In The Italian Alps, Stradivari's Trees Live On

Dec 9, 2014
Originally published on January 6, 2015 6:05 pm

Antonio Stradivari, the master violin maker whose instruments sell for millions of dollars today, has been dead for nearly three centuries. Only 650 of his instruments are estimated to survive.

But the forest where the luthier got his lumber is alive and well. And thanks to the surprising teamwork of modern instrument makers and forest rangers, Stradivari's trees are doing better than ever.

These spruce trees have been growing for hundreds of years in the Fiemme Valley, the same corner of the Italian Alps where Renaissance luthiers such as Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati hand-picked the trees that would be turned into some of the world's finest instruments. Thanks to a serendipitous combination of climate and altitude, these have come to be called "Il Bosco Che Suona" — The Musical Woods.

Marcello Mazzucchi, a retired forest ranger with an uncanny knack for spotting timber that's ideal for instruments, walks among the trees, tapping on their trunks.

Mazzucchi's skill has led some to call him "The Tree Whisperer," but he laughs off that nickname. "I'm really more of a tree listener," he says. "I observe, I touch them, sometimes I even hug them. Look carefully and they'll tell you their life story, their traumas, their joys, everything. Such humble creatures."

He goes from trunk to trunk, crossing flawed candidates off his list.

"This one over here was struck by lightning," he says. "Who knows what kind of sound its violin would make?"

Then he finds a contender: "It shoots up perfectly straight. It's very cylindrical. No branches at the bottom. If you ask me, there's a violin trapped inside."

Mazzucchi takes out a manual drill called a borer, and twists it like a corkscrew through the bark. He listens carefully to the knocking sound the borer makes each time it hits a new tree ring.

Pulling out a core sample shaped like a pencil, he concludes the tree is an excellent specimen. A lumberjack chops down trees like this one and carts them to a lumberyard nearby, where the spruce is milled into sections.

Local instrument maker Cecilia Piazzi examines a piece of that milled wood, and declares it "magnificent."

"We use it for making the table — that's the beautiful part on the front of a violin or cello, with the soundholes on the surface," Piazzi says. "Yes, this piece is the right piece. I can tell just by flicking it."

It takes months to complete a single instrument, which can cost over $10,000 — a bargain, when you consider a Stradivarius that came from the same forest can go for over $10 million.

But it's enough to keep this community humming. The Fiemme Valley is one of Italy's most prosperous areas, thanks in large part to these musical woods. And it's going to stay that way because people like the Tree Whisperer take care of it.

"I've felled one million trees in my career," Mazzucchi says. "But in their place, 100 million more have grown up."

Before a tree hits the chopping block, Mazzucchi looks around to see if there are any tiny saplings struggling to grow nearby. If so, removing an adult tree will let more sun in and actually help the babies mature.

Bruno Cosignani, the head of the local forest service, explains that light is the limiting factor on tree growth.

"As soon as a tree falls down, those who were born and suffering in the shadows can start to grow more quickly," he says.

And centuries from now, those trees, too, might become musical instruments.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

No violin maker is more fabled than Antonio Stradivari. Today Stradivari's violins and cellos can sell for millions of dollars at auction thanks to their unparalleled musical qualities and their scarcity. Stradivari has been dead for nearly three centuries. Only 650 of his works are estimated to survive, yet the forest where the master got some of his lumber thrives. And thanks to the surprising teamwork of modern instrument makers and forest rangers, Stradivarius trees are doing better than ever. Christopher Livesay explains.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, BYLINE: Violinist Gil Shaham got a huge break when he was just 17 filling in at the last minute for Itzhak Perlman and playing a borrowed Stradivarius. He eventually bought it and its sound helped establish his career.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIOLIN MUSIC)

LIVESAY: But before it could sound like this it sounded something like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON TREE)

LIVESAY: This is a 300-year-old spruce in the Fiemme Valley, the same corner of the Italian Alps where Renaissance luthiers, such as Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati, handpicked the trees that would be turned into some of the world's finest instruments. Thanks to a serendipitous combination of climate and altitude, these have come to be called Il Bosco Che Suona - The Musical Woods.

MARCELLO MAZZUCHI: (Through translator) Oh, yes, I'd say there's a beautiful violin hiding under your bark.

LIVESAY: The man knocking on and talking to this tree is Marcello Mazzuchi. He's a retired forest ranger with an uncanny knack for spotting timber that's ideal for instruments. It's led some to call him the Tree Whisperer.

MAZZUCHI: (Laughter) (Through translator) I'm really more of a tree listener. I observe. I touch them. Sometimes I even hug them. Trees are our friends. Look carefully and they'll tell you their life story, their traumas, their joys - everything, such humble creatures.

LIVESAY: He leaps from trunk to trunk crossing flawed candidates off his list.

MAZZUCHI: (Through translator) This one over here was struck by lightning. Who knows what kind of sound its violin would make?

LIVESAY: Until he finds a contender.

MAZZUCHI: (Through translator) Look here. This is a truly nice tree. It shoots up perfectly straight. It's very cylindrical, no branches at the bottom. If you ask me, there's a violin trapped inside.

LIVESAY: Here's how he figures it out. Mazzuchi takes out a manual drill called a borer and twists it like a corkscrew through the bark. Every time you hear a knock that's the borer hitting a new ring. Mazzuchi listens carefully and pulls out a core sample shaped like a pencil - an excellent specimen, he concludes.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAW)

LIVESAY: A lumberjack then chops down trees like this one and carts them to a lumberyard, right here in the Fiemme Valley, where the spruce is milled into sections. Local instrument maker Cecilia Piazzi examines a piece.

CECILIA PIAZZI: (Through translator) It's magnificent. We use it for making the table - that's the beautiful part on the front of a violin or cello, with the sound holes on the surface. Yes, this piece is the right piece. I can tell just by flicking it.

LIVESAY: It takes months to complete a single instrument, which can cost over $10,000 - a bargain when you consider a Stradivarius that came from the same forest can go for over $10 million. But it's enough to keep this community humming. The Fiemme Valley is one of Italy's most prosperous areas, thanks in large part to these musical woods. And it's going to stay that way because people like the Tree Whisperer take care of it.

MAZZUCHI: (Through translator) I've felled 1 million trees in my career, but in their place, a hundred million more have grown up.

LIVESAY: Before a tree hits the chopping block, Mazzuchi looks around to see if there are any tiny saplings struggling to grow nearby. If so, removing an adult tree will let more sun in and actually help the babies mature. Bruno Cosignani is the head of the local forest service.

BRUNO COSIGNANI: The light is the limiting factor and as soon as a tree fall down those who were born and suffering in the shadow can start to grow more quickly.

LIVESAY: Chop down a tree only if it will allow more to one day become musical instruments. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.