Letters: Stradivarius violins

Stradivarius and why old violins are better than new

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In your article "Solved: the mystery of why Stradivarius violins are best" (2 July) you report research showing that old instruments differ in density from new ones, but this shows no evidence for why Stradivari's violins are better than others. It is reasonable to suggest that other old violins would show similar wood density while being inferior in tonal quality.

Nevertheless the researchers appear to have found a modern scientific explanation for a long-held understanding by instrument makers and musicians that old instruments sound better than new. The earliest record of this observation that I am aware of is by Sir Francis Bacon in Silva Silvarum published posthumously in 1628, where he writes that "by reason . . . of the Wood or String of the instrument, which is made more crisp, and so more porous and hollow, and we see that Old Lutes sound better than New."

In an undated manuscript of the mid- 1630s the courtier Sir Francis Kynaston wrote that "an excellent Chymist" had reported a chemical method to simulate ageing wood for musical instruments so that "the wood will become as light & drie & as well seasoned as if it had been cut a hundred years". Correspondence survives between the astronomer Galileo Galilei and his pupil Fulgentus Micanzio concerning procuring a violin from Cremona in 1637-38, in which it is revealed that a new Cremonese violin of "exquisite work"cost 12 ducats but "an old one of superlative merit" was offered for 15 ducats.

Among other attempts by violin makers to increase the prestige of their instruments, in the 1790s Vincenzo Panormo, an Italian who worked in Paris, London and Dublin, is reputed to have used maple from an old billiard table to make his instruments, and in the 1850s Giuseppe Rocca is said to have used maple salvaged from an old bridge in Turin.

Although instruments by such makers are now highly prized, none compare with Stradivari's work. Therefore, although this research has confirmed ideas that were known within the scientific community as early as 1628 concerning the differences between old and new wood, unless the sample can be shown to differ against antique violins by other makers, it is sadly another of countless red-herrings in the quest to uncover the secrets of Stradivari's violins.

Benjamin Hebbert

St Cross College, University of Oxford

Eco-towns could be just green fudge

This Government has been party to the destruction of country towns and villages, turning them into mere dormitories. Community schools, post offices, shops, and playing fields have been shut and replaced with out-of-town supermarkets, leading to a complete reliance on millions of motor cars. How can we then trust the same government that eco-towns (The Big Question, 1 July) are going to be socially and environmentally any better, especially as geographically they have no raison d'etre?

One can accept that the individual houses of the eco-town will have good carbon-dioxide footprints, but without a proper debate as to the planning of these units within the whole town, for example a discussion of the pros and cons of the Georgian terrace, Medieval high streets, the Japanese suburbs, Dutch cycle ways, German railways, tram systems, and the relationship to agriculture, we will just lurch into another unintelligent contribution to global warming.

Nicholas Wood RIBA FRGS

London NW3

The Big Question asks how green are eco-towns in reality, and points out that in the wrong location transport impact may outweigh savings achieved through energy efficiency and water conservation measures. Unfortunately, even to reduce energy and water use substantially is a major challenge where, other than a handful of demonstration projects, we have few if any successful mainstream examples.

The reason is simple: cost. Research by Savills, by BRE on behalf of the NHBC Foundation, and at Heriot-Watt University, as well as low-energy kit houses by the ruralZED consortium that you featured on 28 February 2008, all show that build-costs are likely to be up to 50 per cent higher than conventional homes, if we are to make the step change improvement on current performance that is needed.

Who will pay? Will consumers carry these extra costs through their mortgages? Will developers absorb them? Will there be government subsidies? Will land values reduce so that selling prices of eco-homes are similar to current norms?

Or will there be a fudge - will developers, with the connivance of government and local authorities, simply add an extra half-inch of insulation, sprinkler taps and low-energy lights, and call them eco-homes? This last – business as usual but with a green label – would be the worst possible outcome. It's probably the most likely.

Dr Sebastian Macmillan

Consortium ManagerCarbon Reduction in Buildings Consortium (comprising University College London, de Montfort University, and the Universities of Reading, Manchester and Sheffield)Cambridge

Can I presume that the eco-towns will have a post office at least every square kilometre, widespread working payphones and small schools served by nice big playing fields?

Jim Roland

London NW11

Who pays for faith schools?

In criticising Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Karen Rodgers has made two fundamental errors (letter, 3 July).

First, I know of no secularist who suggests parents should be prevented from passing on their religious beliefs to their children. What secularists do say is that parents have no right to demand that taxpayer-funded sectarian schools should do this job for them. It is a matter for the home and place of worship, not for a publicly funded educational institution.

As for her second error, that of quoting Hitler, I have my own favourite Führer quote: "Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith . . . we need believing people." (Speech, 26 April 1933). To paraphrase Ms Rodgers, "chilling words" indeed.

Alistair McBay

National Secular Society, London WC1

The public education budget should be spent on informing children, helping them develop their own moral values, teaching them to think critically and to discover knowledge for themselves. They can later make the choice of which faith to adopt, if any.

Grooming children, at a young, impressionable age, to accept as true those beliefs that can be verified only by personal revelation is quite wrong. But while it remains legal, let it be paid for wholly by the parents like Karen Rodgers who demand it, not from the public purse.

