You could also call these selected items nonpareils or classical
exemplars. Naturally some are rare if not priceless; but they range all
the way down to a few bucks so feel free to get out your wish list. Here
it’s more a combination of significance and romance than monetary
value. And unlike the Holy Grail[s] of song and fame their existence is,
or at the very least was, undisputed.
By single categories:
Flora & Fauna
Treasure & Splendor
Fazioli Model F308 Piano
Say you aspire to build the ultimate, take-no-prisoners concert grand piano in
terms of its tone quality. Hundreds of issues enter into this, but probably the
first you’ll need to address is how to make its strings as long
One reason for this is that in order to generate the richest waveform a string
needs to be struck very close to one end. The closer, the better. If A is the
distance between a string’s tuning peg-side anchorage and the contact point of
its hammer and B is the remaining distance from there to its other anchorage at
the far end of the instrument, you want to minimize the ratio A/B. Mechanical
limitations dictate that A can only be so short, so you’re left to do what you
can with B.
The other reason is that for a given pitch, a shorter string sounds “noisier” in
tone and less musical than a longer one. Technicians call this inharmonicity.
This is also why the singing voices of children, due to their smaller vocal
cords, typically sound sweeter and more bell-like than those of adults even if you
disregard the pitch differences. Cute for glockenspiels and Charlie Brown
specials but undesirable for concert grands.
Anyone who’s plucked rubber bands knows that the longer the strings, the
harder you need to stretch them to maintain a given pitch. But right away you come up against the tensile
strength of whatever you’re using, both in the piano’s strings and in that herculean
metal plate or harp that has to hold all of them. A collective tension exceeding
200,000 newtons (20 tons) is not unusual. But at the same time it doesn't pay to
over-design the harp too much because, well, pianos weigh enough at it is.
Currently the grandest of the grands is the Model F308 by Fazioli of Sacile,
Italy. As the number implies, it’s 308 centimeters long or a little over ten
feet. Specialized computer algorithms allow the company to finesse the bejesus
out of the geometries of the strings, harp, and other components to achieve that
length and coax the absolute maximum out of the total system.
But storm clouds loom: Klavins of Bonn, Germany, claims to be working on a Model
408. If it had to rely on the same strings as
the Fazioli, which I can’t imagine, it would need to torture them with around 75% more tension.
So... synthetic sapphire whiskers? Carbon nanotube composites? Stay tuned.
The silent Messiah Stradivarius
Those fortunate enough to own stringed instruments
from the Baroque-era Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari workshops are
scrupulously fussy about who — if anyone — they allow to poke and prod them.
Although much of their vaunted superiority would seem to stem more from
cachet than reality (blind listening tests reveal them sonically
indistinguishable from many of their top-drawer peers), there
are many nuances in their physical makeup that do set them apart
and make them exquisitely responsive to their players.
|© Pruneau / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0|
Back in the 80s and 90s there was a lot of press about the more finely
packed growth rings in the spruce and maple available to those makers,
owing to the Maunder Mininum’s reduced growing seasons between 1645 and
1715. Other articles have cited the effect of microbes eating away tiny
resonance-encouraging voids in the wood as it soaked in the Venetian lagoons
awaiting the sawyers, and the presence of finely pulverized grains of
quartz, calcite, aluminum oxide (white sapphire), garnet, and/or
other minerals in the varnishes.
More recently we’ve seen physics professor William F. “Jack” Fry
demonstrate how intimately attuned these makers were to the way various
twisting and pumping actions of the instrument’s body contribute
to its sound. They modulated the thicknesses of the front plates in
meandering patterns, and applied their varnishes in similarly uneven
coats, both to optimize these quiverings and to compensate for the
flexibility quirks of the wood that differed for
About 500 Stradivarius violins survive, but among them the
Messiah-Salabue from 1715 is unique. It was found unsold in Antonio
Stradivari’s workshop after he died in 1737, and since at least the
early 19th century it has scarcely if ever been played.
You’ll notice from the photo that the C-shaped rims at its waist show no
wear from errant bows and that it has no chin rest or E string tuner.
The idea here has been to preserve one Stradivarius in as pristine a
condition as possible so that violin makers and other researchers will
always have a sample to analyze. It’s on display on the second floor of
the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Gaspard de la nuit:
Trois poèmes pour piano d'après Aloysius Bertrand
Back when I was in high school I somehow wound up on a local TV quiz
bowl with three of my classmates. One of the challenges put to us by the
emcee was to identify Ravel’s Baléro. Though I was very
faintly aware of Ravel I had never heard of that piece. It’s still hard
to say whether that was good or bad.
Maurice Ravel himself expressed much the same attitude toward
Baléro that Frank Zappa would echo fifty-odd
years later toward Valley Girl: basically,
total bewilderment that such a spur-of-the-moment trifle
drew so much adulation.
But you’ll never hear that kind of talk from either side of the table about
Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. It was and continues to be one of the
most astonishing, multilayered pieces of music a single pair of hands
can conjure from a keyboard. Correspondingly it’s also quite likely the most
technically demanding in the standard repertoire.
YouTube video of its first movement played by Valentina Lisitsa
(whose parents originally intended for her to be a
You can interpret the title as Treasure guardian of the night.
The piece describes a water sprite in a tale by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, a hanged
man illuminated by the setting sun, and a gnome menacing someone in a
dark room as they try to sleep.
In his book Mind Over Matters, Mystery Science Theater 3000
writer Michael J. Nelson shares his wry fantasies about being a
popular college professor who rides to work on a reclining bicycle and,
when the mood strikes him, inspires his protégés to ever greater
transcendental heights with his own highly personal interpretations
Flora & Fauna
Treasure & Splendor