The Schiensh of Bond: The Living Daylights

Finally, BlogalongaBond has at last seen the end of Roger Moore. And we welcome our new Daltonian overlord. This month, again, I struggled to find the science in Bond, and failed. I did however get distracted by the companion accompanying James and Kara around their foreign climes: Kara’s unnamed Stradivarius cello.

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Interestingly, Ian Fleming’s half-sister, Amaryllis, was named in her
Obituary as one of Britain’s foremost cellists owned a Stradivarius cello that now bears her name. The part of The Living Daylights pertaining to the Stradivarius cello is based on the Fleming story of the same name.

Antonio Stradivari – what’s in a name?

Stradivari was a Cremonese luthier during the 17th and 18th centuries, known more for his violins, although he did make violas, cellos and guitars. He was one of the earliest luthiers to make cellos as we now know them

Stradivari’s instruments, along with those of other contemporaneous luthiers from northern Italy, are highly sought after by players, and are venerated for their apparently superior tone. Given the age and value of Kara’s cello, I winced at Bond and Milovy dragging it across the snow, and even more when it got a bullet hole through it.

Cellos – how do they work?

Like all stringed instruments, when a string is bowed or plucked, the vibration of the string causes a sound, but because the string – and the vibration – is so small, it isn’t very loud. This quiet vibration is transferred to the body of the instrument, which, because it is larger, moves more air when it vibrates (and sound is just vibration in air), therefore the sound is louder. The pitch of a note can be altered by the characteristics of the string: its stiffness and it’s length. Changes in the density of the wood in the body of the instrument change the way it vibrates and produces sound. Things like bullet holes are not going to make your cello sound good. And anyone who owns wooden instruments will know that you’re not supposed to let it get too hot, too cold, too dry or too damp, as the wood is prone to cracking.

What makes a Stradivarius so special?

The Stradivari name is legendary in music circles – the fact that many of Antonio Stradivari’s instruments that survive are still playable. Because of their age and prestige, they are worth millions – the Lady Blunt recently sold at auction for £9.8 million.

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Some theories have been put forward to explain their apparent superiority. Stoel and Borman theorised that the growing conditions for the trees used to make cellos and violin in 18th century Cremona that resulted in different densities of wood. Using x-ray scanning of old violins and violas and comparing them to new instruments found no differences in the median densities of the wood, however there was a much smaller variation in the individual old Cremonese instruments (including some Stradivari instruments). Whether this is what causes the distinctive sound properties of old violins remains to be seen.

Nagyvary et al suggested that treatment of the wood is responsible for the superior sound of Stradivarius instruments – they examined the chemical composition of several instruments that had been repaired and found that chemical composition of Stradivarius instruments differed significantly from both other old instruments and new instruments. As the sample size was quite small, the results are difficult to draw actual conclusions from.

The entire case is completely moot though given that, under most cases of blind testing – where either the listener was blinded to whether they were listening to a Strad – or double blind test – where both the player and the listener are unaware of the identity of the instrument – listeners are unable to tell the difference. In additional tests where expert violin players were asked to play a selection of new and old instruments, there was no overall preference for old Strads over new, very well made instruments.

I’m currently on holiday in Europe, and last week I actually saw a full Stradivarius quartet in the Royal Palace in Madrid. Infuriatingly, they will not allow you to take photos inside the palace, so this is from Merriam-Webster.

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