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Heavenly Strings

For Centuries, Experts Have Struggled--Unsuccessfully--To Duplicate the Perfection of Antonio Stradivari's Violins

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Not every Strad is a Strad, so to speak (or every Guarneri a Guarneri, since four other members of his family made violins). Not all of them fetch millions. Of the 700 or so Strads known to exist, only about 50 are concert-quality instruments. The others have various defects--cracks, new backs or bellies, botched repairs by clumsy craftsmen. Practically all have been modified to some extent over the centuries to accommodate a particular violinist or to increase their carrying power: perhaps a longer finger board, a bigger bass bar inside, or a reinforcement of the belly.
Some of the alterations have been made skillfully; others, as the Hills wrote, have been performed "in the most drastic and barbarous manner." Consequently, says Frances Gillham of Christie's in London, the value of Strads fluctuates considerably, depending on these and other factors.
"They're very variable," Gillham says, "and they fall into different categories. The most highly sought-after violins are the ones that fall into what is called Stradivari's 'Golden Period,' from 1700 to the mid-1720s. There are some years that people get particularly excited about. I mean, 1716 is a year when he produced some of his best instruments."
Yet with perhaps only 10 Stradivari instruments on the market at any one time, says Charles Beare of instrument restorers J. & A. Beare Co. of London, even the less desirable Stradivaris cost "not much under half a million dollars."
Some musicians believe Guarneri del Gesù's violins are more powerful than Strads and easier to play because they are less temperamental. Others, while acknowledging the greater effort required to get the best out of a Strad, feel Stradivari's instruments have more versatility of tone.
Robert Mann, founder of the Juilliard Quartet, told an interviewer in 1991 that playing a Strad was like riding a great thoroughbred racehorse. "What a wonderful thing to ride that horse to its fullest potential. But," Mann warned, "it is also a horse that is very taut, that's very supersensitive, overreacts, and can be unstrung easily--more easily than the ordinary horse that just doesn't have those other marvelous qualities.
"That's the way it is with a great Stradivari violin," he continued. "It has great potential, but it also has greater possibilities for disaster, like squeaks, like going out of adjustment. You're on your greatest mettle and have to use your resources to control the instrument. The rewards are great, but it's not an easy task."
The best-known American amateur to own a Strad was the late Jack Benny, who saw tremendous gag possibilities in possessing such a valuable fiddle, given his comedic persona as a vain tightwad who fancied himself a great violinist.
Benny, who studied violin as a child, had made his scratchy playing a running joke for years. In 1955, however, he began taking lessons again at the age of 61 in order to perform in benefit concerts for symphony orchestras and other worthy causes, including the drive to save New York City's Carnegie Hall. His old friend Isaac Stern noted that Benny was a superb sight reader of music who had a good ear and an excellent sense of rhythm, albeit limited abilities at fingering and bowing. On rare occasions, he could pull off a performance that even Stern admitted was astonishing.
In the remaining 18 years of his life, Benny raised more than $5.9 million for charity by performing with symphonies all over the United States and in Canada, England and Israel. Proudly displaying his 1729 Stradivari, for which he had paid $16,000 in 1957, Benny would tell his audience, "It's a real Strad, you know. If it isn't, I'm out one hundred and ten dollars. The reason I got it so cheap is that it's one of the few Strads made in Japan." Or he'd say, "This is a genuine Stradivarius. You can always tell because it has the name of the maker inside. Here it is right here. 'Antonio Stradivari, area code 213.'"
In 1972, two years before he died at the age of 80, Benny wrote that he had been told his Strad had risen in value to $50,000. He wistfully wondered if it would ever be known as the "Benny Strad." Now it is. Bequeathed by Benny to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it easily is worth 10 times what it was when he died--not a bad return for the penny-pincher he portrayed.
During Stradivari's lifetime, the king of Poland was far from his only royal customer. Unlike so many geniuses whose greatness goes unsung while they live, Stradivari was recognized by his contemporaries as the best in the business. In 1682, a Venetian banker, Michele Monzi, ordered a complete set of instruments from Stradivari to present to King James II of England (these Strads, alas, have disappeared); King Charles III of Spain also commissioned Stradivari to make six violins, two violas and one cello for his orchestra, and innumerable aristocrats and high-ranking ecclesiastics throughout Europe were among the deep-pocketed patrons willing to pay top filippo (a silver coin then used in Lombardy) for Stradivari's creations. His prosperity and parsimony were such that a common expression in Cremona then--and today--is that someone is "as rich as Stradivari."
This exalted artisan emerged from humble--indeed, obscure--origins.
