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Strads―The Million-Dollar Violins

If you ever thought about all the things you could buy with a few million dollars, you’d most likely think along the lines of luxury cars and mansions. A violin would probably be the last thing to cross your mind. Shelling out millions for a violin seems outlandish when you could simply pick one up from your average music shop for five thousand rupees. But there are, in fact, a handful of violins worth a few million dollars. Many of these violins have one thing in common―they were made by a man named Antonio Stradivari.

Antonio Stradivari was an Italian luthier born in 1644 in the town of Cremona. It is believed that Stradivari began crafting instruments as an apprentice to the pioneer luthier Nicola Amati before going on to make his own instruments and perfecting his technique. In a career spanning from the 1660s to his death in 1737, Stradivari made violas, cellos, guitars, mandolins, and most importantly, violins.

Antonio Stradivari (Image Courtesy: Classic FM)

Stradivari was renowned as a fine luthier and expert craftsman during his lifetime, and his reputation continued to grow even in the years following his death. The Stradivarius violins, or Strads, as they are popularly known, became the standard of violin-making and soon found their way into the courts of different European monarchs. In the eighteenth century, the demand for Strads grew massively, especially among collectors, researchers, and other violin makers because of their superior build quality, allowing for the value of these instruments to rise. Around this time, several fakes with Stradivarius labels were sold in markets by profiteers looking to cash in on the craze for Strads. Many luthiers based their work on Stradivari’s and borrowed techniques from him which influenced the build of the modern day violin. By the nineteenth century, his status as one of the best luthiers to ever make violins had been firmly cemented.

A Stradivarius violin (Image Courtesy: Vox)

Today, Stradivarius violins have become prized treasures, and buying a well-preserved original could set you back by millions―the “Lady Blunt” violin, for instance, was sold for $15.9 million in 2011. Stradivarius made over nine hundred violins, and about half of them still survive to this day. Some of them are even played in concerts and shows. Many experts have praised the sweet, versatile, and well-rounded sound of the Strads. Violinist Joseph Joachim once wrote that he was struck by how the tone of the Messiah Stradivarius is sweet yet grand. “This instrument has a soul and an imagination,” said cellist Yo-Yo Ma of the Davidov Stradivarius.

Many attempts have been made to understand and imitate the sound of the Strads, but they’ve been met with little success. Many theories have been put forward trying to explain the sound of the Strads, though none have been verified. Some suggest that the spell of cool climate between 1300 and 1850 caused spruce trees to grow with denser wood than usual, resulting in the better sound. Others say that the composition of the varnish and the fact that the wood was treated with aluminium, calcium, and copper were responsible.

David Aaron Carpenter plays the Macdonald Stradivarius viola (Image Courtesy: Bloomberg)

Not all experts, however, are enamoured by Stradivari and his violins. In a study conducted by Claudia Fritz of Sorbonne University, a group of expert violinists were blindfolded and made to play both Strads and modern violins. When asked to choose which violins they preferred, most of them picked the modern violins. Though the experiment was criticized by a few, it was an important study nonetheless as it suggested that the popularity of Strads was merely a placebo. “The search for Stradivari’s secrets is a perennially fruitless one, simply because they don’t exist,” said Fritz after analysing the results of the experiment.

Strads have always been valued as fine instruments made by a remarkably skilled craftsman. In addition, they have great historical value, having influenced modern violins and representing a bygone era of instrument making whose ways we are yet to fully comprehend. These instruments have captivated the imaginations of instrumentalists around the world for several decades, and as long as they continue to do so, Strads will remain million-dollar violins.