Chapter Eight, Stradivari's Method of Construction

No task is more difficult than that of defining precisely the features in Stradivari's work which are strictly original. In a broad sense the whole is so; yet the more we analyse, the more do we discover that he was very deeply indebted to those who had preceded him.

Perhaps one of his greatest merits was the possession of that power of perception which, as time passed on, allowed him to grasp and to profit by all that is excellent in the works of his forerunners, from Gasparo da Salo' to Nicolo Amati.

That Stradivari was guided in his many and various changes by a knowledge of science as applied to the construction of instruments, we do not for one moment believe. That his intuition was great is unquestionable; and what more natural than to assume that many of his deductions were the outcome of actual experience gained by comparing the numerous already-existing instruments made by the early Brescian and Cremonese makers? It must be remembered that the art of instrument-making had been flourishing, first at Brescia, then at Cremona, for close upon two centuries. Stradivari was therefore in touch with the outcome of well-thought-out experiments, and the traditions which had been evolved and transmitted by the different makers during this long period. Time and practical experience had tested various methods of work, and thus, in our opinion, were the main problems of construction slowly, but surely, solved. Each generation added its link to the chain, and Stradivari finally welded the whole together.

Nothing is more likely than that Stradivari often came into contact with, and heard the opinions of, the different musicians of his day, who then, as now, frequently visited the violin-makers' shops: for instance, J. B. Volumier (Jean Baptiste Volumier was Musical Director to Augustus, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. He resided at Dresden, and directed the Court Music in that city from the year 1706 until 1728, the year of his death.) visited Cremona in 1715, and remained there for three months. until the instruments ordered from Stradivari by the King of Poland were finished. That a large part of this time was passed in the violin-maker's shop, we may be sure.

Again, Hart mentions that Visconti, a distinguished violinist, follower of Corelli, is said to have offered his advice to the master upon the construction of his instruments. These players were, we must bear in mind, at that time in possession of instruments varying in age from a hundred to a hundred and fifty years, and criticism must of course have been freely expressed with regard to the differences of tone of the various instruments, those of Gasparo, of Maggini, of the Amatis, and of others of the Brescian and Cremonese schools. These simple but practical views will not, we fear, carry much weight with those who in the present, as in the past, have sought to represent Stradivari as an almost superhuman worker, taking every fresh step--be it change of form, of medel, or proportions or material -- only after mature reflection and calculation. Much has been written, and various more or less ingenious theories based on scientific principles have been propounded to account for the unsurpassed tonal qualities found in his instruments. We cannot agree with such deductions, and the views we express are the result of reflection founded on daily study of Stradivari's works, and on comparison of them with those of his forerunners, patiently carried on through a long period of years.

calipersIf we take the interior construction and examine more especially that important point -- the thicknesses of the backs and bellies -- we find that the principles left us by Stradivari are those of Gasparo, plus the result of a gradual progression, in which Maggini and the Amatis had a large share.

Maggini varied the thicknesses of the backs of his violins from 1/8 to 11/64 of an inch in the centre, graduating to 5/64 at the flanks. The bellies vary from 7/64 to 11/64 of an inch in the centre, graduating to 5/64 and 1/8 at the flanks.

In Gasparo tenors-of the violins we cannot speak with any certainty-we note that the graduation of the thicknesses from the centre of the instrument is marked in the same decided manner. We see, therefore, that the importance, from a tonal point of view, of the extra thickness in the centre was recognised as early as Gasparo's time. Maggini's thicknesses are less irregular than those of his master, and his tendency was to diminish them.

That Stradivari adjusted his thicknesses thoughtfully is apparent to anybody who has been privileged to examine very many specimens of his work ; but we fail to find any indication whatsoever that he was guided by any other principle than that derived from the practice of his predecessors. He possibly tested by touch the resisting power of the back and belly when approaching the standard thickness, and, according to circumstances, he left them a little stouter or a little thinner, the back showing greater variation than the belly.

Pieces of wood of equal thickness vary a good deal in rigidity; the curve of the model also influenced the decision. Neither do we find that Stradivari-or, in fact, any of the great makers-sought to obtain absolute precision in the working of the thicknesses; the whole is carefully wrought out, yet without any attempt at mathematical exactness. They were apparently of opinion that greater precision was unnecessary.

In Stradivari's earlier works we meet with the stoutest proportions he made use of; as he grew older his tendency was to lighten them. The following particulars, which are, without exception, of noted specimens, prove this statement:_

It has at various times been asserted that Stradivari erred in the adjustment of his thicknesses, and made his instruments too thin. Fortunately, such statements invariably proceed from persons whose knowledge of Stradivari's work is very limited. The more thought we give to the subject, the more reason we see to hesitate in speaking positively for or against such a view. That the tone of different examples of Stradivari's work varies in degree of excellence is beyond dispute; but when we endeavour to find the cause of the disparity, many points have to be considered: thicknesses, model, dimensions, wood, and, last but not least, varnish, all play their part; each helps in its relative degree of importance to make or mar.

