The Secret Of The Stradivarius Sound

When I was a boy, my father told me he could do anything he wanted to do. I believed him. Dad said he wanted to become the first photographer in Sioux City to develop color prints. He did, and his prints were displayed for weeks at the local Eastman Kodak store.

When I was 13, I said I wanted an "Olson-60" gasoline engine for my balsa-wood model airplanes. Dad said he could build it for me. He borrowed my friend's motor, took measurements, made wooden parts, cast them in aluminum and turned the pieces on his lathe until they fit. He purchased only a spark plug, the gas tank and a rubber fuel line.

When I was 16, Dad looked closely at the violin I played and announced that he wanted to make one. He read about violinmaking, then became a violinmaker at the age of 43. He bought the tools and materials from a local stringed-instrument repairman, leased a small storefront and set Mom up as the shopkeeper, while he worked until 3 p.m. at the local Bell Telephone Co.

From 3:15 p.m. until he decided to quit for the day, Dad was at his shop. He retired from the phone company 17 years later and continued to make violins, violas and at least one cello. He sold and rented his instruments to students and repaired stringed instruments for area musicians.

Dad often speculated about the superiority of Stradivarius violins. He'd occasionally read a magazine or newspaper article in which an expert claimed it was the unique varnish that gave those instruments their beautiful sound. Dad argued that chemists could analyze and duplicate the varnish, if that were the answer. Other experts said it was the craftsmanship, but Dad said if that were the case, modern technology would allow us to fashion exact duplicates of Stradivari's works.

One of Dad's friends once asked him which kinds of woods were used in making a fiddle. When Dad explained that the top of a violin was made of spruce, his friend said he had an old chunk of spruce he might be interested in.

The friend explained that this was not just any piece of wood. He had found it when he was fighting below an ancient monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy during World War II. He had lain in the mud for days and watched numerous buddies die before the Allies, reluctantly, bombed the fortified abbey. As he scrambled up the mountain and through the ruins, he picked up a section of timber less than two feet long to keep as a souvenir, shoved it under the straps of his pack and carried it throughout the rest of the war. When he returned home, he put the wood on a storage shelf in his basement, where it had stayed for the last 20 years. Dad's eyes widened when he heard the story.

The violin with the Monte Cassino spruce top was Dad's masterpiece. He had discovered on his own what many experts now agree is the secret of the Stradivarius sound: it was the wood itself that resonated so beautifully. The abbey at Monte Cassino was first built in 529; the last reconstruction had been done in 1349. Dad reasoned old Stradivari had access to spruce that had cured for centuries, perhaps ancient timbers from a ruined medieval castle or cathedral.

Leo Kucinski, the venerable conductor of the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra, was one of Dad's many musician friends. The maestro stopped at the violin shop almost weekly to talk and to play the Monte Cassino violin. So did others. But Dad would never sell it.

In the early '70s, knowledgeable burglars broke into Dad's shop one night and stole the instrument along with other quality violins. The thieves left starter fiddles, inexpensive factory reproductions and the like. Dad never saw the violin again.

Dad's spirit was broken by the robbery. He stopped making instruments. He kept the music shop until he was 80 years old, selling guitars and violins and occasionally working on a repair, charging too little for everything.

Dad has been gone for 12 years now. The Monte Cassino violin has been missing for more than 25. Somewhere a musician plays a late-20th-century violin with a remarkable tone. If a thief did not remove the maker's tag, a light shined into the curved hole on that ancient spruce top will show the violin was made by Harold A. Wall, Sioux City, Iowa. But the owner today may never understand why the violin sounds so much like a Stradivarius.