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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

(continued from page 1)

"Strad was the one who finished the form of the instrument," says Carlyss. "It has never changed since Strad's ended with him. You couldn't improve on what he did.

"A great Strad allows you to express yourself on every level," Carlyss adds. "It has a range of possible expressiveness within it that allows the person to be totally at ease with what he wants to say with the music. I mean, you're dealing with colors, you're dealing with sounds and you're dealing with emotions. And the music has all these emotions going on with it. A Strad has the ability to translate the emotions aurally to perfection--the performer's emotions. And there's something about the sound that grabs the listener. A Strad is a Strad."

In 1902, the brothers Hill--William Henry, Arthur Frederick, and Alfred Ebsworth, scions of a British family that had been in the stringed instrument business for nearly 300 years--produced what remains the benchmark for Stradivari scholarship, Antonio Stradivari: His Life & Work (1644-1737). Expert luthiers (stringed instrument makers), restorers and dealers themselves, the Hills were uniquely qualified to write such a book. Having spent more than a half century selling rare instruments when such a trade was even more confined than it is today, they personally were familiar with virtually every Stradivari instrument then known to exist: 540 violins, 12 violas, 50 cellos--and two guitars.

Since the Hills, other experts have attributed additional instruments to Stradivari, who employed the Latinized version of his name, Antonius Stradivarius, on his labels. (Scholars use either spelling interchangeably.) Thus the accounting of existing Strads has been inching upward toward 700 or so, a number about which collectors and dealers politely debate. Because the sales of many Strads are conducted privately between a few discreet dealers and well-heeled collectors, the exact number of his surviving instruments is almost impossible to determine.

The Hills meticulously estimated that Stradivari made 1,116 stringed instruments during an extraordinary career that spanned seven decades, from about 1665, when he was 21, to the year he died at the age of 92 or 93. He was, they wrote, "an expeditious worker," with tremendous "industry and devotion to his art." They calculated that he was able to complete at least two violins or one cello a month, or an average of 25 violins or 10 cellos a year--and sometimes many more. In 1715, when Stradivari was 71, the king of Poland ordered 12 violins from him and sent his director of court music to Cremona to await completion of the instruments. The king received all 12 in three months.

An aged violinist who died in 1853 told one scholar that his teacher had known Stradivari and described him as "tall and thin in appearance, and invariably seen in his working costume, which rarely changed, as he was always at work." It is the only remotely contemporary physical description of Stradivari that we have.

What, exactly, is it that makes "a Strad a Strad"?

Talk to any expert and take your pick:

Is it the varnish? Yes, definitely, say some; it contained secret lost ingredients and Stradivari took its recipe to his grave. No, say others; the formula for the oil-based varnish Stradivari used was common knowledge among violin makers when he lived and has been chemically analyzed to a fare-thee-well today.

The filler or sealer? (See above answers for varnish.)

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