Ian Quayle

Fownhope, Herefordshire

How women fail to win equal wages

Johann Hari (30 June) claims we "know" that women's 17 per cent lower pay isn't because of more women choosing lower-paid work more compatible with their family priorities, because women graduates earn less on average than male graduates.

He overlooks the fact that even at graduate level more women choose careers which are lower-paid but more rewarding personally that do male graduates. He also overlooks the studies that demonstrate that the reason women graduates earn less than male ones, even in the same industry, is because the men negotiate and the women don't.

The study by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever published in 2003 showed that almost the entire pay discrepancy in like-for-like jobs was down to the fact that 93 per cent of women graduates accepted the first offer and failed to negotiate, whereas 57 per cent of men asked for, and got, a higher offer. From a higher starting base, the size of the gap in cash terms increased as the men and women got the same average percentage wage increases.

No "gender driven" conspiracy or institutional bias against women in the workplace for equivalent male and female graduates, no matter how much Mr Hari would like it to be the case

Mark Higginbottom

London SW4

Sex trade driven by male demand

The news that 18,000 young women are trafficked as sex slaves into Britain comes, alas, as no surprise (report, 3 July). There is an insatiable demand in our country for paid-for sex. This demand creates its own supply.

Harriet Harman was criticised when she said we need to look at the demand side and make men take responsibility for the plight of sex slaves and most prostituted women. She was attacked by an array of male columnists and there were sniggers from male MPs when the issue was raised in the Commons. But unless demand is curbed women will always be made by men to supply what male "customers" want.

Denis MacShane MP

(Rotherham, Lab) House of Commons

Oppressed minority in Europe's midst

Your article "Plight of the Roma" (27 June) highlights discrimination against Roma people that stretches far outside Italy.

Right across Europe, Roma people suffer massive discrimination in access to housing, employment and education. In some countries they are prevented from obtaining citizenship and personal documents required for social insurance or health care. Roma are often victims of police ill-treatment.

Romani children are placed in "Roma only" schools or "special" schools with a reduced curriculum. This only perpetuates the cycle of poverty and deprivation. If the EU wants to be a real "community of values" it should look closely at how it treats one of the poorest communities in its midst.

Janet Hague

Head of Campaigns, Amnesty International UK, London EC2

Breaking up the energy monoliths

Your article is wrong to state that MEPs' backing for plans to break up Europe's electricity market sets Parliament on a collision course with the European Commission (19 June).

In fact, the Parliament's position is largely in line with that of the Commission, which first called for the "full ownership unbundling" of integrated firms to promote competition and stimulate investment.

Where conflict arises it is with the European Council who, led by the governments in Paris and Berlin – home of Europe's great energy monoliths – agreed a preference for a "third way" that would not require integrated firms to sell their transmission grids.

This means we in the Parliament will need intense negotiations with the Council to ensure a better deal for consumers.

Eluned Morgan MEP

(Labour, Wales), European Parliament rapporteur on electricity, Cardiff

Judges defend our democratic rights

I agree with Lord Justice Sedley that the Government is threatening the independence of the judiciary if judges are to dismiss asylum claims when a false passport is used. The Government is threatening the safety of innocent and resourceful people who are fleeing war, torture and persecution.

It is John Spellar MP (letter, 3 July) who shows an astonishing arrogance is his criticism of a senior judge. We now rely on the judiciary to defend our democratic rights against a government which has introduced increasingly harsh anti-immigration legislation. False travel documents are often the only way for asylum seekers to escape from certain torture or death.

Jo Buchanan

London W6

Briefly...

Unlucky ships

Whatever the wisdom of building two huge aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy, the names are most unfortunate. The last Prince of Wales was sunk by the Japanese and the last Queen Elizabeth by the Italians.

Robert Davies

London SE3

Betrayers of Africa

"Rich nations are 'betraying' Africa"(Front page headline, 3 July). Maybe. And Africa, at least as represented in Sharm el Sheikh this week, is betraying the world, and the poor people of Zimbabwe, by its nauseating respect for Mugabe. How much of Africa's poverty should be blamed on Western failure to pump aid? And how much on corrupt and avaricious governments?

Richard Dawkins

Oxford

Adored teacher

Peter Francis's letter (3 July) about moral panic over paedophilia reminds me of the French documentary Être et Avoir, about a village schoolmaster in the Auvergne. His patience with his pupils was incredible; not once did he need to raise his voice. Clearly he loved them and they adored him. At the end of the last day of the school year, he kissed each of them goodbye. The most natural thing in the world, one might think, but in cold-hearted Britain this would doubtless be classed as assault and the teacher forced to resign.

Nick Chadwick

Oxford

Division of labour

Jane Jakeman (letter, 30 June) puzzles over why there are no male-size Marigolds available for doing the washing up, and asks if this is definitive about the division of household chores. Men see no need for gloves to do the dishes, so no need to buy them. Now, rodding the drains . . . .

Kevin Donnelly

St IVES, Cambridgeshire

Favourite son

Further to Rolf Clayton's letter (1 July) about seeing Mussolini souvenirs on open sale in northern Italy, if any of your readers visit Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, they will find portraits of Stalin on market stalls, and in Josef Djugashvili's hometown of Gori there is a rather grim 30ft statue of the local boy in the main square.

Nick Wray

Derby

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