How a Medieval Tree Helped Debunk a Famous Instrument’s Identity


Trees are pretty stunning things, and they date back a good many years. Trees provide us with oxygen, paper, amber, and many other things. And they are also some of the oldest things in the world – we can even use wood for carving and making things. One of the most amazing things that we can take from trees are classic musical instruments.

There is one instrument, in particular, a famed double bass, that is actually the result of one of the oldest trees ever. In fact, the origin of the instrument, and what we know about it is very different to what we thought, based on the discovery. Check out this wonderful story below, and learn all about how the famous instrument was created.

The instrument

The musical instrument we’re talking about here is a famous double bass known as the Karr-Koussevitzky Bass. The story goes that in the early 1960s, a young, talented bassist called Gary Kerr made his debut at New York City’s Town Hall. Playing with his eyes shut, he perfectly played sonatas by Bach and Schubert. Unbeknownst to Kerr, in the audience, a woman was watching his performance in awe.

Olga Koussevitzky

The woman watching was none other than Olga Koussevitzky, the widow of legendary double bass player, Serge Koussevitzky. He was once the director of Boston Symphony Orchestra, and one of the greatest bass players who ever lived. Olga swore that night, she saw the ghost of her husband embrace Kerr during his performance. This revelation led her to gift him her husband’s legendary double bass. After retiring from performing in 2004, Kerr had the instrument appraised, and found out something surprising.

The discovery

A team of experts was tasked with appraising the instrument and concluded it was not what Kerr had thought. He originally imagined the instrument had been made by the legendary Amati brothers, contemporaries of the famed Antonio Stradivari. But, these experts concluded that it wasn’t made by the brothers and that its characteristics were more fitting with instruments made in 1800s France, and this would give it a lower value.

The clue lies in the tree

So, the tree scientists (dendrochronologists) came in and analyzed the rings in the wood of the bass. After comparisons to tree-ring chronologies from European species of tree, they found that the rings dated between 1445 and 1761, meaning the tree had been harvested about 1770. It was also thought that the tree came from an alpine region of Austria, and was crafted by an Austrian instrument maker in the 18th Century.

Though the origins of the instrument are not what Kerr, and, indeed, many experts, imagined it to be, it is still a revered and famed instrument. The value of the instrument has got to be insurmountable these days, but it’s a shame it wasn’t an Amati original. Still, it’s pretty amazing that the story of this double bass could have been found out simply by studying tree rings.