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"Secret" of Stradivarius

 Copyright Fritz Reuter and Sons, Inc. 1986, 1996-2000 All rights reserved
By Fritz Reuter, Jr.

"Has Science Unlocked the Age-Old Secret of Violin Making?" This was the intriguing title question of a widely circulated Chicago Tribune story (15 April 1984). Indeed, the story -- though hardly more than a replay of Joseph Alper's piece in the previous month's Science '84 -- received the kind of prominence normally reserved only for truly newsworthy items. Complete with color graphics, the feature headed the Sunday Tribune's "Tomorrow" section.
2. The question is seemingly profound and innocent. Science, we like to think, invariably deals with matters of great importance. Yes, with factual knowledge, laws verified by exact observations and subjected to careful analysis. But then, who can be blamed for feeling the lure of an "age-old secret" -- even if the "secret," though as old as the violin maker's art, is hardly very secret? Yet the continuously recurring matter of age-old secrets would appear to be the dominant theme in an ingenious plot.
3. Granted, the plot has many variations -- as many as the persons who claim to have taken up the making of violins as a hobby: Dr. Joseph Nagyvary (known to readers of Science '84), Professor Jack Fry (visible to millions on Public Television's Nova), Ms. Carleen M. Hutchins (prominent largely because of Scientific American's established prestige), and others. All of these men and women ostensibly find both enlightenment and delight in studying the "behavior" of violins. Almost without fail, however, all seem bent upon becoming media personalities, celebrities. Here, one begins to wonder. Are these persons primarily interested, not in violins, but in the behavior of sapient humans placed in the presence of violins? Do these people regard a violin as nothing more than a "stimulus" which will allow them --once they have finished studying their subjects' behavioral responses -- to claim credit for a new discovery? To allege pseudo-scientific proof of an old adage: an educated fool is the greatest fool?
4. Genuine masters, those whose interest in violin making is fully professional, look upon such "behavioral scientists" with true amazement. Doesn't their conduct require incredible gall? These are, after all, the researchers who
  • periodically reinvent The Great Violin Mystery or Lost "Secret" of Stradivarius (always a great crowd-pleaser, sure to elicit many oh's and ah's and, thus, to advance research focused on the behavioral reflexes of large human populations)!
  • propagate, for the special study of a more restricted group, the absurd myth which equates violins' aging with functional improvement. . . rather than with the obvious: deterioration!

5. The behavior of these "scientific researchers" is itself a spectacle to behold.

6. Often operating from securely tenured positions in Academia, and further protected by the general public's scientific illiteracy and innocent tolerance of dubious "scholarly" and "academic" pursuits, they venture forth into the field of public opinion. Television and an undiscriminating press welcome them -- especially when they flash their academic credentials and display computerized arrays of scientific gadgetry. With hit-and-run sensational statements, such scholars purport to be approaching the solution of ancient, mysterious quandaries. Of course, they fail to mention at least one important matter. They do not reveal that these issues, in their authentic form, were resolved long ago. . . that the supposed "mysteries" are nothing more than pseudo-problems. From time to time, "scientific treatments" of these unreal problems even manage to find a home in serious scientific journals. But this has little to do with genuine science. It does have a good deal to do with maintenance of the flow of special institutional rewards and foundation grants. And it seems quite effective in keeping the media spectacle continuously interesting -- continuously new, continuously NEWS.
7. Yet spectacles, however garish and silly, are simply entertainments. We do not normally think of them as harmful. But the Great Violin Mystery is less innocent than the celebrated fraud we recall as Piltdown Man. For it is a hoax with real consequences.
8. Once "secret studies" are published in reputable journals, they acquire the prestige of "science." In consequence, alchemical procedures -- when printed and circulated -- are taken seriously. Instead of being laughed at as science fiction, they find imitators. The imitators, persons uninitiated in the ancient arts of violin making and unconstrained by the ethical imperatives of the traditional guilds, set out to "restore" and "improve" the instruments which fall into their hands. They scrape and thin away the inside of violin tops and backs. They soak these same once-resonant plates in various chemical (i.e., alchemical!) solutions -- all for the sake of "improvements" which are illusive indeed. Such procedures are termed Enhanced Natural Decay (see REUTER'S FOCUS REPORT Summer; 1985, for a more detailed analysis). And while their practitioners may be innocent, the procedures themselves are not. In fact, Enhanced Natural Decay has caused the destruction of countless fine, rare violins. These instruments' value as investments, not to mention their usefulness to performers, has been diluted beyond repair. At the very least, unsuspecting lovers of antiques have been effectively robbed -- their prized possessions devalued by millions.
9. Clever; playful research programs are one thing. Devastating attacks upon some of the finest and most complex creations of human ingenuity, representing a noble artistic heritage, are wholly different. Wholly inexcusable. We know what such programs and procedures lead to. Is it any wonder that connoisseurs of violins are pleading to have these experiments come to their deserving end?

