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Three reasons why I went in search of this book: first, I have always been fascinated by the great Cremonese stringed instruments, their rarity, qualities and the unique relationship that their players have with them with its mixture of reason and passion; second, I went to Cremona on holiday last year, and even though it was a bit of an afterthought, the most exciting thing I did there was to visit the workshop of a modern-day liutaio; finally, I have been idly looking for a book on these 17th and 18th century violins, and I had the good fortune to hear Toby Faber, the author of this book, speak on Antonio Stadivari recently. He made me realise how little I actually knew about Stradivari and the tradition in which he emerged, and how much legend and misinformation I had absorbed along the way, for there is certainly plenty to absorb.
This book is a carefully researched, yet popular and readable treatment, and a very good introduction to the subject. It is in the same genre as works such as Dava Sobel’s Longitude, or Eric Siblin’s book on Bach’s Cello Suites that I admired so much – works of non-fiction that nevertheless have a strong narrative structure and drive. The thread running through Stradivarius is an attempt to trace the history and provenance of six of Stradivari’s instruments, so many of which are named for their first, or an early, famous owner. Because they were so highly prized from the outset, it is not impossible to follow the clues that add up to the provenance of a Strad, through the hundreds of thousands of other instruments, to this day.
It is the fact that these instruments carry their history around in their names that is one of the causes of fascination for me. It indicates that for a golden age of around 200 years the instrument makers of Cremona created the stuff of legend, almost from the day their wares left the workshop. Their violins, violas and cellos almost led independent lives of adventure. They disappeared and resurfaced, they became confused with each other, they were copied and recopied, with honest intent to recreate their magic, or to defraud. They are quite, quite wonderful, but not perfect. They really do seem to be alive.
Strads are very rare, but perhaps not so rare as one might think, and certainly the works of other famous liutaios are fewer. Stradivari lived into his nineties, and was very prolific in his lifetime, so it is thought that he must have made over 1000 instruments, of which around 600 are known to survive. The vast majority of these were violins, with a much smaller number of cellos, and only a handful of violas. His works are labelled (cue much rumination on how easy or difficult it is to determine that a label is genuine), and the labels have dates on them. One label in one violin has an additional note that Stradivari was 90 when he made it – how and by whom this note was added cannot be determined. This violin, the Khevenhüller is one of the five violins traced through the book, in our lifetime into the hands of Yehudi Menuhin, the violin that he played the Elgar Violin concerto on at the age of 15. (He later replaced it with another Strad, that suited his mature playing better – such is the individuality of each instrument).
Each of the six instruments has a life-story worth telling, and one of them, in the 20th century, turns into the story of two instruments, as one that disappeared, the Viotti resurfaced as another one, now more accurately known as the Marie Hall. The most mysterious life-story, with the greatest accretion of myth and legend, is that of The Messiah of 1716, seemingly kept by Stradivari in his workshop for over thirty years until his death, never played and never altered, and now on display in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the sole known example of a near-pristine Strad. It is a violin that has exerted a hold on successive owners, who were reluctant to dispose of it, and reluctant to see it stripped of its pristine quality, either by playing or adaptation. There is much matter for reflection on this – its status as the ultimate Strad is locked up in this mystery, as who is to know, unless it is played? A couple of first hand accounts of it being played exist, but neither is in any way analytical. And because it has been kept away from the world to the extent it has, doubts about its provenance were bound to surface, and they duly do. It is a condition of the Hill family bequest to the museum that it is not played, so potentially its mystique remains, never to be proved or debunked. Or does it? Toby Faber examines this paradox in a thought-provoking chapter.
The book skilfully interweaves many threads and handles all the complexity of the subject with a sure hand. We have the history of the Cremonese Liutaios starting in the early 16th century with Amati and ending with Guarneri del Gesù in the 18th; the long life and times of Stradivari and his workshop; the fate of the six (finally seven) instruments; the status of Strads from the lifetime of their maker to the present day, and most importantly, their value, or at any rate their price. Along the way, we learn of all the opportunities for a Strad to be – well – not what it seems. The stakes are so high that forgery and deception are ever present temptations.
Stradivari himself was a vibrant character – some sort of genius, whose success many have tried to isolate, but without luck. He is sui generis, like JS Bach, or Shakespeare – unaccountably and uniquely gifted. The characters involved in the lives of the instruments tend to be larger than life – the great musicians Tartini and Paganini, Menuhin and Du Pré, the dealers and collectors such as Salabue, Tarisio and Vuillaume, as well as later dealers, the Hill family, Hermman, Wurlitzer and Hamma (‘who is remembered as a dealer who, on examining a violin, would not ask himself ‘What is this?, but rather ‘What can we sell this as?’ (p214)). They wielded such power and between them all have muddied the waters for so many Strads, real or imagined, and their owners. Provenance is such a great theme for a mystery – so much to be discovered, such a tenuous thread attaching such an ancient artefact to its maker, so much potential for that thread to be broken. Finally, bravely, Toby Faber tackles the question Are All Strads Equal – answer, no, not necessarily. And the right Strad might find the wrong owner, or the wrong purpose. And some, believe it or not, may just be too old and tired to persevere. But possibly the saddest thought for me is the extent to which the prices for these instruments risk taking them out of the hands of aspiring musicians, in the saddest cases into the seclusion of a private collection. However, there is hope, in the charitable foundations that have playing collections, and the generous benefactors who will take the massive risk of owning a Strad, or an Amati, or a Montagnana, or a del Gesù, and letting it live and be heard in the hands of a gifted musician.
There is such a romance around old instruments – it is as if they are carrying round the memory of all the music and all the players in their past. I recently revelled in this feeling when reading J Meade Falkner’s novella The Lost Stradivarius – this has been an excellent, clear-headed companion to it, but by no means devoid of that romance. If you love music, and enjoy a great mystery and adventure story too, this book is for you. It is excellently researched and referenced, very readable, and above all, written with love. I find that so often in writers about music – their love shines through and is utterly infectious.
Toby Faber: Stradivarius: Five Violins, One Cello and a Genius. London: Pan Books, 2005. 295pp
ISBN 13: 9780330492591
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What a terrific review of a fascinating subject. I’ve been intrigued at the thought of these instruments as “practical art” and the idea of learning more about their creator and following a few through time would make for a very interesting book. Thanks for a poetic review of this book and the links to other books of associated subjects.
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