Tree-Ring Dating of the Karr-Koussevitzky Double Bass: A Case Study in Dendromusicology

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Sergei Koussevitzky was one of the world's premier conductors and virtuoso bass players whose favorite instrument was an unusually-shaped bass reportedly made in 1611 by the Amati brothers, Antonio and Girolamo. In 1962, 11 years after Koussevitzky's death, his widow gave the bass to Gary Karr, currently considered to be the world's premier double bassist. In 2004, Karr donated the bass to the International Society of Bassists. Close inspection by a team of experts in 2004, however, revealed stylistic inconsistencies that suggested a later construction date. We used four reference tree-ring chronologies developed from treeline species in the European Alpine region to anchor the dates for the tree rings from the double bass absolutely in time. The bass yielded a 317-year long sequence, the longest sequence yet developed from a single musical instrument. Statistical and graphical comparisons revealed that the bass has tree rings that date from 1445 to 1761. Based on the strength of these correlations, the spruce tree harvested to eventually construct the double bass likely came from the treeline Alpine area of western Austria, not too far from Obergurgl at the Italian border. Our results demonstrate that the double bass was not made by the Amati Brothers, but likely by French luthiers in the late 18th Century.

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... Becker's chronology from Bibbiena has already been used for comparison purposes with other instruments in the past [34]. In our case, however, the correlation values with the tree-ring sequences of the six instruments mentioned above are very high, with t HOvalues of up to 9.33 (Table 3, Fig. 1) for a time-series of just over 100 rings, which is remarkable considering that in other studies [27,35] a threshold of t ≥ 10 has been used to indicate that two samples derive from the same tree trunk. ...
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The wood provenance of what is considered today's most important collection of stringed instruments by Tuscan violin-makers, the Collection of the “Luigi Cherubini” Conservatory, at the Accademia Gallery in Florence, was analyzed dendrochronologically. On the basis of 95 geographically very widely distributed master chronologies, the most likely areas of origin of the Norway spruce wood used for the construction of 32 from a total of 37 instruments were determined. Consequently, the most important centres of wood supply were established. Finally, a location in the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines was identified as the likely provenance of a considerable quantity of timber used in the construction of these instruments. The results provide a new prospect in studying the geographical origins of the wood from which stringed instruments were made in the past, by using dendrochronological analysis.
... We saw no indication that the SynchroSearch software , its book, and the lesson plans were peer-reviewed. For example, the first exercise in the lesson plans concerns the re-dating of the Karr–Koussevitzky double bass, originally dated by Grissino-Mayer et al. (2005). Fig. 6 in this exerciseshows the dating of the bass side measurements (''Karr06'') against the Obergurgl, Austria master chronology developed by Veronika Giertz-Siebenlist in the mid-1970s. ...
A recent report by Mondino and Avalle (2009) was widely distributed that demonstrated a re-dating of the famous “Messiah” violin, a violin attributed to Antonio Stradivari with a label date of 1716. An outermost ring date of 1844 is instead suggested rather than dates in the 1680s reported in previous studies. Mondino and Avalle suggest that this outermost ring date supports the attribution of the violin to Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, a prolific French instrument maker who was well known for his copies of famous instruments. The statistical techniques and exercises used by Mondino and Avalle, however, are problematic and do not support this revised outermost date for the “Messiah” violin. Raw measurement data with original trends are used in their statistical crossdating, properties previously shown to hinder precise crossdating. They then substantiate their re-dating with polynomial trend curves, which has ever been accepted practice in dendrochronology. Furthermore, the authors use re-scaled correlation coefficients and t-values which artificially inflate the strength of the relationship between tree-ring series that are being statistically crossdated. Using the exact same tree-ring data, but using accepted techniques in statistical crossdating (e.g., the removal of all low-frequency trends and autocorrelation), we could not verify the revised dating of the “Messiah” violin. We urge caution for those who intend to use the SynchroSearch software, book, and lesson plans developed and distributed by Mondino and Avalle. This study illustrates the adverse effects possible in dendrochronology when investigators do not adhere to accepted and time-tested techniques, and are not versed in the extensive literature that highlights issues commonly encountered in statistical crossdating.
