This is my personal take on how Stradivarius violins have taken on the mythical status of being the best violins in the world, whose tonal and aesthetic perfection are unsurpassable by any who dare to challenge them.
There is no doubt that Antonio Stradivari (1644 - 1737) was a consummate violin maker and shrewd businessman in his time. He made fine violins that were very sought after and he had a very long and prosperous career. Nevertheless, for the best part of the 18th century, his violins were less favoured than sweet toned instruments by Jakob Stainer (c.1618 - 83) and the Amatis that were considered ideal for baroque chamber music making. Indeed, violin makers of the 18th century throughout Europe copied Stainer instruments as the model of choice. The advent of the soloistic violin concerto and the construction of large concert halls at the beginning of the 19th century saw a demand for concert instruments with power, projection and sonority. Stradivarius’ violins were well suited to this challenge. As demand for them increased over the ensuing centuries, their value increased. As they become more valuable, only violinists at the top of the game or their wealthy patrons and collectors could afford to buy them. When they required repair or restoration, only top luthiers were commisioned to work on them. These talented luthiers devised methods to further increase the power, projection and sonority of Stradivari instruments by resetting and changing the angle of the neck, thinning of the plates, installation of longer bass bars and using new types of strings. Today, none of the surviving instruments of Stradivarius have remained unaltered from the day they left his workshop. How they sounded then is unknown and unknowable. What we hear as the sound of Stradivarius is the summation of incremental improvements made to these violins by generations of unsung and gifted luthiers, as played by the best players in the world. That, IMHO, is why they sound so superb. This process is ongoing and continues in luthier workshops all over the world today. Read Maxim Vengerov's account of the optimisation of the sound of his 1727 Kreutzer Stradivari here.