Precise facts about Stradivari's life are few. Cremona claims him as a native son, and certainly it is the only place he is known to have lived, but tireless searches by scholars through the city's ancient census lists and musty parish registries, as well as those of the surrounding villages, reveal no record of his birth or baptism, and even raise questions about the identity of his parents.
Like Shakespeare, Stradivari produced many masterpieces, but left behind little personal documentation. His life was his work, and it is largely through his works that scholars have been able to deduce, in Sherlockian fashion, what little is known of his life.
That he was a continually experimenting workaholic and perfectionist is evidenced by the incomparable beauty of his instruments, the precision with which they were put together, the large number he is estimated to have made, and the minute variations in each one.
That he was a poorly educated but savvy businessman is evidenced by the few surviving letters he wrote to patrons. The handwriting is clumsy; the sentences full of errors, omissions, transpositions, and words of Cremonese dialect; yet also replete with expressions that reveal Stradivari to be a surprisingly obsequious tradesman, as probably befitted the period: "I beg you will command me, and kissing your hand, I remain," or "not wishing to weary you further, and kissing your hands and making obeisance."
That he was close with a lira can be deduced not only from his persistent use of all-purpose, sometimes typographically flawed labels, but from his quibbling over the expenses for his first wife's funeral ("Deducted altogether 8 lira from the present bill," he wrote at the bottom of it), and the fact that at the age of 85, he had no qualms about buying a used grave to serve as his own--and even appropriated its original owner's tombstone. He simply had the previous family's name and coat-of-arms partially effaced and his own name carved on it.
That he desired female companionship is shown by the fact that he waited little more than a year after the death of his wife of three decades to get married again--to a woman 20 years his junior. He fathered 11 children, two daughters and nine sons, two of whom, Francesco (1671-1743) and Omobono (1679-1742), also became violin makers but left little of their own work to posterity.
When he died on Dec. 18, 1737, Stradivari was interred in one of the small chapels in the Church of San Domenico, across the plaza from his home, in the plot he had purchased from the descendant of a family of minor Cremonese nobles. By 1869, the church had fallen into such disrepair that it was demolished. Whatever bones were found in its crypts, presumably including Stradivari's, were gathered up in a jumble and dumped in an unmarked plot outside the city, thus rendering his final resting place unknown.
Stradivari's narrow three-story house, with its rooftop seccadour, or flat terrace, where he had hung his newly varnished violins to dry, remained intact until 1888. Then it was converted into a cafe and billiard parlor. It was torn down in the 1920s. Cremona, which remains a center of violin making, has sought to make amends for these indignities by naming a major thoroughfare for Stradivari, proudly preserving one of his wonderful violins and a few meager artifacts from his workshop in city museums, and holding an annual violin festival.
Without actual documentation, the generally accepted birthdate for Stradivari is 1644. The Hills deduced this from the fact that during the last decade of his life, Stradivari evidenced pride in his vigorous longevity by stating his age on some of the labels he inserted inside his violins. The first time he probably did this, in 1727, he wrote on a label that the instrument was "d'anni 83," or made during his 83rd year, and all subsequent notations of this sort point to 1644 as the year he was born.
It is these small labels, most of them pasted on the inside of the instruments' backs, directly under the f-hole, to which are attributed the first documentary evidence of Stradivari's presence in Cremona, his training, and some of his personal characteristics. The Hills once saw a 1666 label on which Stradivari identified himself as an "Alumnus Nicolai Amati," or as a pupil of the celebrated Niccolò Amati (1596-1684), whose fame as a master violin maker he soon would surpass. Since children between the ages of 12 and 14 usually were apprenticed to such masters, the Hills deduced that Stradivari's parents (whoever they were) handed him over to Amati between 1656 and 1658. The 1666 label is the only one on which Stradivari ever associated himself with Amati, and as to how--or even if--the young Stradivari ever demonstrated an interest in violin making, nothing is known.
Between 1660 and 1665, however, when Stradivari was 16 to 21, he had his own labels printed, evidently having so excelled as a pupil in just a few years that he was ready to seek patrons and sell violins on his own. Yet, since few Strads from the 1660s and 1670s survive, it is presumed Stradivari probably remained an employee of Amati for nearly 20 years, striking out entirely on his own only after his teacher died in 1684 at the age of 88.
Stradivari's parsimony in using all-purpose labels has bedeviled collectors for centuries. When he started out, he shortsightedly listed the date of manufacture as "166_," to which he would add the appropriate year of the decade in ink; in the 1670s and 1680s, he simply scratched out the second "6" and wrote "7" or "8" over it. Even though he had new labels printed in 1690, he continued to use the "166_" labels as long as they lasted, simply changing the last "6" to a "9." When he did use the new 1690s labels he did so even though the printer botched up his first name, "Antonius" on some of them, putting in the "u" upside down so it read "Antonins." Once the eighteenth century dawned, he had new labels printed that simply said, "1___," and then filled in the rest by hand.
