The Nonchestnut and Other Woody Stuff
Picasso had his Blue Period and his Rose Period; old Bortrum
seems to be in his Woody Period. After posting my column on the
American chestnut tree last week, I learned more about chestnuts
and about controversial wood and wood products. The mason
working on revamping our front sidewalk remarked about the
large number of tree roots he found in digging the trench in
which to lay the cement. I told him about roots of blight-killed
chestnut trees sprouting new shoots. He recalled that in a nearby
area of New Jersey there are chestnut trees that grow to about ten
feet high and then die, the very behavior I described last week.
Chestnut blight still thrives.
I also learned something shocking about Longfellow’s
“spreading chestnut tree” that I mentioned last week. According
to my trusty 1962 World Book Encyclopedia, the “chestnut” tree
in Longfellow’s poem was not an American chestnut, but a horse
chestnut. Delving further, I was even more shocked to find that
the horse chestnut is not a chestnut! They’re not even related to
What Longfellow should have written was “Under a spreading
buckeye tree….” (The native American horse chestnuts are
called buckeyes.) Heck, there’s a buckeye tree just down the
street from our house. The shiny brown seeds resemble
chestnuts but are bitter and poisonous. Native Americans would
grind up the seeds and use the powder to stun fish. They also
would roast and thoroughly wash the buckeyes to get rid of the
poison and use them for food. However, I am not going to go
down the street and collect any buckeyes to roast by the fire.
I was really into my woody period when I saw a short news item
in the Spring 2004 issue of Chemistry, an American Chemical
Society publication. The item dealt with the Maunder Minimum,
also known as the “Little Ice Age”, and tree rings. I immediately
thought of our New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
You may have read recently about Herbert Axelrod, a pet
products tycoon and philanthropist, who didn’t appear at an
arraignment on charges of hiding income from the IRS and
allegedly fled to Cuba. Last year, our Jersey media headlined
Herb’s philanthropic nature when he agreed to sell a collection of
30 rare Italian stringed instruments to the orchestra. Reputedly,
the collection was worth about $50 million but Axelrod sold
them for only $18 million. The orchestra considered the sale a
gift, although now there’s some question as to the validity of the
$50 million valuation.
Among the various crafters of Axelrod’s violins, violas and
cellos was one Antonio Stradivari. Over the years, I’ve seen
articles purporting to explain the exquisite sound emanating from
the instruments that Stradivari produced. Proposed explanations
varied from the use of wood from ancient castles or cathedrals,
special varnishes and/or that he treated the wood in some way
involving special chemical treatments, soaking in water and
drying, etc. The Chemistry news item prompted me to probe
further. What follows was gleaned from the Web sites of
National Geographic, the Smithsonian, Columbia University and
the Catholic Encyclopedia site newadvent.org.
Stradivari’s birth date is as uncertain as the reason for the quality
of his instruments’ sound. The Chemistry news item has him
born in 1646, the year after beginning of the Maunder Minimum
in 1645. The Geographic and Smithsonian sites have Stradivari
born in 1644, while 1649 or 1650 are figures quoted in the
Catholic Encyclopedia. Whatever, he and trees grew together
during the Maunder Minimum.
Stradivari made over 1100 instruments including harps, guitars,
violas and cellos, as well as violins. If you happen to stumble on
a violin with the label “Stradivarius” in a garage sale, don’t get
too excited and immediately get plane tickets for the nearest
Antiques Roadshow. In the 19th century, thousands of violins
were made copying the models of the master violinmakers of the
17th and 18th centuries. It was common practice to put the
master’s name on the label to indicate the model on which the
violin was based. The label, genuine or false, will usually read
“Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Faciebat Anno [date]”.
This Latin inscription indicates that Antonio Stradivari made the
instrument in Cremona in the year …. If a copy was made after
1891, it had to note the country of origin for importing into the
U. S. So if you see “Made in Italy”, it’s no Stradivarius!
Back to the Maunder Minimum, defined by a reduction in
sunspot and other solar activity that began in 1645 and lasted
until 1715. This 70-year Little Ice Age was characterized by
long cold winters and short cool summers. The latter resulted in
trees growing very slowly and the tree rings being close together.
The wood from these trees was quite dense. Recently, Lloyd
Burckle of Columbia University and Henri Grissino-Mayer of
the University of Tennessee proposed that the Cremona
violinmakers gathered their wood from these trees. They suggest
that the narrow tree rings made the wood dense, strengthened the
violin and produced enhanced sounding boards. Apparently,
there have been studies that have debunked the postulate that
wood from old buildings was used.
