‘A truce with the trees’: Rebecca Solnit on the wonders of a 300-year old violin
Made with all-renewable materials, this violin from 1721 reflects a time of magnificent culture – a global gathering from before the climate crisis
Rebecca Solnit. — Thu 7 Jul 2022
For the last 50 years, David Harrington, the founder and artistic director of San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet, has been playing what he calls “pretty athletic music” on a violin made in 1721. I’ve heard him play all kinds of compositions on it, from the galloping notes of Orange Blossom Special to the minimalism of Terry Riley and even the occasional bit of Bach. The instrument made by Carlo Giuseppe Testore in Milan has survived three centuries, providing music for countless audiences, and can be heard on more than 60 Kronos albums.
When I first learned the age of the instrument I was filled with wonder that a delicate piece of craftsmanship could endure for centuries, that something so small and light could do so much, that an instrument made in the 18th century could have so much to say in the 21st. It felt like a messenger from the past and an emblem of the possible, a relic and a promise.
This violin is from before. Before James Watt made the steam engine a voracious, ubiquitous device devouring coal and wood and then oil, driving mills, looms, pumps, then locomotive and steamboat engines. Before we began gouging out the Earth so frantically to feed those steam engines and then those internal combustion engines. Before we dug out so much of the carbon that plants had so beautifully sequestered deep in the Earth eons ago. Before human impact exploded into a destructive force with the power to change the acidity of the oceans and the content of the atmosphere.
The sheer thrift of an instrument lasting so long said to me that maybe you could have magnificent culture with material modesty, that the world before all our fossil fuel extraction and burning could be plenty elegant, and maybe that the world we need to make in response to climate change can feel like one of abundance, not austerity.
But fossil fuels have been poisonous, both literally and politically. Renouncing them in an age when renewables have become adequate substitutes for most of what they have done means giving up something that has contaminated our world and impoverished our confidence in the future. We tend to think of abundance as material stuff, but perhaps our piles of loot overshadow less tangible things that also matter, including continuity with the past, confidence in the future, and the cultural richness that is not just a commodity.
Harrington’s violin is clearly a working instrument: a little battered, with a worn finish, a lot of tiny nicks and a visible crack. Its materials are themselves a sort of global gathering, all of them organic, none of the original ones involving mining, although metal tools would have been crucial to making it. A violin is usually made out of spruce wood on the front, or belly, and maple on the back, sides, and neck. Traditionally, a violin’s fingerboard and tailpiece were made of ebony from south Asia or Africa, though because it’s an endangered tree, instrument makers mostly use other wood now (outside China, where considerable ebony is still used).
David’s violin is clearly a working instrument – its materials are themselves a sort of global gathering
The glue that holds the instrument together would have been made from boiling animal hides, and the varnish might have included shellac made from a secretion of the lac insect in south Asia, or just pine sap and some kind of vegetable oil, often linseed oil from flax. The strings were once made of sheep gut (not catgut, popular though the term is), though these days tend to be metal and synthetic materials. Rosin made from tree resin allows the bow sound on the strings – without it, Harrington notes, the instrument would be silent. When I was an unpromising child violinist, the clear amber lump of rosin was one of my favourite things about the instrument.
Nearly all bows are still strung with horsehair. Because mares tend to urinate on their tails, the ideal material is the white hair of the tail of a stallion or gelding, usually from Siberia, Mongolia, Canada, or Argentina. A few years ago, a bow maker told Harrington that because of the climate crisis, it was harder to get the strong horsehair cold climates produce. Violin bows were for centuries made by preference from pernambuco wood from Brazil’s Atlantic forests, specifically from the heartwood, the dense rings of orange-brown wood at the centre of the tree. These trees are likewise endangered and avoided by many instrument makers now. Bow makers and violin makers have joined conservationists to form the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative to protect and regenerate the species and the forests in which they grow.
One bow could bring together the Arctic and the tropics, and if it was inset with ivory, abalone, or mother of pearl, as many are, also incorporate materials from the ocean or another continent. A violin with ebony, ivory and a pernambuco bow is a relic of the colonialism in which Europe enriched itself with materials from other continents, but it is also an all-renewable-materials artefact.