... Since then, there have been many important applications of this method ( Klein et al., 1986;Topham andMcCormick, 1998, 2000). Mainly stringed instruments, such as violins, violas and cellos, made by well-known violinmakers, have been analysed, whose attribution, in some case, had been questioned ( Grissino-Mayer et al., 2004;Grissino-Mayer and Deweese, 2005). Traditionally, the belly of stringed instrument was made of spruce (Picea abies Karst.) ...
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A total of forty-nine stringed instruments of the Conservatory Cherubini collection, at the Musical Instruments Department of the Accademia Gallery in Florence, were submitted to a dendrochronological investigation in order to date them, check the validity of their attribution and to find out more about their construction characteristics. Thirty-seven instruments were successfully dated, thereby determining the terminus post quem date of manufacture. The correlation values of the statistical cross-dating tests were generally very high. The dendrochronological analyses determined which instruments had been made from wood of the same provenance and, in some cases, from the same tree trunk. The mean chronology built from the musical instrument series, named “Accademia Master Chronology”, is 558 years long and dates from 1396 to 1953AD. The interval between the youngest ring dated dendrochronologically and the given date of manufacture increased constantly in the course of the centuries, from a mean value of just over eleven years for instruments built in the eighteenth century, to nearly 74 years in the twentieth century, when the use of old wood from other artefacts became more frequent. Furthermore, in the Cherubini Collection, the average tree rings on violins are smaller than those of other stringed instruments; in fact, they increase in proportion to instrument size and are widest in cello and double bass.
Authenticity is the prime factor affecting the market value of a work of art. String instruments are among the most valued works of art, particularly those made by the old violin-making masters of northern Italy in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. However, it is difficult to verify the authenticity of string instruments on the basis of style and design alone, as these are often copied or forged. Uncertainties related to craftsmanship can lead to financial and legal controversy, sometimes with even millions of dollars at stake. The authenticity of the Stradivari “Messiah” has long been disputed. Controversies at the end of the 1990s concerning its craftsmanship have enhanced interest in dating this violin. After different dendrochronological analyses provided conflicting tree-ring dates for the front of the violin, a scientifically-sound dendrochronological study eventually established 1682 as terminus post quem, i.e., the year when the last ring of the violin front was formed, before which the violin could not have been made. This date is consistent with the attributed date of manufacture, 1716, supporting Antonio Stradivari as the maker of the “Messiah”. However, this controversial dating of the “Messiah” sent shockwaves through the violin community. Here, we present the main facts which played a role in this controversy and we show how dangerous the use of dendrochronology can be if investigators do not adhere to well-established techniques and are not versed scholars in the literature. Such controversies threaten the reputation of dendrochronology. Today, many false theories and conceptual mistakes continue to circulate in the violin community. A thorough and scientifically-sound dendrochronological analysis of the wood used to make the instrument is the only analysis that can objectively indicate, if not the exact year an instrument was made, at least the date before which it certainly was not made. Here, we describe the importance, in terms of acoustics, of the wood-anatomical characteristics of the wood with which instruments are made, and its possible geographical provenance. We review the dendrochronological studies undertaken to assess the authenticity of the instruments made by the old Italian masters. Such studies help to establish the earliest date the tree from which the wood was taken could have been felled, and to determine the source region of the wood. We present the main achievements and challenges that have arisen in the past 50 years of studying the authenticity of string instruments, and discuss the limitations and advantages of using dendrochronological methods to establish the provenance and time period in which a work of art was created. Finally, we describe needs of research in history, wood anatomy and dendrochronology, proposing several new methods that may open up new avenues of research and aid in the assessment of the authenticity of old string instruments.
