What makes the world’s most expensive instruments so special? Why are they synonymous with beautiful sound?

What is a Stradivarius?

A Stradivarius is any instrument made by a member of the Stradivari family, of which the most famous luthier is Antonio Stradivari.

Who was Antonio Stradivari?

Stradivari was born in Cremorna, Italy and lived from 1644 to 1737. He was best known for the quality of his violins but also excelled in other kinds of bowed- and plucked-string instruments typical of the Baroque period including violas, celli, mandolins, guitars and harps. 

Why are they so special?

Stradivari’s instruments are known for the richness of sound they produce, as well as precision of workmanship and sheer beauty. The exact reason for a Strad’s exceptional characteristics have not yet been determined. Popular theories attribute this to the density of the wood, while a recent study claimed the secret was vernice bianca – a varnish composed of Gum arabic, honey, and egg white. 

Why can’t you just copy them?

While the amazing results of his work are evident, his precise technique in achieving them is not well known or understood. Two of his children worked with him but died shortly after their father, so very little written evidence remains of his methods. Interestingly enough, no blind listening test has ever demonstrated that Stradivarius instruments are superior to high-quality modern instruments or even reliably distinguishable from them.

So why do they cost so much?

Several factors contribute to their high value. First of all, they are rare – only about 650 of his violins exist today. They have also been the choice instrument of most past and present great violinists. This means that listeners may misattribute the sound of a performance to the instrument rather than the brilliance of the performer. Still, the price of Strads seems unlikely to fall anytime soon. Stradivarius violins hold the top five spots for highest amounts paid for a musical instrument. The Lady Blunt of 1721, named after Lord Byron’s granddaughter who owned it for 30 years, set a record when sold for US$15.9 million last year.

Are all Strads equal? 

No. Stradivari started making violins around age 22 but he didn’t reach his peak until many years later, from about 1700 to 1720. During this period he introduced revolutionary innovations in design such as the “Long Strad” which brought a darker tone and greater response. Furthermore, the passing of time has been kinder to some of his specimens than to others, and very few remain in pristine condition today. Satu Vänskä of the Australian Chamber Orchestra plays a composite Strad – the original front of one violin joined with the back and sides of another.

Which are the best ones and who plays them?

Some of the most famous violins include the Emiliani (1703) and Lord Dunn-Raven (1720) played by Anne Sophie Mutter, the Soil (1714), which has been played by Yehudi Menuhin and Itzhak Perlman, and the Auer (1689), currently played by Vadim Gluzman. Cellists also prefer the instruments: Yo-Yo Ma and Julian Lloyd Webber both play Strads, as did Mstislav Rostropovich.

The one that no one gets to play…

The Messiah (1716) is allegedly the only Stradivarius violin never to have been played. Its name comes from an anecdote involving 19th-century violin dealer Luigi Tarisio, who refused to show it to anybody, prompting his friends to exclaim: “Your violin is like the Messiah – one always waits for him, but he never appears!” The Hill family from England later acquired the piece and donated it to the British Nation in 1940 on condition it be preserved in its pristine state. Heated debate has recently been sparked by claims that the violin was actually made one year after Stradivari’s death.