22 June 2024

Stradivarius' Italian violins: greatest ever?

Violins built by Italian master luthier/stringed instrument maker Antonio St­rad­ivari (1644–1737) have a special mystique in the cl­as­­sical music world. Antonio established a shop in Cremona where  he remained active, all his life. The earliest known Stradiv­arius violin was made in 1666, when the lad was only 22. He may have been an apprentice of Nicolo Amati, grand­­son of C16th violin-maker Andrea Amati. Or he was a woodworker by trade, perhaps expl­ain­ing his genius in design and drafting.

Stadivarius’ interpr­et­ation of violin-design serv­ed as a model for vio­lin makers for 250+ years. In the 1680s, he designed and crafted full-bodied violins with rich phy­s­ical and tonal charact­eristics. Alt­h­ough he cont­in­ued to use Amati’s basic structures, Stradivari eventually felt free to create his own vio­l­in models. His 2 sons joined the family bus­in­ess in c1698 but neither show­ed the same passion as their dad.

Antonio Stradivarius examining an instrument,

In his 60-year car­eer, Stradivari made c1,200 instruments, most­ly violins plus violas, cellos, guit­ars, mand­ol­ins and harps. He started creating violins in the classic Am­ati style, handed down over the generat­ions. And even by using tra­d­itional tech­n­iques, his skill was impressive eg his Hellier Violin (1679) showed an ab­il­ity to create better than any other maker then.

Stradivari manufactured his best instruments from 1700-25. It was in this era that he designed and perfected his violins, setting the stand­ard for artisans of the future. During his golden period, Stradivari created violins whose sound boxes are unmatched even today. Along with the final redesign of the soundbox, his violins also introduced a unique deep red varnish, black edging, broad edges and wide corners.

c500 of his musical instruments survive today, showing  how he was credited with some de­s­ign innovations that helped bring the violin to its modern form. Stra­d­ivari was consid­ered a master cr­aftsman in his own time and in the decades that fol­lowed, but his reput­at­ion as the best sol­id­­ified in the early C19th, when vio­lin perform­ances shifted to la­rger concert halls, where the better project­ion of the instruments was fully appreciated.

His instruments were sought for both their historical value and visual beauty. Musicians spoke of the C17th and C18th viol­ins’ sound as having special brilliance and depth. But mus­icians are still sear­ching for an explan­at­ion of what made the St­r­ad­ivarius special, viol­ins that were superior to any other instru­m­ent for a unique, brilliant, deep sound.

One suggestion focused on the wood itself. The wood that his viol­ins were made of, mostly spruce and maple trees, grew in the Litt­le Ice Age, a cooling era (c1300-1850) in which Europe was badly hit. Since it would have caused the alpine trees used for the up-facing front of the violin to grow more slowly, leading to den­ser wood and better sound. The re­duced sol­ar output, in normally warmer regions, limited tree-growth. Tree rings were comp­os­ed of a light spongy portion that was pr­oduced in rapid growth in spring, and a dark dense portion prod­uced in autumn and winter. Stradivarius violin wood had a less pro­noun­ced difference between the 2 portions and was denser over­all. The wood’s den­s­ity aff­ec­ted how sound vib­rat­ions travel through, ?explain­ing the high sound quality of his violins.

Thousands of violins were made in the C19th, based on Stradivarius’ model and bearing labels that read Stradivarius. These violins were made as inex­pensive copies of the great C17th-C18th Italian master’s work. Affixing a label with the master’s name was not in­t­ended to deceive the purchaser; at that time the buyer knew he was buying a cheap violin and the label was just a ref­erence. Bet­ter still, copied labels made after 1891 may also have had a coun­try of orig­in printed in English on the label, identific­ation that was requ­ir­ed by U.S rules on imported goods from 1891 on.

Authenticity could only be determined through compar­at­ive study of design, wood characteristics and varnish texture. This expertise was gained through examination of thousands of instruments. But the Smithsonian Institution, as a matter of legal and ethical pol­icy,  does not determine the monet­ary value of musical instruments.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History-NMAH has the 1701 Servais cello made by Stradivarius, famous for its pre­s­ervation and mus­ic­al excellence. It takes its name from the C19th Belgian, Adrien Francois Servais (1807-66), who played this cello. The Her­b­ert Axelrod Strad­iv­ar­ius Quartet of ornamented instruments is al­so housed in the NMAH. Some of his most famous violins created during his golden period include the 1715 Lipinski and the 1716 Messiah. Never sold or giv­en away, the Messiah remained with his maker until his death.