Stradivari's blithe tampering with his labels unfortunately made it easier for unscrupulous dealers to later alter genuine labels to make it appear as if certain violins had been made during supposedly more favorable periods of Stradivari's long career.
As he aged, Stradivari seemed to grow increasingly productive. His violins took on a broader, more substantial appearance and the colors of his varnish darkened. Only toward the very end of his life did Stradivari's work begin to betray his years. Shakily carved sound holes and irregular purfling show that his hands were beginning to tremble. (Purfling refers to the thin strips of dyed maple inlay just inside the rims of the belly and back, used to supply lovely accents to the instrument's appearance and, more important, to protect the outer edges from splintering as the violin vibrates.) Failing eyesight is evidenced in the placement of one f-hole 1/16th of an inch higher than the other on a 1736 violin, made when he was about 92. Sandpaper marks are clearly visible on another 1736 fiddle. But only his powers of physical dexterity had declined. His principles of form and construction remained undiminished.
For Stradivari, each violin offered an opportunity for experimentation, however slight. The arching under the bridge and on the back was always different, if only minutely; the thickness of the f-hole swirl would be altered, as would the shapes of the C-curves, the bigger bouts, and the sides and corners. Once all 78 or so parts of the instrument were assembled, they combined to give each violin, viola or cello a unique voice, "never to be matched, any more than a given diva's lovely singing can ever be heard from anyone else's throat," wrote John Hersey in his 1991 novel, Antonietta, which told the tale of the travels of a fictional Strad.
Similarly unique is each Stradivari's outward appearance, due in no small measure to the waves of the wood's grain and its age rings. Minute variations also can be seen in the points and design of the purfling. And there is uniqueness in what Hersey called "the only part of the violin that will contribute nothing to its sound but will make its appeal to the eye alone: the head on the end of...[the] neck."
"If a violin is to be a work of art," wrote Hersey, "it must have sensual bouts, a stunning back, perfect purfling, and, above all, a head with an exactly symmetrical scroll that dares to challenge the ingenuity of God's own designs: the snail's helix, the whorls of a fingertip, the poised lips of breaking waves, the glowing swirls at the shoulders of thunderheads in summertime--and, more to the point, the delicate convolutions of all the human ears that will listen, one day, to the finished violin's song."
Although Stradivari was widely renowned as a violin maker during his lifetime, his instruments were not the most popular with many musicians of the period. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the majority of professional and amateur violin players preferred the higher tone produced by the violins of Niccolò Amati or the Austrian violin maker Jakob Stainer.
"There exists a letter to Mozart from his father, who advised his son to purchase a Stainer or an Amati violin, not a Strad, because a Strad is 'strident,'" says René Morel, one of the world's top Strad dealers.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, the flexible, yet incisive; powerful, yet clear tone of a Stradivari violin was found to be ideal for either the intimacy of the chamber music salon or the vastness of an orchestra's auditorium. His status as the supreme violin maker was at last assured--and the demand for his instruments, as well as their romance and mystery, then tenaciously took hold.
Virtually all of the Strads now have names attached to them during the nineteenth century or later. On the rare occasions when the original owner was known, the moniker alluded to that individual, such as the "Tuscan," made in 1690 for Cosimo de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Often the name is that of a famous musician who once owned the instrument, a royal or mythical title denoting its superiority, or a combination of both. Hence the "Hercules Ysaÿe," a 1732 Strad that was simply known as the Hercules until it became the pride and joy of Eugenè Ysaÿe (1858-1931), a famous Belgian violinist. Frequently the lineage of a Strad's ownership can be traced back 175 years--but rarely more than that.
No finer example of the murky origins of some celebrated Strads can be cited than the case of the "Betts," which turned up out of nowhere in 1820. A poorly dressed man is said to have entered the store of Arthur Betts, a violin maker in London, and offered him what initially was thought to be an imitation Stradivari, so pristine was its condition. Betts bought it for little more than a pound sterling, and then was astonished upon closer examination to find that it was a genuine Strad, made in 1704. The history of the violin prior to 1820 remains unknown. After considerable peregrinations about Europe and the United States, the instrument was purchased by Gertrude Littlefield Clarice Whittall, a wealthy widow and doyenne of Washington, D.C., society, who donated it and four other Stradivari instruments to the Library of Congress in the mid-1930s. There the Betts and its siblings have delighted audiences at annual concerts ever since.
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