Do Stradivari’s instruments deserve their reputation?by Vanora Bennett / August 21, 2013 / Leave a comment
The “Lady Blunt” Stradivarius, made in 1721, and sold for £10m in 2011. (© Tarisio)
I’ve been making a violin for the past couple of years. So as soon as I heard about the Ashmolean Museum’s recent exhibition of stringed instruments by Antonio Stradivari, the most celebrated luthier of all time, I was off to Oxford to pay my respects to the master.
I wasn’t surprised by the near-religious silence of the room in which 20 of the greatest instruments in the world, each worth millions, were displayed. To music lovers, Stradivari—often Latinised to Stradivarius—is a sacred name, and the violins and cellos he made, known affectionately as “Strads,” are treasured beyond all others. The forms he created in his mid-life golden period are still the model for most violins today.
“His instruments are uniquely wonderful,” British cellist Steven Isserlis told me, while in the exhibition catalogue Canadian violinist James Ehnes wrote: “For the last two centuries, an overwhelming majority of the great violinists have determined that it is the instruments of Antonio Stradivari that give them the ability to express the beauty and passion of music that are closest to their ideals.”
This overlap between Strads and the most famous players in a centuries-old musical tradition means that the instruments are not just extraordinarily beautiful (Stradivari is thought to have trained as a woodcarver) and technically brilliant (he experimented endlessly to improve the quality of sound) but are also the stuff of performance legend. Today there are over 600 surviving Strads and each one is named—sometimes with a worshipful-sounding honorific (“La Pucelle” for its virginal perfection), sometimes for past collectors, but often in remembrance of a past owner who was also a star among performers: the “Viotti ex-Bruce” or the “Kreisler.” Reverence for the instruments is fused with reverence for the masters who have played them, something of whose genius, as violinist Yehudi Menuhin had it, may have rubbed off: “A great violin’s… wood stores the history, or the soul, of its successive owners.”
After all that reverence, however, it was a relief to leave the Ashmolean’s inner sanctum for the more down-to-earth outer room. Here one display case had a how-to guide to carving a violin, from chunks of maple and spruce right through to varnish, and another showed Stradivari’s (pretty basic) woodworking tools, moulds and sketches. In a corner was a mocked-up luthier’s workshop, very like the one I work in with dozens of other amateurs: a scarred workbench, chisels and gouges on the walls, a pot of horse-glue bubbling and half-finished bits of work everywhere.
It was the idea of that alchemical transformation—that, just by working wood, you could create a musical voice—that made me want to make a violin. Yet, despite a childhood playing and an adulthood listening to violin music, it took me years to pluck up the courage to try. Even when I did, I still half-expected to be confronted with secrets: impossible techniques, impenetrable mystique.
So I was astonished, when I got going, to realise how toy-like and insubstantial a violin actually is—like a balsawood plane, its sides only a millimetre thick, strengthened with skinny lining strips and held together with weak glue.
The technique for making one is remarkably simple. Your starter pack contains some thin strips of hard wood to make the sides; a thick rectangular block of hard wood for the neck and scroll (the decorative s-shaped bit at the top); two wedges of hard wood, usually maple, which will be glued together to become the back of your violin; and two wedges of soft spruce for the front, as light and splintery as supermarket crates. The idea is that the violin front works like the membrane of a drum—thin, responsive, and really just there to vibrate—while the back and sides are like the drum’s solid supporting body.
The act of making gradually strips away all remaining mystery. You take a flat mould cut to the shape of your future violin (most are Strad shapes), bend the thin strips to match its curves and glue them round the sides. You carve out the slopes of the back and front plates and the scroll. Then you assemble them. There are no esoteric techniques—just infinite care, sore fingers, respect for tools, patterns and measurements, and trust for the teacher.
It feels natural to anthropomorphise the product of this labour of love. A violin is even shaped like a human body, and its parts named accordingly: neck, ribs, shoulders. When someone in the workshop picks up a finished violin to play it for the first time, everyone goes quiet. “We’re about to witness a birth,” someone more experienced whispered to me, my first time.
However afraid you are that your lack of expertise will damage the tiny shape before you, and although you do inevitably go wrong, there is, reassuringly, almost always a way to put things right. There’s glue and sawdust, or a revised shape, to take in the mistake. As in DW Winnicott’s notion of “good enough” parenting, wood forgives.