These instrum­ents can be heard in concerts. The Smithsonian Chamber Music Soc­iety's exhibitions, concerts, tours, broadcasts, recordings and educat­ional programs brought the Smithsonian’s priceless collection alive.

Stradivarius originals are very expensive. In 2011 an anonymous buy­er paid $16 mill for the Lady Anne Blunt Violin (1716) named af­t­er a prev­ious owner. Experts cons­id­­er­ed it to be the second best-preserved of Stradivarius’ cr­eat­ions. The best Stradivarius, called The Messiah (1716) in the Ashmolean Museum Ox­ford, was val­ued at $20 mill. The Vieuxtemps Violin was owned by C19th French composer-violin­ist Henri Vieuxtemps. It became one of the most sought after ins­t­ru­ments in 2016, selling for $16 mill. Clearly his viol­ins are still the standard in form, sound and beauty. 

Violin display, Museo Stradivariano Cremona
The Strad

Statue of Antonio Stradivari, Museo Stradivariano Cremona
Stars and Stripes

Today artisans and scientists still try to recreate what can only be the beauty and sound of a Stradivarius instrument. Stradivarius violins and instruments are prized possessions housed in museums and personal collections around the world. At the Museo Stradiv­ar­iano in Cremona/now called Museo del Violino, visitors can see how violins are made. They can also hear a Stradivarius violin played by going to the Palazzo del Comune.

18 June 2024

Paul Simon's Mother and Child Reunion

Mother and Child Reunion is a song by Paul Simon on his 1972 album. It was released as a single, reaching #4 on the U.S Billboard Hot 100 chart. In the Weekly charts, the song reached a peak position of #1 place in South Afr­ica, #4 place in New Zealand and #5 place in Australia.

Inspired by Simon’s grief over his dog’s death, it was suggested that Simon predicted the title ev­ent, the mother and child reunion. The second ver­se desc­rib­ed the effect of what happened on the str­an­ge and mournful day, but without making clear what it was. How­ev­er Simon said he wrote this in response to the Jimmy Cliff song Vietnam 1970, where a mother received a letter about her son's death on the battlefield. [The timing was right for Aus­tralians. It took until Dec 1972 before the Austral­ian Government officially declared the end of our involvement in the Vietnam War].

Mother and Child Reunion, Simon with Cliff 
Graceland 25th Anniversary Tour, London 2012

Simon was already a fan of reggae music, a music genre that originated in Jamaica in the late 1960s. So he wanted to go to Kingston Jamaica to record the song, as that was where Jimmy Cliff had recorded his antiwar song. Simon wrote HIS song in 1971 and re­leased it in 1972. This was his first solo album after Bridge Over Troubled Water. The song was indeed re­c­orded at Dynamic Sounds Stud­­­ios in King­ston, with Jimmy Cl­iff’s group: guit­ar­ist Huks Brown and bass guitarist Jackie Jack­son. Cissy Houston sang backg­round vocals on the recording. It was an early song by a white musician to feature reggae, and the fact that the song was recorded in Jam­aica using Cliff's musicians may have explained the authentic sound. Ditto the African-reggae guitars, organs and drums.

The success of this song proved that audiences were willing, from then on, to ac­c­ept Simon without Art Garfunkel at his side. But when my own mother passed away in Melbourne and a friend suggested this song as a source of comf­ort, I didn’t even remember the 1972 changes made in Simon and Garfunk­el’s musical works.

Mother and Child Reunion by Paul Simon (youtube)
[Chorus] No, I would not give you false hope
On this strange and mournful day
But the mother and child reunion
Is only a motion away

Oh, little darling of mine
I can't for the life of me
Remember a sadder day
I know they say let it be
But it just don't work out that way
And the course of a lifetime runs
Over and over again

Oh, little darling of mine
I just can't believe it's so
Though it seems strange to say
I never been laid so low
In such a mysterious way
And the course of a lifetime runs
Over and over again

Oh, the mother and child reunion is only a motion away
Oh, the mother and child reunion is only a moment away

Paul and his mother Belle Simone holding hands

The Every Single Paul Simon Song blog attempted to cover all the possible explanations for the “mother and child reunion” central to the song. For example the speaker referred to the listener as Little darling of mine, so he pre­sumed some fam­il­iarity between the two parties. Also the list­en­er seemed to be at least a generation younger, given that form of address.