This first dendrochronological study of 13 violins and cellos from Portuguese workshops of the XVIII and XIX centuries aims at a deeper knowledge of dates and origin of the top woods used to build the instruments, as well as adding to the understanding of specific assembly techniques. A similar study was also made on 10 violins and cellos of foreign manufacture from the XVII and XVIII centuries, which are currently in Portugal, showing the scientific potential as well as limitations of the dendrochronological approach. The best chronological references which were applied to date the musical instruments manufactured in Portugal came from the Alpine regions of Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Italy, but the identification of specific wood sources was not possible. The only known musical instrument in Portugal attributed to Antonio Stradivari (cello Chevillard) belongs to the collection of the National Museum of Music (Lisbon). The growth patterns on two pieces which compose the belly were compared with those of five other instruments made by the same luthier and was allowed to conclude that the wood came from the same region and, in one specific case, from the same tree. The terminum post quem obtained by the dendrochronological dating allowed the confirmation of attribution to a maker for most of the instruments but for two violins the attributions proved erroneous making the case for a reassignment of the two instruments. Dendrochronology led us to the conclusion that the Portuguese musical instruments can be seen as a physical proof of the historical records which document Portuguese maritime wood trade with Europe, mainly with Italy.
Dendrochronological analysis is a relatively new tool for dating old historical musical instruments. The process of dating musical instruments is based on the comparison between the ring width series seen on the top of the string instrument and compared to the existing master chronology. Norway spruce (Picea abies) used for the top of string instruments is an excellent species for dendrochronological applications because of its characteristic anatomic structure with annual rings well defined. The sequence of annual tree ring width is superimposed exactly with the calendar year. Dating procedures for string instruments from the violin family have been developed based on spruce master chronology for specific sites. Site chronology which reflect local growth conditions may allow timber identification and consequently the dendrochronological approach can prove the origin of wood used for the top of musical instruments. An adequate number of annual rings should be measured, currently 50-70 annual rings. Statistical procedures will demonstrate the validity of measured data based on cross dating procedures. It is generally accepted that a new instrument can be made from an old piece of wood. Dendrochronology gives no information about the date of manufacturing of the instrument. It was possible to establish the “terminus post quem” data for each instrument analysed. Dendrochronological data proved that the time of natural drying was on average 11 years in the 18th century, 51years in 19th century and 74 years in the 20th century. The Baroque instruments were never built with very old wood.
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Since 2000, important advances have been made worldwide in the dendrochronology of wood associated with past human activity and cultural heritage. This review summarizes this recent progress in regions with a longstanding tradition of using tree-ring methods, such as Europe and the USA, as well as others such as Asia where developments have been particularly rapid in recent years. The oldest wood generally originates from archaeological sites and the largest amount of wood for research comes from historical structures such as monumental and vernacular architecture. In addition to construction wood, wooden doors, ceilings, furniture, objects of art (such as panel paintings and sculptures), Medieval books, musical instruments and boats can also be utilized. Dating is the first and crucial step of the research and is often difficult even in regions where dendrochronology has a long history of use. In addition to absolute dates, dendrochronology has provided extra information that has enhanced historical knowledge from other sources. Behavioral and environmental inferencing and dendroprovenancing are becoming major areas of research in regions with well-developed networks of reference chronologies and active cooperation among laboratories. The online Bibliography of Dendrochronology and information from conferences have been indispensable in this compilation, because much work related to dendrochronology in cultural heritage is still published in “gray” literature, making it difficult to access.
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[From Introduction:] This paper describes dendrochronological techniques that can be applied to tree-ring samples to measure radial growth during past and present budworm outbreaks. The techniques will be illustrated with examples from a radial-growth study of trees infested by western spruce budworm (C. occidentalis Freeman) in northern New Mexico. Most techniques described here have been standard for many years in dendroclimatic and dendroecologic studies (Anon. 1977, Fritts 1971) and have many advantages over other types of tree-ring analyses for evaluating effects of insects on radial growth. In particular, the rigorous use of cross-dating and standardizing can provide more precise measurements and improved understanding of the effects of insects. climate, and other environmental factors on tree growth.
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This paper explores the possibility of using ring-width measurements derived from string instruments as a potential source of palaeoclimate information. From a data-base of 1800 measured series, we have identified two sub-sets that compare well with living high elevation spruce (Picea abies (L.) Karst) chronologies from the Bavarian Forest and Austrian Alps. The problems of using historical tree-ring data for dendroclimatic purposes are addressed and by combining the living and historic ring-width data from these two regions, a preliminary proxy of past June/July mean temperatures is developed. This proxy summer temperature record shows striking similarities with a tree-ring based temperature reconstruction for the Central Eastern Alps, the CLIMHIST June/July temperature record from Switzerland and glacial records from the Austrian Alps. This explorative study demonstrates that ring-width series from string instruments may allow the identification of generalised source regions of wood used for instrument making and, most importantly, provide a new unique source for palaeoclimate information at a variety of both temporal and spatial scales for high elevations in central Europe.