Remembering that made it endearing to see, at the Ashmolean, that Strads also have their tiny visible imperfections: wonky sound holes, lopsided scrolls. So do many other prized instruments made in the 17th and 18th centuries in Cremona, Stradivari’s home town—whose fame as Europe’s centre for luthiers began with the Amati family. There’s even a theory that these are what makes their sound so exquisite. Franco Zanini, a scientist at the Elettra Synchrotron Light Laboratory in Italy suggested in 2012 that the asymmetries, patches and imbalances in thickness, revealed by examining a Cremonese violin with high-energy light beams, might have helped get rid of the harsh, unwanted harmonics that make a note sound unpleasant—which, he said, occur more in a perfectly symmetrical instrument such as those made in factories today. His view was that the Cremonese makers might have made their mistakes on purpose, for the sake of a better sound.
There have been many other modern attempts to find technical reasons for the greatness of Strads. Do they resonate differently because of a Little Ice Age that slowed down the growth of the wood Stradivari was using, or because the wood had been soaked in seawater and hardened? Or was there a secret ingredient in the varnish—crushed amber, fruit sugar, volcanic ash? But no science has yet explained the magic.
Strads have not always been considered the greatest violins. In the decades after Stradivari’s death, his instruments were not the most expensive or sought after. The main advance of his technical experimentation was to flatten the curvier front and back arches that his predecessors, the Amati family, preferred. That gave his violins a more powerful tone. But it was only in the 19th century, with the emergence of the violin as a solo instrument played in big halls, and of Romantic-era star soloists including Viotti, Lipinski and Paganini, that stringed instruments began to need the power in Stradivari’s design.
Later developments consolidated the Strad’s position at the top. The rise of the concert soloist was followed, as more Europeans moved into cities, by the rise of the amateur orchestra, an explosion in demand for new instruments and a steep increase in prices for the more glamorous old ones. This encouraged energetic myth-making by a new breed of dealers, led by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, who himself owned and sold dozens of Strads. His more questionable activities—which include passing off his own copies of Strads as the real thing—may have raised the question of when a violin was a fiddle, but he certainly established Strads as the instrument every top musician should aspire to play. In the 20th century, as Americans came to the instrument market, the potential number of buyers rose, and, since 1945, the market for Strads has grown further as Asian collectors have joined the throng.
Amidst the adulation, the uncomfortable question is sometimes asked: are Strads really the greatest instruments? Tests such as a 2010 “blind hearing” at the Eighth International Violin Competition of Indianapolis raise doubts. The 21 professional violinists who took part ranked one violin their least favourite of the six being played. It turned out to be the only Strad. Toby Faber’s book, Stradivarius: One Cello, Five Violins and a Genius, raises questions: have at least some of Stradivari’s masterpieces been so overworked in the 20th century—exposed to the sharp temperature changes of quick global travel, the brutal pull of modern steel strings, and centuries of use—that they’ve worn out and lost their voice? “Some are sad, damaged ghosts of what they must have been, and a few, frankly, just don’t sound as great as one might hope, and probably never did,” violinist James Ehnes says. Yet, as a player of Strads, he still feels the magic: “Never have I come across a Stradivari violin that did not have something special, something beautiful, somewhere in the sound.”
I have a different kind of scepticism, originating in the unstoppable rise of art prices which means that Strads, no less than Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, have far outstripped the buying power of musicians. In 2011, the nonprofit Nippon Foundation sold the 1721 “Lady Blunt” Strad for £10m. Some instruments in private collections or museums are lent to gifted musicians. But others lie untouched. As they are redefined as part of the luxury goods market—art investments made of wood, valued for their value rather than their sound—these artefacts stop being, in any real sense, “instruments” for making music. The 19th-century virtuoso Niccolò Paganini once said that Stradivari made violins from trees nightingales sang in. Stradivari’s nightingales, caged by well-meaning collectors, have been silenced, and his magic undone.
The amateur violin I’m making, in a cluttered workshop full of aproned people talking about local orchestras while trying to carve the perfect curve, will never look or sound as beautiful as a Strad. It may turn out more blackbird than nightingale. It might even be a crow. But my efforts will, at least, give some bits of wood a voice. And that voice will be used as every maker, from Stradivari down, always intended for the instruments they’ve brought into the world: to sing.