10. In contrast, beyond the media's limelight of sensationalism, violin makers have continued to publish serious scholarship:
In The Secret of Stradivari (1979), Simon F Sacconi revealed, among other things, the complexities which explain the exceptional beauty of the old Cremonese varnish, Stradivarius' in particular.
And Hans Rodig, in Geigenbau in neuer Sicht (1962), solved in detail the functional, mechanical, and pneumatical workings of the violin. Indeed,
he discovered what is known in his honor as the "Rodig effect" -- an effect quite overlooked by von Helmholtz in his earlier studies of the behavior of bowed strings. This newly recovered insight superseded most previously held theories regarding the working of the violin.

11. In truth, though, providing the "coup de grace" to the reoccurring ritualistic antics of media prone exhibitionists, are the laws of physics. More than anything, these deflate effectively all exhibitionistic shenanigans. Why? Common sense, as well as the concept of entropy that is entailed in the second Law of Thermodynamics, answers the question easily enough. Entropy is not hard to understand, whether we are talking about violins or cars. It is the process of decay, of "running down" -- and it is observed with particular ease in machines, violins included. After all, even the most beautiful and sonorous violin is fundamentally a mechanical device. And machines -- whether cars or oboes, watches or violins -- deteriorate and wear out over a period of time. To an extent, repairs are possible and desirable. But all of us (even scientists!) know that machines do not magically improve with age.
12. It may sound unromantic, even crude. But let us set forth a generic physical description of the violin. A violin is a utilitarian device, made out of an organic substance (wood), which responds to variable impulses -- imparted by the player through use of a bow -- so as to induce mechanical-pneumatical processes which in turn produce an acoustical effect (sound). A violin is, in short, a complex machine. It is material, made of matter As such, entropy -- a principle sufficiently obvious to both common sense and science -- must apply. The violin is subject to the natural, irreversible tendency to decay from the highly organized to the less organized. Though the process may extend over a very long time, any new violin -- and every Stradivarius was once new!-- must ultimately return to the basic elements. In this sense, it is exactly like every other material object in the universe.
13. From all this, what things follow? In particular; what things of special interest to lovers of fine violins and to performers? The following are evident:
  • The rate of decay of an inanimate organic substance (e.g., wood) into stable elements is determined by the factors of time and environment (wear and tear; etc.).
  • The decay of a substance, wood included, inevitably and invariably causes decay of anything made from that substance -- of its structure, function(s), and utility.
  • The decay of structure, function(s), and utility causes/means a decay of effect (e.g., of a violin's sound or tone).

14. Can we therefore say that science has unlocked the age-old "secrets" of violin making? Absolutely! And we are not talking about science fiction. The true science of mechanics and physics, combined with architectonic mastery of both the theory and practice of the violin maker's art, uncovered these secrets long ago. And it not only produced the great Antonius Stradivarius, but, since his time, hundreds of other master artisans.

15. What distinguishes these productive masters of violin making from the frolicking hobbyists of a bogus "behavioral science" who live through subsidized largess? Many things, of course -- most of them evident from the considerations we have already advanced. What deserves emphasis here is the true meister's sense of custodial responsibility, tied to a thirst for knowledge and a high degree of common sense. These may seem simple enough. Even so, it is these virtues which are never offered at the bastions of assumed intelligence and fictional science -- the pleasant "seats of learning" which extend protection to the delicate Secret of Stradivarius, the central mystery in so many "merely entertaining" fictions and pranks. It is, we grant, a secret much in need of protection. . . precisely because the Secret of Stradivarius is not, in its innermost essence, a secret at all. Therefore we say: "So bad -- it was amusing, yes, even hilarious to some, who loved the myth and all that yarn -- concerning the Secret of Stradivarius -- which was NONE."

Copyright Fritz Reuter and Sons, Inc. 1988, 1996-2000 All rights reserved
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