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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 6)

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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