Hence, where a theorist will condemn an unsatisfactory instrument because the thicknesses do not agree with his theory, quite another reason may be furnished for its shortcomings. We believe that the true cause of disparity lies in the most fitting relations of structure, wood, and varnish not having been attained.

Stradivari, we cannot too often repeat, was not infallible; like all human workers he had his failings, although in the majority of his works he was eminently successful.

On the blocks and linings Stradivari bestowed more care and attention than did his predecessors. His principles were those of the Amatis, who before 1600 had the idea of mortising the linings of the bouts into the corner blocks, presumably to give greater strength to the sides, and at the same time to render the linings less liable to come unglued. The finish of these parts in many of the Amati violins, especially in those of the last period of Nicolo, gives the impression of having been hurriedly done-strangely in contrast with the exterior work. Often have we scrutinised these interiors with the hope of finding Stradivari's pronounced style, but up till now in vain.

Stradivari seems to have hit the happy medium in his mode of finish,-no unnecessary polish, yet sound and clean, even though just as left by chisel, gouge, or knife: in fact, the interior forcibly illustrates his keen sense for trueness and squareness of work. He selected willow for the blocks and linings (generally of a deep brown-red colour), which is light and tough, and was easily obtainable in the neighbourhood of Cremona. The Amatis often utilised pine for their blocks and willow for the linings, but Stradivari invariably used the latter wood throughout. (We have met with one exception, where the master used pine for the corner blocks of a violoncello.) He reduced his blocks to the exact limit consistent with strength-with the object, no doubt, of leaving the sides as free for vibration as possible.

In the top block Stradivari inserted usually three rough-headed nails-we have seen blocks with four,-the use of which was to pass through into the base of the neck and thus aid to hold it securely in place. The number of Stradivari violins retaining their original top block is very limited, their removal having been rendered necessary by various circumstances; and the few which do still exist have had the nails removed, leaving the three holes and the impression made by the nail-heads in the soft wood plainly visible. This feature was evidently a very old practice with Italian makers, dating from the Brescians, and it continued in use till about 1800.

Stradivari, as already stated, generally used three nails; and so did the Amatis; but some of the later makers dispensed with one, sometimes with two, while at other times they put in four. Had Stradivari mortised the base of the neck into the block instead of simply gluing it on to the sides, any such precaution would have been superfluous, but not until the dawn of last century was this improved method of mortising adopted. Our impression is that it originated with the French makers, about the period of Pique and Lupot, and not with the Italians.

These nails, varying from 3/4 of an inch to 1 inch in length, penetrated from 1/4 to 3/8 of an inch into the base of the neck; and, owing to the subsequent lengthening and re-shaping of the neck, especially at the base, which have taken place since the time of Stradivari, their points have come to the surface, and in the few violins and violas still possessing their original necks, the traces can be clearly perceived.

The interior of Stradivari's instruments serves to this day as our guide, and no modern maker of real ability has departed from it-putting on one side the bass-bar-except in some very small degree. Stradivari's bass-bar was, as is generally known, smaller in every way than those inserted by the more modern makers.

There is, perhaps, no part of violin construction more full of interest than this slender piece of pine. Broadly speaking, its function consists in retarding the vibrations of the one side of the belly, thus materially helping to obtain the graver bass notes. To the question, who was the maker who first conceived the idea of utilising a separate piece of pine, which after being fitted to the curve of the belly is glued on to it, no certain answer can be given, and the scarcity of sixteenth-century instruments in their original state renders even a guess at the truth very difficult. We have nevertheless seen much to justify us in forming certain conclusions which we believe cannot be far from the truth.

Our impression is that the earliest Brescian viol-makers simply made the bellies of stouter substance on the bass side, this being gradually so much accentuated as to assume the form of a ridge. That this ridge came eventually to be replaced by a detached bar was, we suggest, probably due in the first instance to an error in workmanship. In gouging out the interior of an instrument nothing is easier than to make it too thin before one becomes aware of the fact, and a good deal of Brescian work especially suggests a want of care and precision in the adjustment of the thicknesses. Hence the assumption is not too improbable that, in order to utilise an over-thinned belly, a detached bar was tried, and that the improved tone which resulted opened the eyes of the maker and insured the detached bar's permanent adoption. Whether or not this hypothesis be correct, we are convinced that the detached bar was not adopted till between 1550 and 1600.

Go to Chapter Eight, Part Two


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