One of the founding myths in the world that revolves around the violin is that of the secret of Stradivari. (I use the word myth here not in the sense of a falsehood, but in the sense of a foundational belief upon which a culture is unconsciously formed.) For the modern violinmaker, the figure of Stradivari stands not so much as the patriarch (the Amatis and others were the real founding fathers) but as the Great Hero who brought fulfilment, established the laws, and set the standards for the civilization of violinmakers that followed after. The Cremona of Stradivari's time is seen as an Eden-like period which we refer to as the classical "Golden Age" of violinmaking. Violins of the Golden Age -- Stradivari's being the foremost -- trade for sums that can be in the millions of dollars. Stradivari's superb workmanship, elegant beauty, and supreme tone are considered unmatched, before or since. And if price is any indication, certainly no modern instrument can come close. Generations of violinmakers have studied, measured, and copied his work in the attempt to capture the elusive qualities of these great violins, but still they stand as mythic ideals, of which we moderns can only capture the shadows. Somehow, in the course of its history, the violinmakers' art has lost touch with its Edenic origins. There is something missing -- a lost key that if only we could find it, our modern tradition could be restored to the wholeness of its former beauty. Or so goes the myth.....
That these classical Cremonese instruments are unique works of art and serve as the standard which still inspires modern violinmakers is undisputed. But as in all mythic traditions, there are believers and sceptics, fundamentalists and revolutionaries.
Among the more conservative of modern makers are the strict copyists -- going to great lengths to obtain wood from the same forests that supposedly supplied Stradivari, carefully measuring and reproducing every nuance and irregularity of design of a treasured example, poring over ancient manuscripts for forgotten varnishing techniques -- all in the fear of overlooking some detail by which the work will fall short of the ideal. And yet, that sound is elusive. Theories are promoted to account for these subtle differences: the natural qualities of the wood from now extinct forests, lost methods of the early foresters (holding logs in ponds of salt or fresh water, bacterial or fungal action on wood, exposure to ammonia fumes from the stables below the woodshed....); or maybe there is a forgotten treatment at the varnish bench -- alchemical ground coats that change the stiffness or other qualities of the wood, turning ordinary wood into a golden voiced sound board -- or perhaps there are overlooked subtleties of design -- a hidden pattern in the mathematical curves that describe the shapes of the arching, numerological correspondences of the various proportions of the instrument's outlines; or maybe there are hidden harmonies in the tap tones of the unfinished plates.
More sceptical makers might account for these differences between classical and modern instruments as the work of time, which no modern maker can imitate. (Though some makers may try to seek out old wood from antique furniture, or artificially age their materials by exposure to cycles of humidity and other hardship, etc....) The elusive tone of the great classical instruments is the result of a slow moulding through 300 years of continual use, care, and continual restoration -- and what has survived from the past represents a long process of culling, refining, maturing and re-working of the best of the past. It follows then that the work of today's finest makers may someday rival or surpass that of the classical golden age. But how do we know which qualities now will mature into those that our great grandchildren will desire? Musical tastes and expectations of tone have changed over the centuries -- certainly the baroque violin of Stradivari's day was not expected to perform like the modern soloist instruments that they have become. Perhaps our musical expectation and valuation has been moulded around these few existing examples as much as the great makers have succeeded in realizing an ideal of musical aesthetics. An even more cynical faction in the society of violinmakers may even claim that the mystique of the golden age is more a matter of shrewd marketing by dealers, prestige and career building by musicians, investment and speculation by collectors. After all, in many "objective" listening tests, modern instruments do just as well, and sometimes surpass those of the classical age.
At the more radical edge of the violinmaker's world there are physicists who employ some of our most advanced technological tools and techniques in the attempt to identify and reproduce the hidden secrets of these old fiddles. Some among this faction would even remake the violin, based on a pure, rational, scientific and modern aesthetic. Electron microscopy, CAT scans, laser interferometry, and sophisticated computer programs to analyze frequency response spectra, create mathematical models, and map resonance modes are just a few of the modern tools called upon in the hope of discovering some overlooked characteristics -- to explain their qualities in quantitative terms, and give us an equation that may let us approach and grasp their beauty.
But as fruitful as any of these approaches may be (and there is no doubt that they can all provide valuable, if fragmentary, insights for the modern violinmaker), it is doubtful whether artistic genius can be captured from without -- and it is perhaps the individual artistry and intuitive genius of these great makers that is the more important thing. The necessary skills and techniques that can be taught, studied, and learned can really only prepare one for true artistry. Beauty comes from within, and yet is always just beyond our grasp. The secret of Stradivari is probably the same as the secret of life. If we discovered it, we would only realize that it wasn't really what we were looking for anyway.