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Heavenly Strings

For Centuries, Experts Have Struggled--Unsuccessfully--To Duplicate the Perfection of Antonio Stradivari's Violins
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

To evoke the wonders of what transpires when a bow touches the strings of a Stradivari violin, musicians speak of the sound and tone in terms of light and dark; of color, texture, and emotion; of electricity, taste and temperament. And they speak of magic and mystery--especially mystery--for of Antonio Stradivari and his instruments, much remains unknown.

There is mystery about Stradivari's parents, birthplace, upbringing and physical appearance. There is mystery about when he was born and where his bones are buried. There is mystery about his materials and methods; about how he achieved the special qualities for which his instruments are celebrated. There is mystery about how many of them he made--and more important, how many survive. There is the mystery of where most of his creations spent their first eight or 10 decades, of the identities of the original owners who cherished Stradivari's handiwork for a century or more after his death.

The central mystery, of course, is that of genius--of how a semiliterate boy in Cremona, a tiny northern Italian city renowned for its musical craftsmanship, could have emerged as the greatest violin maker of all time. He was an artist of such skill, sensitivity and insight that his name has become a byword for the best, a superlative applied to designate excellence. To be dubbed "the Stradivari" of any field is to be deemed the finest there is.

"There's a very good analogy between, say, a Strad violin and a fine Cuban cigar, as opposed to an ordinary violin and an ordinary cigar," observes Earl Carlyss, head of chamber music at The Johns Hopkins University Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore for the past nine years, and for 20 years before that a member of New York's Juilliard String Quartet and a frequent player of Stradivari violins.

"You can make all kinds of analogies," says Carlyss. "Why would a person spend $150,000 for a Ferrari when he could get from A to B with a Pinto? It's the way you get there."

One could buy a number of Ferraris for what a Stradivari commands. Prices start at between $200,000 to $800,000 and have soared in recent years to as much as $3.5 million an instrument, depending upon its age, condition and history. And the history of some Strads is the stuff of romance; of fabled performers who played them; of disappearances, thefts and miraculous escapes from war, fire and flood; of sounds that have inspired poets and novelists, from George Eliot and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the last century to the late Pulitzer Prize winner John Hersey and Prix de Rome winner Daniel Mark Epstein in ours.

Wealthy amateurs and collectors may own more Strads than professional performers. In 1981, an anonymous private collector in Singapore paid $1.2 million for the magnificent "Alard" Stradivari, named for its most famous owner, Jean-Delphin Alard, a distinguished French violinist of the nineteenth century. Since the approximate weight of a violin is just a pound, that collector spent about $75,000 an ounce for his prize. He probably could quadruple his money if he put the Alard up for sale today. Most concert performers cannot afford a Strad and must rely on the kindness of strangers--or more precisely, generous patrons of the arts or large corporations--for the privilege of playing them. Midori, the Japanese prodigy, has played a famous Strad known as The Jupiter, courtesy of the Fuji film and camera company, which paid $3.5 million for it a few years ago and loans it to her. If Fuji ever decided to sell "The Jupiter," it probably would fetch $4.5 to $5 million.

Apart from the phenomenal beauty and precision of Stradivari's instruments, what has assured their enduring superiority more than two and a half centuries since his death is a quality even more prized today than it was when he made them: their power. The finest of Stradivari's predecessors, and most of his contemporaries, produced smaller instruments with fairly high curved or arching backs that produced beautiful but thin tones, suitable for the church services or small chamber music ensembles that entertained the nobles who were their patrons.

With astounding prescience, Stradivari recognized that in time, greater demands for volume and sonority would be made upon the violin. Somehow he foresaw, if not precisely the symphonies and orchestras of the late eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, then at least the likelihood that music was moving in that direction. Through constant experimentation--varying by a fraction of an inch the arching of one instrument's back, another's length, the overall dimensions of yet another--he created what Dutch scholar Dirk J. Balfoort called "the violin of the future," capable of producing not only delicate, sweet sounds but powerful, crystalline tones, strong and clear enough to perform brilliantly with the orchestras of today.

Had it not been for Stradivari, Balfoort wrote a half century ago, "the violin would have become the victim of tradition, because it would in the long run have ceased to be able to adapt itself to the requirements of the times." Thanks to Stradivari, the violin has been able to remain "the Queen of musical instruments."

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