Violins and endangered species

Global climate change expected to alter our weather, raise sea levels, increase severity of tropical storms and make growing food even more challenging. It might also make finding a good stringed instrument more expensive.

Recently a group of researchers in northern Europe presented a paper at the World Forestry Congress about the effects of climate change on the growth of Norway spruce. If you are a fiddler or a cellist, this is something you might take note of because that is the type of wood used in the best instruments since the seventeenth century when Antonio Stradivarius revolutionized violin making. Most high quality stringed instruments are still made with spruce tops and maple backs and sides.

The researchers studying the Norway spruce forests are finding that the trees are not as strong and do not grow as large as in the past. New insect and disease pests are becoming problems in new places. Finding just the right pieces of wood to make a good sounding instrument is becoming difficult. Although alternative woods and carbon fiber materials are being used, none of them seem to produce the same musical tones as the woods traditionally used.

Not only are the woods used to make the body of a violin or cello becoming scarce, so are the materials used for other parts of the instrument. The fingerboards, tuning pegs and tail pieces of stringed instruments are traditionally made of ebony, another increasingly scarce tree. The nearly black wood has a fine grain that polishes to a high sheen and is strong enough to withstand the pressures of stretched strings.

The scarcity of the woods used in stringed instruments is only half of the problem. The Pernambuco wood used in the very best bows, a species of tree found only in the rain forests of Brazil, has been used nearly to extinction. No other wood has the resonance, grain, springiness, and strength required to make a fine bow. Pernambuco trees have been cut down for timber, burned for charcoal and used as a red dye pigment for centuries. The forests where they grow have been cleared to make way for soybeans, cattle grazing and development. There are hardly any of them left. The world’s bow makers have launched conservation and reforestation programs in an attempt to save their craft.

In the past, bows also contained tortoise shell parts, elephant ivory ornamentation and whale baleen windings. All of these materials are illegal for international trade, an effort to eliminate the trafficking in rare and endangered animal species. All of them, fortunately, have modern plastic or synthetic replacements that work nearly as well. There are some allowances made for antique instruments with whale ivory ornamentation or tortoise shell bow parts, but even so, many musicians have had their old instruments and bows taken from them and have faced hefty fines as they tried to cross borders without proper documentation.

Even a hundred years ago, it was inconceivable to many that so many resources of this planet could be used up. The rain forests seemed to go on forever and grew so fast one could not keep up clearing a path through them. The prairies appeared endless as did the bison which thundered across them. Who would have thought that we could burn enough oil to change the climate of the earth?

We have, however, used up whole forests, fenced off whole prairies, killed off entire species. If one looks down on the earth from an airplane, it is rare to find a place where people have not left a mark. Even Mt. Everest, the world’s highest peak, is littered with the garbage left behind from thousands of climbers seeking to reach its top. Islands of plastic waste float in the middle of the oceans. We have even changed our planet’s climate, possibly unalterably.

Even though we may have the technological and scientific knowledge to solve some of the problems we have created, so far we have not had the political nor the economic will to do so.

Who would have thought that violins could become an endangered species?

Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains