Fingers That Keep the Most Treasured Violins Fit
Mr. Mosconi has been playing the museum’s violins for 30 years.

Dave Yoder for The New York Times    Audio Slide Show

Andrea Mosconi plays instruments by Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari at the violin museum in Cremona.

By IAN FISHER  Published: June 3, 2007

CREMONA, Italy — A violin, it turns out, needs to be played, just as a car needs to be driven and a human body shooed off the couch. In this city that produced the best violins ever made, that job belongs to Andrea Mosconi. He is 75, and for the past 30 years, six days a week, he has finger-fed 300-year-old violins, worth millions, a diet of Bach, Tchaikovsky and Bartok.

Mr. Mosconi has been playing the museum’s violins for 30 years.

It is peaceful where he works, in a chapel-turned-museum here, so it jars when he compares his gentle job to the roar of Formula One racing. He is nothing but serious about what he does.

“It is not a matter of habit,” Mr. Mosconi said. “When Schumacher gets to 350 kilometers an hour, do you think he ever loses his concentration?” he added, speaking of the retired racing champion Michael Schumacher.

“In my case, too, I have to pay attention,” he said. “You have to give your best with these instruments. They make you sweat.”

He had just finished playing a few lines of Bach on the most valuable piece in this town’s small but significant collection of locally made stringed instruments: a violin made in 1715 by Antonio Stradivari, whose name itself has come to signify the perfection allowed to man.

It was the kind of exercise, at once heroic and the slightest bit melancholy, repeated endlessly around Italy: driven by zeal to keep the nation’s superlative past alive, and dogged by worry that the past may overshadow a less glorious future. That tension is on display at the violin museum at the city hall in Cremona, where the modern violin was born and built, to a standard not yet surpassed, by the families of Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari.

Every morning, Mr. Mosconi, the city’s official musical conservationist, stands before pristine, multilocked glass cases and faces three violins by the Amatis (one of the first makers of the modern violin, from the mid-16th century), two by the Guarneris and four instruments — three violins and a cello — by Stradivari. Mr. Mosconi has no favorite: The very question is a mild affront.

“It’s as if you were to ask me which of my three children I preferred,” he said.

Why these violins sound so much better than others, and so are preferred by the masters who can afford them, has never been fully accounted for. Theories range from the possibility that their wood was fermented in saltwater or somehow affected by the ice age to their having been constructed with special glues, varnishes or metal plates.

“It’s unexplainable, how it was able to rise to such heights,” Mr. Mosconi said, dismissing the many who have tried to replicate the so-called Cremona sound. “First it was the Americans, then the Japanese, then the Russians. Then the Americans again.

“But no one has ever come close,” he said. “Let them try. But then it is the musicians who make their choices. As scientists they have to try everything because it is their job, even though there are more important things to worry about.”

But this mystery of molecules and millimeters, edged one way or another by each master violin maker, comes with another: that to keep fit and sounding their best, violins need to be played.

“The wood gets tired,” explained Karl Roy, a German violin maker and one of the rarefied field’s top experts. “It’s the same as with a human being. If you just sit and rest in your comfortable chair, when you get up after a while you will feel crazy.”

And so, Mr. Roy said in a telephone interview from Germany, collections of instruments made by Stradivari and other top violins around the world are all played regularly. That, Mr. Mosconi suggested, is the special care he gives to Cremona’s collection, played every morning but Sunday and when he is on vacation in August. He does not play the cello, but he contracts a young musician to work with the single one in the collection, built by Stradivari in 1700.

“I think this is the only place in the world where they are treated like we treat them,” he said.

Mr. Mosconi — who was born in Cremona, began playing the violin at age 9, studied violin making and went on to teach and perform — starts his work at 8 a.m., an hour before the museum opens. He stores his tools in a tastefully concealed closet: two bows, resin, baby-soft cotton rags and jugs of distilled water for the humidifier that keeps the air at the perfect moisture to preserve the instruments.

Getting down to work, he unlocks the cases and carefully removes each instrument. He tunes them, then plays each for six or seven minutes. He starts with scales and arpeggios, then something more substantial, on a recent day one of Bach’s partitas for the violin. Nothing less would do.

“A great instrument should get great music and also a great performer,” he said. A multimillion-dollar violin in hand, he paused for a moment to ponder his own place. “Not that I am a great performer,” he said. “But I do my work.”

He does it in a jacket and tie, which seems appropriate. He is more business and reverence than poetry when he talks about his privileged job.

Most violinists never get near a Stradivarius and still, three decades after he began, he feels the weight of caring so closely for so many.

Asked if he liked his job, he said: “It’s a difficult question. I don’t really know. I asked the same question to my son, who is a surgeon. He said, ‘It’s hard, but I wanted to do it.’

“Everyone says I am lucky,” he added. “But every coin has two faces.”

original story posted at

November 16, 1991

Patents; Trying to Duplicate Stradivarius Violins

He is not the first to do so, and he will probably not be the last, but a retired organic chemist in Jupiter, Fla., has patented what he believes is the long-lost secret to duplicating a Stradivarius violin. It is, he said, tung oil.

"I expect skepticism," said Mayne R. Coe, who became absorbed in the mystery while watching his father make and repair violins. Several previous patents have been issued to inventors who described different approaches to the mystery. The most recent such patent was granted two years ago.

The Stradivarius was one of several prized violins made from about 1550 to 1750 in Cremona, Italy. Musicians have long prized its ability to project a full range of harmonic tones, but instrument makers have never been able to duplicate the sound. Some researchers have thought the key was to duplicate the subtle asymmetries in the violin's wooden back, while many others have focused on the varnish.

Mr. Coe said historical records indicated that Italy began importing tung oil from China for the first time around the time the Cremonese violin makers became active. Separately, he said, researchers believe that the violin makers used a red dye called dragon's blood resin from rattan fruit from India.

To reproduce the violin, Mr. Coe's patent calls for first immersing each piece in a pressurized bath consisting of tung oil and solvent. The immersion lasts from one to 14 days, and insures that the wood is thoroughly impregnated. The pieces are then removed, dried and painted by brush with additional coats of the material.

Mr. Coe received patent 5,018,422.