Quick, name a violin maker. For most people, there is only one name that comes to mind, Stradivarius (or in non-Latin form, Stradivari). It is not so surprising that the name lives on: "More than 250 years after his death, Stradivari's violins and cellos remain the best in the world." So writes Tony Faber in _Stradivari's Genius: Five Violins, One Cello, and Three Centuries of Enduring Perfection_ (Random House). The master made more than a thousand instruments and six hundred are documented as still surviving. Faber has chosen six Strads upon which to fasten a story of art, history, and science. He admits they aren't the most celebrated instruments, nor are they all now used by famous players (in fact, only two are being played at all). But in examining them, we get an idea of what makes the brand so special, and why they are so fervently beloved by listeners and players, and sometimes so firmly locked up by museums and collectors that they cannot come out and play.
Stradivari was born in 1644, in or near the Amati family home, Cremona, Italy. He lived to be 93, working all his years, and fathered eleven children, but not a family dynasty of instrument makers. His instruments, mainly violins and cellos, but also a few violas and a single harp, were valued in his own lifetime, and he was wealthy. The instruments were eventually perfect for playing in large halls because of their ability to project their sound. It was as if Stradivari predicted that larger halls and a romantic sound were going to come into permanent fashion. At least partially because of Stradivari, violins have a prominence as the chief instrument of the orchestra. Faber follows the fortunes of five of Stradivari's violins - the _Lipinski_, the _Viotti_, the _Messiah_, the _Paganini_ and the _Khevenhuller_ - and of one cello, the _Davidov_ (now played by Yo Yo Ma). Stradivari didn't name his instruments; they acquired names usually from famous owners. Not the Messiah! The way it got its name is typical of anecdotes in this book. The instruments have all been sold and handed down many times (some of them have holes in their provenance, periods of time when no one knows where they were). The yet-to-be-named _Messiah_ was in possession of a certain dealer, one Luigi Tarisio, a carpenter and violinist who loved instruments from Cremona. He made trips to Paris to sell off parts of his collection (sometimes with "a little judicious forgery," as he was a bit of a trickster), but he teased potential Parisian purchasers by not bringing along what he told them was a perfect 1716 Stradivarius. During one such visit, the violinist Delphin Alard exclaimed in exasperation, "So, your violin is like the Messiah, always expected and it never appears." The name stuck, and the _Messiah_ eventually appeared, of course, but it almost never made a sound. More than any other Strad, its lifetime has included being owned without being played.
That controversy was settled by science, but there has been surprisingly little scientific capacity to answer the big question: What makes these instruments so good? There are lots and lots of theories, and it is worth speculating about, because if there is a secret, it can be followed and instruments of this quality can be made again. Perhaps it is the varnish; no other part of the violin, and of Stradivari's violins in particular, has been argued about so much. Yes, a bad varnish can deaden a violin's sound; but can good varnish actually enhance the tone? And what varnish did Stradivari use? We don't know. Electron microscopy has revealed that there is Pozzolana earth, a volcanic ash, between the wood and the varnish; is it the key? Perhaps it was that the spruce was floated down the river for transportation, a soaking that road transportation subsequently eliminated. Or maybe it was deliberately soaked in salt water. There are, Faber shows, just too many variables to test. Even if test violins could be made to test all variables, they would still have to be played for long enough by good enough players to bring out their tone, and they would have to age fifty or a hundred years. Such requirements mock the capacity of the scientific method. The career of one violin here, the _Lipinski_, demonstrates the need for an answer, though; it was played for two hundred years, and restored, and revarnished, and internally patched. Perhaps all the work was necessary, but the sound understandably diminished, and since its last sale in 1962, it has not been heard from. Violins are machines for making sounds, and like all machines, they wear out, even the finest ones. It is thus fascinating and sad that our technological capacities have not been able to unlock Stradivari's secrets. Centuries later, no one is building instruments better than these, the ones that shaped the world's musical history.