According to "The Book of Days," Robert Chambers's best-selling 19th-century compendium, this Monday is the anniversary of a milestone in industrial espionage: the arrival of two Persian monks in Constantinople with a gift for the emperor Justinian — silkworms and their eggs, smuggled out of Asia in hollow bamboo canes. Chambers's date (Jan. 4, 536) is wrong: Historians had long since settled on a year sometime in the 550s; the oddly specific day apparently originated with Chambers himself. Even the story, first recorded by Justinian's contemporary Procopius, has sometimes been dismissed as a too simplistic (or romantic) explanation for the advance of silk cultivation. Still, however it arrived, silk technology changed the late Roman empire from a consumer to a producer, transforming economic and political history.
The extent to which it did or didn't transform musical history is a minor mystery. In China, the cradle of silk production, bowed and plucked musical instruments — the pipa, the erhu, the yangqin — were strung with silk. But the European preference was for gut strings, made from animal intestines scraped, stretched, chemically bleached, and twisted into strands.
But the divide was, maybe, not so absolute. For instance, the oud, an Arabic lute, was often strung with both gut and silk, a practice possibly adopted by European lute players as well. (John Downing, a Canadian luthier, has noted that many otherwise-enigmatic Renaissance names for particular kinds of lute strings can be read as referring to European centers of silk production.) And increasing interest in ancient music led other Europeans back to silk, beginning with Giovanni Battista Doni, who used it to string his 17th-century reconstructions of Greek lyres — inspired, perhaps (as scholar Patrizio Barbieri has surmised), by his friend Pietro Della Valle, a composer and traveler who ventured as far east as India.
Silk strings gained a foothold in Western classical music in the 19th century, earning the recommendation of the indefatigable composer and educator François-Joseph Gossec, whose music is featured on this week's Boston Symphony Orchestra programs. Nowadays, another industrial innovation is found at the core of most strings: nylon, comparatively cheap and consistently stable.
Gut strings have held on, preferred by some soloists, and practically de rigueur in early-music performance, but they are also expensive — which has prompted an enthusiastic band of experimenters (pioneered by New York-based lutenist Alexander Raykov) to re-create and refine methods of silk string production. As in Justinian's time, commerce and circumstance have put silk back in the spotlight.