The researchers don’t discount the role that master craftsmanship
played in the production of the superb Stradivarius instruments.
Stradivari not only paid close attention to his choice of wood but
also improved upon the violin designs of his famed teacher,
Nicholas Amati. Stradivari paid close attention to every aspect
of the design and finishing of the instruments. However, I doubt
that Stradivari or any of the violinists of the time heard the same
tonal qualities of a Stradivarius as have those listening to
performances on these same instruments by artists of the past
couple hundred years. I come to this conclusion after having just
read within the past hour an article by Russ Rymer titled “Saving
the Music Tree” in the April 2004 issue of Smithsonian
magazine. Rymer’s not talking about the chestnut tree; it’s the
pernambuco, or pau-brasil tree.
What do you need to obtain the Stradivarius sound? A bow.
What is a bow? Looks to me like just a piece of wood with some
horsehairs fastened to the ends. Naively, I have thought that the
bow was relatively insignificant relative to the quality of the
instrument being played. Then I read in Rymer’s article “it’s
better to have a fine bow and a mediocre violin than a fine violin
and a mediocre bow.” This is a quote attributed to Gunter
Seifert, a Vienna Philharmonic violinist and head of the Wiener
Geigen Quartet. In 2002, Seifert even debuted his composition,
“The Pernambuco Waltz”, in a celebrity-laden concert in Vienna.
What’s so special about the pernambuco that it deserves its own
musical composition? Virtually all the bows used by serious
performers and even serious amateurs are made of the wood
from the pernambuco tree, which is found in Brazil. It was an
illiterate Frenchman named Francis-Xavier Tourte who, about
200 years ago, revolutionized the design of the bow and found
the unique lightness and stiffness of the pernambuco wood. He
bent the wood into a concave shape over dry heat, attached the
horsehair with a metal ring to flatten it into a flat band and
introduced a screw to adjust the tension. He also came up with
and standardized every dimension of the bow for optimum
performance. His contribution was considered so important that
his nickname was/is “Stradivari of the Bow”.
It seems that no other material, natural or synthetic, matches the
qualities of pernambuco as a bow material. So, what’s the
problem today? Say the word Brazil and you may think of the
widely publicized loss of the rain forests there. The habitat of
the pernambuco’s is the forests of the coastal plain of Brazil.
These forests used to extend from the Amazon to the border with
Argentina but today there only isolated patches of left. The
world’s bowmakers have banded together to try to save the
pernambuco, one approach being a cooperative effort with cacao
growers. Chocolate comes from the cacao and the cacao trees do
best in shade. The hope is that the farmers can be persuaded to
plant pernambuco trees to provide the shade. It’s a long-range
plan – the pernambuco tree has to be about 30 years old before
it’s suitable for bowmaking!
If you think that one just goes to Brazil, chops down a pau-brasil
tree and cuts out a slew of sticks for bows, think again. Back in
the 19th century, it was said that it took 8 to 10 tons of pau-brasil
to yield a single stick of wood suitable for a bow! The wood can
be thorny or twisted or too light. So how did Tourte who, to my
knowledge never came close to Brazil, find the pau-brasil wood?
Being a fisherman, he scavenged the docks and wharves for slats
and barrel staves used in packing shipments from across the
Atlantic. But those weren’t the only sources of pau-brasil.
Rymer states that 168 acres of central Paris was piled “head
high” with pau-brasil logs – one big woodpile! I assume that’s
how bowmakers could search through tons of pau-brasil looking
for wood fit for a single bow.
Perhaps you’ve noted that I’ve switched from using pernambuco
to its other designation, pau-brasil. I did it so I could cite a
statement in Rymer’s article that the tree was not named after the
country it resides in. In fact, he claims that Brazil was named
after the tree! Pau-brasil was the main product shipped from the
Portuguese colony of Brazil to Europe. And that humongous pile
of pau-brasil in the center of Paris was not there for the
bowmakers; it was for the dyemakers. “Pau-brasil” in
Portuguese means “furnace-red wood”, according to the article,
and the red pigment extracted from the wood was prized for
dyeing such items as robes worn by royalty. (Either there must
not be much pigment in a pau-brasil log or there must have been
a lot of royalty in those days!)
Well, so much for my “Woody Period”. Would that my columns
of this period commanded even a tiniest fraction of the $104
million that Picasso’s painting brought last week!
Allen F. Bortrum