theorists should take into considerations the fact that the Paneveggio forest in summer is certainly living in warmer conditions, nevertheless the winter temperatures in the higher rocky plateau are experiencing unexpected colder conditions.
Below the official red spruce cutting area, Sentiero Marciò.
Below the red spruce area in Pian dei Casoni. According to the legend this was preferred by Stradivari.
Below, the Val di Fiemme final part, the Val Venegia with Travignolo torrent. It is interesting to note where the winds, coming from Val di Fiemme, end their run, running through Val Venegia against the pale di San Martino plateau. The trees in this clips are high mountain short red spruce, stone pine (Pinus cembra) and larch (Larix decidua), as the Val Venegia altitude here is constantly over 1800 m.