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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 4)

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.

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