Simon himself said in a 1972 interview that "Last summer we had a loved dog that was run over and killed. It was the first death I had ever experienced personally. Nobody in my family died that I felt that. But I felt this loss and thought "Oh, man, what if that was my (then) wife Peggy? What if somebody like that died? Death, what is it, I can't get it. Somehow there was a connection between this death and Peggy and it was like Heaven, I don't know what the connection was. Some emotional connection. It didn't matter to me what it was. I just knew it was there".

When my beloved mother passed away, I Helen assumed the lyrics referred to the desolate child who will remain on earth until they are reunited forever, in heaven. So thank you providing some small comfort at a terrible time, Paul Simon.

15 June 2024

Lise Meitner - a great female scientist .. guest post

Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was the Vienna-born daughter of a large Jew­ish family. Because girls weren’t allowed tertiary education, the family gave Lise a private tutor at 14. She entered the Uni of Vienna in 1901, study­ing physics under Ludwig Boltzmann. Later she received her doct­or­ate in 1906, only the second woman to receive one from Vienna Uni.

She left for Berlin in 1907 with family support, to attend Dr Max Planck’s lectures and to do rad­io-activity research with chemist Dr Otto Hahn. After a year, she became his Hahn’s as­s­istant and worked with him, wanted to discover isotopes. In 1913 phys­ic­ist Meitner and chemist Hahn collaborated at Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Chemistry in Berlin.   

Drs Meitner and Hahn in their laboratory, 1913
German History Intersections
Meitner supported the Austrian army as a medical X-ray technician ­in WWI, returning to Berlin in 1917 when she and Hahn disc­ov­ered the radioactive chemical el­em­ent pro­tact­in­ium. Meitner was awarded the 1917 Leibniz Medal.

Having isolated the is­o­t­ope prot­ac­t­inium, Meitner and Hahn stud­ied nuclear is­omerism and beta decay. In 1926 she became the fir­st female Professor of Physics in Ger­many, heading up the Phys­ics Dept at Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. Research at the time was theoretical, but many scientists knew about the honour of the Nobel Prize waiting for the winner who dis­covered it. She worked with Hahn for 30 years, collaborating cl­osely, st­udying radio­activity, with her physics skills and his chemistry skills.

In the 1930s with the German physical chemist Dr Fritz Strass­mann, she inv­estigated neutron bombardment of uranium. Strassmann was not Jewish but he refused to join the Nazi Party, so both their res­earch efforts were interr­upt­ed as the Nazis gained power. She stayed in Germany longer than most because of her Austrian citizen­ship, but because she was Jew­ish, her physicist friends had to help sneak her over the border when Austria was annexed by Germ­any in 1938. Then she worked in Sweden at the Nob­el Institute for Exper­imental Physics, then continued her laborat­ory work at Stock­holm’s Manne Siegbahn Instit­ute, developing a working relationship with Niels Bohr.

Physicist Dr Otto Frisch (1904–79) was the Austrian-born first cousin of Lise Meit­ner. He first measured the magnetic moment of the proton and together they advanced the first theoretical explanation of nuclear fis­sion and first detected the fission by-products.

While working together, Otto Frisch and Lise Meitner received the news that Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann had discovered that the collision of a neutron with a uranium nucleus produced the element barium as one of its by-products. Frisch and Meitner both hypothesised that the uranium nucleus had split in two, coining the term nuc­l­ear fission to describe the proc­ess. After Hahn and Strassmann showed that barium appeared in neutron-bombarded uran­ium, it was Meitner and Frisch who explain­ed the ph­ys­ical charact­eristics of this division.

