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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 8)

An even more astonishing story of the loss and recovery of a Strad involves the "Red Diamond," a 1732 violin that radiates a special glow due to the extraordinary ruby-colored varnish Stradivari had applied to it.

On Jan. 16, 1953, as a violent rainstorm pelted Los Angeles, Sascha Jacobsen, concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, was driving along the coastal highway to Pacific Palisades, the Red Diamond in its case beside him. His car stalled near Santa Monica and water from an overflowing stream began to surround the vehicle and fill it up. Seeking to escape the flood, Jacobsen grasped his violin case, stepped from the car into the rising waters and struggled through the torrent to higher ground. The Red Diamond was swept from his arms and out to sea as he barely made his way to safety. He watched, helpless, as the violin case floated away.

The next day, a prominent Los Angeles attorney, Frederick H. Sturdy, was walking along the beach of the Bel Air country club and spotted a violin case stuck in the sand. Inside the case he found slime, sand, water--and the pieces of a violin. By amazing coincidence, Sturdy was a friend of Alfred Wallenstein, music director of the Philharmonic. When he learned the following day of Jacobsen's disaster and the loss of the Red Diamond, Sturdy immediately contacted Wallenstein. Identified as the lost Strad, the salt water-logged and sand-encrusted violin parts were entrusted to Hans Weisshaar, an outstanding luthier. Over the next nine months, Weisshaar painstakingly restored the violin, returning it to its "former glory...both in tone and appearance," Jacobsen later wrote in appreciation. He told friends the Red Diamond sounded "better than ever."

In 1971, a few years after Jacobsen's death, the Red Diamond was sold at auction by Sotheby's in London for $67,600--far more than it was insured for at the time of its ocean ordeal. The violin was put on the auction block by Sotheby's again in 1985, with an asking price of more than $1 million, but was not sold at that time. A few years later, an anonymous collector purchased it privately for an undisclosed sum--surely paying as much for the magic of its reincarnation as for its other exemplary attributes.

Clearly, more miracles are associated with Stradivari instruments than simply those of their enduring beauty and tone.

With the number of Strads so limited and their prices so astronomical, musicians who cannot afford them or lack wealthy patrons must look elsewhere for their instruments. The sources are many and the quality of the violins, violas and cellos is excellent. In this century, the late Simone Fernando Sacconi, once with the Emil Herrmann Co. of Manhattan, was considered perhaps the greatest contemporary violin maker; other respected modern violin-makers include Isaak Vigdorchik, Luiz Bellini, Helmuth Keller and Leandro Bisiach Jr., who produce (or have produced) instruments that are justly praised for their craftsmanship and sound. Perhaps they are making the Strads of the twenty-second century.

Nevertheless, none of these latter-day luthiers can hope to recreate what Stradivari wrought nearly 300 years ago, even if they possess immense skills, use the choicest woods, the finest varnish, and precisely copy the dimensions and details of his instruments. As William Dana Orcutt writes in the Library of Congress' 1938 publication The Stradivari Memorial: "What other makers lack is simply that something which cannot be imitated, which cannot be analyzed, which cannot be explained--that gift of consummate genius which delivers its message to the world through the finger-tips of those few children of God anointed among their fellows as chosen for that purpose."

-Neil Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist and the author of Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber (University of Nebraska Press).

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