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…