L->R Niels Bohr, Werner Heisen­berg, Wolfgang Pauli, Otto Stern, Meitner, Rudolf Ladenburg and ?
conference in 1937, Wiki

In Feb 1939, Meit­ner published the physical expl­an­ation for the ob­serv­ations. Meitner, Frisch and colleag­ues found that uranium atoms split when bombarded with neutrons, rel­easing a large amount of energy. Nuc­l­ear fission process was later used in nuclear power plants and bombs.

Hahn had isol­ated evidence for nuclear fission, but Meitner and Frisch were the first to clarify how the process occ­urred. Yet in 1944 Hahn al­one re­ceived the Chemistry Nobel Prize regarding nuc­lear fis­sion, giv­en that he ignored Meitner’s research af­ter she left Ger­many. He should have argued that Meitner merited the Nobel Prize as well.

After WW2 Meitner continued working in Sweden, then travelled and lect­ured across the USA. Her recognition of the explosive potent­ial of the process was what motivated Dr Albert Eins­tein to cont­act Pres Roosevelt, lead­ing to the establishment of the Manhattan Project. She was then in­vited to work on the Project at Los Alamo but Meitner opp­os­ed the atomic bomb and refused to work there at all.

On a visit to the U.S in 1946 she was welcomed by her siblings, and given total Americ­an press celeb­rity treatment, including being named Woman of the Year by the Women's National Press Club, DC. She had dinner with Pres Harry Truman who mistak­en­ly thought that she worked on the atomic bomb but Lise Meitner refused to work on a bomb.

Her Swedish colleagues planned to get her a proper position. In 1947, Meitner moved to Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology to establish a new facility for atomic research, with researchers to help. Appropriately she received in the Max Planck Medal, honouring her old mentor in Berlin.

Lise Meitner, Life in Physics,
(California Studies in the History of Science,
by Ruth Lewin Sime, 1997, Amazon

But the Nobel nastiness wasn’t even partly rect­if­ied until 1966, when Hahn, Meitner and Strassman won the En­rico Fermi Award, for their joint re­search that led to the discovery of uran­ium fis­sion. What a long wait!

The physicist who never lost her human­ity died in Camb­ridge in Oct 1968. In 1992, element 109 was named Meitnerium in her honour. Like many others, I believe she was the most significant woman scientist of the 20th century!

By Dr Joe

11 June 2024

Medici Portraits & Politics exhibition, in N.Y

The Med­ici: Portraits and Politics 1512–1570 exhibition was at Met­ropolitan NY in 2021. The catalogue by the same name exp­lored how the art­ists end­owed their works with a clearly styl­ish character that identified Fl­orentine por­t­rait­­ure. With 90+ notable paint­ings, scul­pt­ur­es, works on paper and me­d­­als, this volume was written by a team of lead­ing international auth­ors and presented a detailed anal­ysis of this era in It­al­ian art: med­als, paintings, sculptures, car­v­ed gemstones, drawings, et­ch­ings, man­u­­scripts and arm­our. Incl­uded were works by the era's most fam­ous artists: Raphael, Jac­opo Pont­ormo & Rosso Fiorentino, Ben­venuto Cell­ini, Agnolo Bronz­ino, Fran­cesco Salviati etc who depicted the elite of Medici Florence.

The Medici had continuously ruled Florence in 1434-94. But the Medici family only returned to power in 1512, after Florence had lost its ident­ity and become a pawn in stormy Eur­op­ean polit­ics. Florence ch­anged from a rep­ublic with elected officials .. to one ruled by Med­ici.

And the key fig­ure in this transformation was 17 year old Cosimo I de Medici from a mi­n­or branch of an elite family, who bec­ame Duke of Fl­orence in 1537, after his pred­ecessor Alessandro de' Medici was mur­d­ered. Cosimo had been selected by power brokers in Florence who bel­ieved they could con­trol him. But instead he grab­bed control from el­ected off­icials, estab­l­ish­ing him­self as an auto­crat. Flor­en­ce was made imp­ort­ant again, even with a tyrant, and the city was grateful.

Alessandro de' Medici Duke of Florence, 1534
by Jacopo Pontormo,
Credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art

To convert the mercant­ile city into the capital of a Medici state, Cosimo en­listed the leading in­tellect­uals, promoting grand architectural, eng­in­eering and art projects. Explore how Cosimo and the other Medici used the era’s dom­inant medi­um, art, as propaganda, clarifying that Florence was still a pow­er to reckon with. See what Floren­t­­ines thought about infl­uen­ce and the central role that arts and culture played in Renaissance pol­it­ics. Cosimo’s goal was to see how he and his cir­cle used the arts to promote the Medici brand.