Mostly, a violin is trees. The spruce and maple with which violins are made also face impacts from climate change. You can see the spruce tree rings on the front of David’s violin as a series of fairly even lines of growth – but erratic weather produces erratic rings, and the spruces used for Italian violins grew in the Dolomites, and the climate there is shifting. In those mountains is a famous forest known as “the forest of violins”, because so many instruments were made for so long with its wood. As the climate continues to change, this place may cease to be the ideal source of wood for instruments, and increasingly erratic weather worldwide could make consistent wood grain rarer too.
Violin maker and scholar Nancy Benning says woods used by Stradivari and his peers had a climate element to them: “Decades of colder temperatures in Italy, Switzerland and Germany led to slower growth of the spruce trees. In particular, the woods used in Cremonese violins are believed to have superior tonal expressiveness and projection, thanks to the density (ie tightness of the tree rings) of the cold-grown spruce trees. It’s the wood’s vibrational efficacy and the effective production of sound that distinguish this rare and highly valued family of violins from others.” According to a report in Nature Climate Change, Norway spruces in central Europe now grow a third to three-quarters faster than they once did.Perhaps there will be Anthropocene instruments with their own sounds, from trees whose voices have changed with the climate. My violin-maker friend, Hans Johannson, is grounded in the great tradition but facing the future with interest rather than fear. “I’m not afraid of things changing and I don’t think magic is going to disappear,” he told me a few years ago. Based in Reykjavik, he brews his own hide glue and varnishes and makes instruments with hand tools, much as Stradivari and Testore would have. His instruments are played in orchestras and quartets around the world, but he has also made experimental instruments and tested new materials.
Though computers can help, the craft still relies on the ear as well as the hand. Hans notes that “one of the reasons for the difficulty of mass producing violins is the fact that the wood never has the same properties, even pieces of spruce or maple from the same tree. When the flitches of wood are held and struck with a blow of the fist, some pieces are found to vibrate loudly with a long ringing tone, whereas other pieces sound dull and the note dies away quickly.” It is conceivable that the cellos and violins he’s made will be played as long as the Testore violin Harrington uses has been; that in the year 2322 someone will be playing a Johannson instrument.
Like all plants, all forests, the trees from which the Testore violin was made had been pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in their wood and in the Earth. The fossil fuel we burn now is an end-product of carbon sequestered by plants eons ago. The violin is a tiny carbon sink, a reserve of carbon that didn’t go back into the air, but stayed here and sang.
I often think of what we are doing with our frenetic burning of fossil fuels as a sort of war against the trees. It’s how we put back in the atmosphere the carbon they pulled out of it and continue to pull out of it – forests across the Earth are said to sequester about two-fifths of the carbon we put into the atmosphere annually. The other three members of Kronos also play instruments that hail from other eras. John Sherba’s violin was made in New York in 1884, when atmospheric carbon was at 293 parts per million, only 16 points higher than in 1721. It was crafted the year before Carl Benz in Germany made the first petroleum-powered automobile. Sunny Yang’s cello was made in Italy in 1903, when the reading was 296.8 parts per million, the same year the first Model A Ford was sold and the Wright brothers flew the world’s first successful heavier-than-air powered aircraft. Hank Dutt’s viola was made in Italy in 1913, three years after we crossed the threshold of 300 parts per million, the year the Model T became the first truly mass-produced automobile.
Perhaps there will be instruments with their own sounds, from trees whose voices have changed with the climate
These instruments come from a world in which petroleum-based plastic was just emerging, the great tropical forests were largely intact, and the seasonal cycles had not been disrupted, but also from a world in which Africa was largely ruled by European powers and many human rights had hardly been conceived of, let alone realised anywhere on Earth. The past tells many stories and always one story, that change is constant, for the better, for the worse.
One evening not long ago, I went to see the San Francisco Symphony’s annual concert with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. The symphony musicians sat in a semicircle that began with violins and violas and ended with cellos and bass viols, and, thanks to the time I’d spent contemplating David Harrington’s violin, I saw it as a forest of wooden instruments. The gospel singers stood above them, and at one moment when I could see dozens of bows moving in unison in the dimness, see 50 mouths open in song, it felt like some kind of truce between our species and the trees had been struck.
Maybe that’s the promise David’s violin seemed to hold when I discovered how long it had been playing. At my request, he brought it over to my apartment and took it out of its case. I was a bit overawed and ready to spread a clean cloth to lay it on but he put it on my table without any fuss, and let me pick it up. It felt like a bird when I held it: almost weightless, incredibly powerful and extremely delicate. And then I saw Kronos perform one more time, and there it was, in David’s hands, making music as it had for three centuries, seeming strong enough to go on indefinitely.