UT Researcher Dates Wood from Famous Violin

KNOXVILLE — One of the world’s most fabled and valuable musical instruments has yielded some of its secrets to a University of Tennessee scientist.

Dr. Henri Grissino-Mayer has determined that the Messiah violin, reputedly made by Italian master craftsman Antonio Stradivari, is made from spruce wood that dates from the period in which Stradivari was manufacturing his world-renowned instruments.

Dr. Henri Grissino-Mayer

Grissino-Mayer, an assistant professor in UT’s geography department, specializes in dendrochronology, the science of dating wooden artifacts by analyzing tree rings.

“From tree rings on the front of the violin, we’ve determined that the wood grew between 1577 and 1687,” Grissino-Mayer said. “Stradivari lived from 1644 to 1737.

“The wood is consistent with the 1716 date of manufacture traditionally attributed to this violin.”

The instrument is in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, one of the oldest public museums in the world. The violin is valued at between $15 million and $20 million.

Controversy rose over the authenticity of the Messiah at a meeting of the Violin Society of America in 1999, when violin scholar Stewart Pollens claimed that the instrument was made by a 19th century instrument maker known for his copies of Stradivari violins.

The Violin Society of America invited Grissino-Mayer to resolve the dispute by studying the Messiah directly, said Dr. Helen Hayes, president of the organization.

“We needed a dendrochronologist and asked Henri to write about dendrochronology for our journal,” Hayes said. “When the controversy continued, we asked him to undertake an objective study of the Messiah’s wood.”

Grissino-Mayer called on two colleagues, Drs. Malcolm Cleaveland of the University of Arkansas and Paul Sheppard of the University of Arizona, to join him on a research panel.

In July Hayes and the panel visited the museum and spent a week measuring the tree rings on the surface of the instrument’s front. They used a computer to compare the growth rings to dendrochronological records of other authenticated instruments of the period. They announced their conclusions Nov. 10 at the annual conference of the society in Carlisle, Penn.

“The Messiah has been out of its case only a few times in the last 100 years,” Grissino-Mayer said. “It’s been played only four or five times since it was built.

“Holding it was an overwhelming experience.”

Grissino-Mayer said the instrument looks like it was manufactured only recently. Stradivari finished it in what Grissino-Mayer describes as an astonishing red-orange varnish that no one has been able to duplicate.

Grissino-Mayer studies tree rings to determine the climate of past environments and the history of forest fires over thousands of years.