Port­raits, a very personal sub­ject, pro­vided a seductive way to expl­ore politics and pat­ronage. They be­came an ess­ential means of not­ing sitters’ likeness, character, soc­ial pos­ition and cul­t­ur­al ambitions

In Giorgio Vasari's famous book Lives of the Artists (1550), which was dedicated to the Duke, Florence was promoted as the heart of the Re­n­aissance. He had nurtured the idea of Florence as the intellectual power­house of the Renaissance and the Medici as the key players.

The 2021 exhibition displayed a bronze bust of Cosimo I de' Med­ici 1545 by Cellini, on loan from the Museo Naz­ion­ale del Barg­ello in Fl­orence. In 1557 the bust found a permanent home above the main for­t­ress gate on Elba Island. Its pierc­ing gaze and Roman-ish armour conveyed Cosimo’s pow­er, build­ing on imperial iconography to link the Med­ici and It­aly’s ancient lead­ers. Specialists saw that its eyes had been crafted out of silver, a pre­ference pion­eer­ed in the class­ical civ­il­isations that Renais­sance artists copied centuries later. Thus it was restored.

bronze bust of Cosimo I de' Med­ici 1545 by Cellini
Credit Museo Naz­ion­ale del Barg­ello, Fl­orence

Other works also connected the family to classical culture eg Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus (1537–9) by Bronzino. He cast the Duke as the mythological musician Orpheus, align­ing him with greater forces. A marble bust of an aging Cosimo by sculptor Giovanni Bandini showed him as a Roman emperor, timeless in his authority.

Portraits and Politics
had 6 sections that started in the early C16th when the family newly returned from exile. See how the High Ren­ais­sance rulers cemented their power through commissioning cul­t­ure and associating with artists. The ex­hib­ition’s first sections cov­ered 1512-34, intro­d­ucing us to relatives like Pope Cl­em­ent VII, Lor­­enzo the Magnificent’s ne­ph­ew and Alessandro de’ Med­ici, who ?was the son of Lorenzo di Piero, Duke of Urbino. [The family actually pro­duced four popes: Leo X, Clement VII, Pius IV and Leo XI].

Then ins­pect Cosimo himself. See how the Duke and his immed­iate fam­ily, including 1st wife Eleonora of Toledo (d1572), used portraits to proj­ect power, assert Medici continuity and convey cultural refine­ment! Bronzino painted Eleonora, posing alongside each of her sons. Plac­ing each son next to mum said that the next gen­erat­ion would create branches from the invigorated dynastic  trunk.

Bronzino, Eleanora of Toledo and son Giovanni, 1545
Photo credit: Ufizzi

The second half of Por­t­raits and Politics examined those whose art elev­at­ed Florence to new cultural heights. It put together the work of Bronzino, the Mannerist artist who was Cosimo’s court paint­er, and Francesco Salviati, whose pan-Italian style com­peted with Bron­z­ino’s clearly Florentine-based art. And the exhibition celebrated the city’s literary culture, linked to portraiture. But as realistic as the facial image was, this alone could not convey the most intim­ate aspects of the sitter. Identity was embedded in symbols, in­ cod­if­ied for­m­al language capable of ex­­­­­plaining concepts prev­iously con­fin­ed to poetry. NB Bron­zino’s restored Portrait of Poet Lau­ra Bat­t­if­erri. Laur­a’s like­ness explicitly referenced 2 other fam­ous Flor­ent­ine poets: her Dante prof­ile and her Petrarch verses.

Not all of the people featured were well-known eg his ancestor Cosimo the Eld­er on the catalogue cover. Cosimo the Elder was not a Medici, but was the son of a wealthy Florentine bank­er. None­theless the work was described as a masterpiece of C16th port­rait­ure, summarising the power of art as prop­ag­an­da. The young man with a med­al­l­ion portrait of a woman near his chest was filled with symbolism.

The catalogue closed with a quote from the Ren­aissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, acknowledging the staying power of great art. Now read The Medici Family in History Today and The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–70 (see above).