Just imagine if the Wright brothers had it right first time around – if the planes that took us around the globe today were identical to those flown in 1903. Or if the cars we drove still resembled Karl Benz’s 1886 three-wheeler; the MP3 players in our pockets were merely superficial updates of Thomas Edison’s 1877 phonograph; and today’s medicines remained unchanged from those of 1713?
Imagine if you had invented something centuries ago whose form and function nobody had ever been able to improve?
I was contemplating this as I visited the Ashmolean Museum’s landmark Stradivarius exhibition recently. The Oxford institution, a supreme cabinet of cultural curiosities, has brought together some of the finest instruments ever crafted by master instrument maker Antonio Stradivari, whose name is as synonymous with violins as Hoover’s is with vacuum cleaners. It is the first time an exhibition like this has ever been mounted and, unsurprisingly, has proved an irresistible draw for violin aficionados and music geeks from all over the world – including me.
But even if you have never picked up a violin and have less than a passing interest in the history of musical instruments, the story of Stradivari is a compelling one. How did this one man, who emerged out of nowhere, figure out how to create from a lifeless, silent block of wood the most remarkable sound machine we have ever known? And why is it that, over 350 years since he was born, we still have not grasped how he did what he did? And given that the history of human development is generally one of progress and improvement, why on earth have we not worked out how to do it any better?
Stradivari was born in 1644 and lived to the grand old age of 92, during which time he probably made more than a thousand fiddles, around half of which survive to this day. We know comparatively little about his early life, other than that he was born in Cremona, a small town in northern Italy that became the undisputed capital of stringed instrument making in the 17th century and has never lost the title. Stradivari burst onto the scene with his first violin, dating from 1666, when he was 22, now known as the ‘Serdet’. I had the extraordinary privilege of being able to play this fiddle at the Ashmolean: a mind-boggling experience when you consider the instrument was created the same year as the Great Fire of London. And it is no first draft, no prototype. It looks, feels and sounds like the ultimate violin: as perfect today as it has ever been.
There is always a temptation to impose a sort of ‘Pepsi Challenge’ on Stradivari violins. Listening blind, could you really tell a Strad from another fine instrument? Or even from a not-so-fine instrument? (Recently, a The Daily Telegraph launched an experiment where the same violinist played a Strad versus a £39.99 fiddle available from the supermarket Tesco. No prizes for guessing which triumphed.)
Master at work
People have long puzzled over Stradivari’s secret. Not only the later generations of instrument makers who tirelessly copied his works in the hope of achieving similar levels of perfection in tone and resonance. Or the modern-day scientists who employ everything from infrared and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (to analyse the chemical properties of a Strad’s resonant components) to particle accelerators similar to the Large Hadron Collider to examine the secrets of a Strad’s atomic particles. But his green-eyed contemporaries too, who even at the time were raising the question about how he did it. Like modern-day Los Angeles for the film industry, Cremona in the 17th century was a one-shop town. And Stradivari was king: wealthy and admired and in huge demand. Apparently the saying “as rich as Stradivarius” was common currency on Cremonese streets.
What set him apart? After all, he was using the same materials as everyone else: the same wood maple and spruce from the nearby South Tyrol), the same water and the same basic tools (which have also barely changed from the ones that master violin makers use today). Was it something in the copper, iron and chromium salts he may have unwittingly used to preserve his wood? Was it deep-embedded ash from unknown volcanic eruptions? Was it in fact dragon’s blood in his special varnish? Or was it, counter-intuitively, the tiny imperfections in his method that created such unfathomable perfection? People have been tormenting themselves with the possibilities behind these questions for centuries, and nobody will ever know the answer.
The nonagenarian Stradivari took his secret with him to his grave. At the time of his death, he had one instrument in his workshop which he had never sold. This rarest of violins, also on display at the Ashmolean, is known as the ‘Messiah’ Strad and is priceless. The average Strad, if there is such a thing, will be valued at multi-millions. The Messiah is the most mythical instrument in the world. After Stradivari, most of its owners also refused to part with it until their death. And even more curiously, over the past two centuries, it has rarely been played, meaning it is in uniquely superb condition, with little signs of the wear-and-tear that inevitably come from putting a delicate wooden instrument through its paces every day.
When the Ashmolean was bequeathed the ‘Messiah’ last century it came with the caveat that it should never, ever be played again: it was to hang, majestic but silent, in its glass box for eternity. The argument is that, with around five hundred Stradivari violins still in circulation, we have plenty to listen to, so just one should be kept in pristine condition for future generations to learn from. My head tells me this is reasonable. My heart asks, “how can we cage the ultimate bird?” What would I give for the chance, just once, to hear it sing?
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.