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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 3)

Whatever it is that makes a Strad a Strad and merits the enormous prices they fetch can be applied in almost every respect, including current market value, to the violins of Stradivari's contemporary--and, amazingly, next-door neighbor--Guiseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698-1744).

More than 50 years younger than Stradivari, yet neither as productive nor as meticulous, Guiseppe Guarneri (the "del Gesù" stems from a symbol for Jesus he put on his labels) nonetheless created incredible instruments as prized today for their power and expressiveness as Stradivari's finest works.

Guarneri was a member of a violin-making clan whose house was one door down from Stradivari's on Cremona's Piazza San Domenico. Between Stradivari and Guarneri lived Carlo Bergonzi, Stradivari's best pupil, whose violins also command high prices today. It was as if Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael all lived on the same block.

Down the street and around the corner in one direction lived Niccolò Amati, Stradivari's teacher; around the corner in another direction lived Francesco Ruggieri, yet another notable luthier. Stradivari and Guarneri were the megastars in a galaxy of superlative seventeenth and eighteenth century violin makers, whose serendipitous residence in Cremona has given the name Cremonese to all the stringed instruments produced in that time and place.

Itzhak Perlman, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Yo-Yo Ma, Anne Sophie Mutter, Midori, and Joseph Fuchs, at 95 the oldest professional concert violinist in the world, play Strads (although Menuhin also owns a del Gesù); Jascha Heifetz preferred del Gesù, as do Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman (even though Stern, as did Heifetz, also owns a Strad). With only about 250 to 370 del Gesù violins known to exist (or about half the number of Strads), the best of them fetch as much as any Stradivari.

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.

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