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The “Messiah” violin is considered by many to be the finest work by Antonio Stradivari and one of the most valuable musical instruments in existence. Questions were recently raised concerning its authenticity on stylistic and historical grounds, especially in light of conflicting sets of tree-ring dates for the spruce top of the violin. To resolve this controversy, we analysed the tree rings on the “Messiah” and those found on five other instruments constructed in the same general period, dating these against a regional chronology that integrated 16 alpine tree-ring chronologies from five countries. We conclusively dated both the “Archinto” (1526–1686) and “Kux”/“Castelbarco” (1558–1684) violas against the regional chronology. We could not directly date the “Messiah” against the regional master chronology, but found that its tree rings dated well against both the “Archinto” and “Kux”/“Castelbarco” violas. Our results strongly suggest that the tree rings of the “Messiah” violin date between 1577–1687, dates that support the attribution to Antonio Stradivari and the label date of 1716. We hypothesize the wood used to make the “Messiah” came from a low-elevation tree growing distant from the high alpine areas, whereas the wood used to make the two violas likely came from an intermediate, mid-elevation location.
Dragonetti devoted his life to the double bass. His career in England (1794-1846) is one of the most remarkable success stories in the annals of musical history. His unprecedented virtuosity elevated the double bass to a new status. In combination with his charismatic personality his musical talent dominated the English cultural world for more than fifty years. As performer, composer, collector, and friend, he exposed the unforeseen potential of the double bass. His formidable talent as a musician and businessman provides an unusual insight into nineteenth-century entrepreneurship. This first substantial biography and assessment of Dragonetti's career allows us to understand his importance in the history of music in general and of double-bass performance in particular.
COFECHA is a computer program that assesses the quality of crossdating and measurement accuracy of tree-ring series. Written by Richard L. Holmes in 1982, the program has evolved into one of the most important and widely used in dendrochronology. It is important to note that COFECHA does not perform all the necessary steps in crossdating. Rather, the program is a tool that helps the dendrochronologist assess the quality of crossdating and measurement accuracy. The ultimate decision whether or not a tree-ring series is successfully crossdated must lie with the dendrochronologist and not with the software. Therefore, the program is most useful after initial crossdating is accomplished using visual or graphical techniques (such as skeleton plots), and the rings have been measured. The proper use of COFECHA adds a high degree of confidence that tree-ring samples have been crossdated correctly and measured accurately, ensuring that the environmental signal is maximized. In this paper, I describe the use of COFECHA through all necessary steps, and discuss the meaning of the initial questions posed at program start-up, the various options available in the main menu, the various sections of the output from COFECHA, and interpretation of the diagnostics of crossdating and measurement accuracy. I demonstrate methods used to help crossdate undated series, and offer tips on taking full advantage of the various options available in the program.
The authors begin by outlining the role of the dendrochronologists both in the field and in the laboratory. The basic principles of tree-ring dating are then explained in detail, followed by a guide to the collection of archaeological and modern specimens from the field. The final section deals with the laboratory techniques used: the preliminary processing and preparation of archaeological and modern specimens; the process of dating specimens; and finally the compilation of a master chronology.
A dendrochronological investigation of 33 violins made in Cremona during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, including 20 violins by Antonio Stradivari was carried out. After cross-matching data from these instruments an Italian Instrument Master Chronology (IIMC21) was constructed that allowed the authors to date the spruce fronts of 21 of the instruments with reference to southern Alpine chronologies. One of the instruments that were successfully dated was the violin known as “The Messiah”. This violin has been attributed to Stradivari but its authenticity has frequently been challenged and a later date of manufacture proposed. This investigation has demonstrated that the terminus post quem for the front of this violin is 1682 and is therefore consistent with the attributed date of manufacture (1716). In addition the Messiah showed a highly significant cross-match with two undisputed Stradivari violins of the same period. The dendrochronological analysis presented here therefore supports the attribution of this violin to Antonio Stradivari.
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