Remembering Stradivari's Genius

April 18, 2006, 11:52 PM · Apparently I'm not the only person in love with an enchanted fiddle.

My newsfound fascination with old Italian violins (and my desire to spend time with fellow mommy Candy) let me to the Huntington Museum in San Marino, Calif. last night. About 75 people gathered to listen to author Toby Faber speak about his 2004 book, Stradivari's Genius: Five Violins, One Cello, and Three Centuries of Enduring Perfection.

Stradivari's Genius"The instruments he made are still the best in the world, even after 250 years," Faber said. "They are amazing living links to the past."

Antonio Stradivari lived for a long time, from 1644 to 1737, and he made violins almost until his death, making his last three violins at the age of 93. In his book, Faber follows the individual histories of five Stradivarius violins and one Strad cello to illustrate the breadth of this luthier's long and prolific career, and its subsequent effect on the musical world.

Considering the kind of money a Strad goes for these days, it was interesting when Faber provided us with the value that Stradivari put on his own violins in a will: 166 Cremonese lyra for each of seven violins, or the equivalent today of $700 U.S. dollars. Faber estimated that the highest price ever fetched for a Stradivarius violin was $4 to $5 million.

"Stradivari violins were not valued as much as Amatis in the 50 or so years after Stradivari died," Faber said. "One of the reasons is that stringed instruments need a period of aging," which he estimated at 50 to 100 years.

Though the first violin by Stradivari, dated 1666, claims he was a pupil of Amati's, subsequent instruments he made do not make that claim. One possible explanation is that perhaps he was not Amati's pupil, Faber said.

It is likely that Stradivari was trained more as a woodworker than as a luthier.

"They are remarkably well-carved," Faber said of the Stradivari instruments. "The saying went, 'Others did with would what they could, Stradivari did with wood as he wanted.'"

In about 1690, Stradivari started experimenting with form, lengthening and narrowing the shapes for violins he made. Though ultimately these innovations did not take hold in either his own violinmaking or that of others, they did show the maker to be forward-thinking.

For violin makers, "Stradivari towers over nearly everything they do," Faber said. For a very long time, luthiers have focused on unlocking Stradivari's secrets, but only in the last 20-30 years has violinmaking "gotten up to the level they were back in Cremona in the 17th century," Faber said. That is because luthiers are using modern technology to analyze the physics of the violin; like Stradivari did, they are innovating. "They best violin makers are the ones who look forward."

The instruments that Faber wrote about include the Messiah, the Viotti, the Khevenhuller, the Paganini, the Lipinski violins and the Davidov cello (currently played by Yo-Yo Ma).

"After I chose them, I worried for the rest of my research that I'd chosen the right ones," Faber laughed. "I chose them because I wanted them to cover the full period of Stradivari's work.

Of the 1,000 some violins Stradivari made, about 600 remain today.

"Most were lost soon after Stradivari died," Faber said.

Even so, Faber estimated that only 100 to 200 of the remaining Strads are being played, while the others are in the hands of collectors. This caused me to gasp, shake my head..

But then Faber had a philosophical way of looking at that: "The collectors of today are the guardians of the instruments that will be played tomorrow," he said.

Faber spoke of "the way the players are uplifted by those who played on these instruments before." A Strad is incomparable for its power and response, he said. But he also spoke of a cellist who felt his cello knew the piece he was playing. I sensed that the audience around me, of mostly non-violinists, found this to be entertaining but perhaps something in the realm of Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster.

I would certainly argue that fine old fiddles have a "memory." When one plays a violin, the sound waves leave tiny patterns in the wood. Somewhere where science and poetry come together, the violin has a long memory of what was played on it before.

But I think it's quite an experience for owners of a great violin or cello, one that was played on by a great artist before. For example, in Faber's book he says that Yo-Yo Ma "has never been able to play the Elgar Concerto on the Davidov without sensing Jacqueline (DuPre)'s presence."

Faber also quotes Russian violinist Louis Krasner, who bought the Dancla Strad from Nathan Milstein: that Milstein's "playing and sonorities were, I would sense, still in the violin. A Strad violin, like a sensitive animal, knows its master and, like the living being that it is, has memory and loyalty."

Faber said that he enjoyed quoting the very quotable Yehudi Menuhin, who played the Khevenhuller Strad and said:

"A great violin is alive; its very shape embodies its maker's intentions, and its wood stores the history, or the soul, of its successive owners. I never play without feeling that I have released or, alas, violated spirits."


April 19, 2006 at 07:26 AM · I'll agree - it's an incredibly interesting book. My girlfriend got it for me for my birthday, and I am very much enjoying reading it.

April 19, 2006 at 10:04 AM · The book is absolutely fascinating. I picked it up as a lark last summer, and it engrossed me. The pictures I imagine can only do little justice to the magnificient instruments. I loved it. I hope the author blesses us with his talent in more books in the luthier arts.

April 19, 2006 at 10:59 AM · Currently, a 1707 Strad (The Hammer) is up for auction in May at Christie's. Its pegged between 1.5 - 2.5 US $. A record was set at Christie's in 2005 for The Lady Tennant. I will be curious what this Strad ultimately goes for. They are without a doubt beautiful sounding instruments.

April 19, 2006 at 01:54 PM · I worry about Faber's comment in his book that Strads are "wearing out." I hope it's not true, and I hope it doesn't inspire shutting them up in museums, unplayed.

April 19, 2006 at 03:03 PM · Wow! I never knew so much of that! Thanks for all your knowledge-filled posts, Laurie. They are always so interesting and thought provoking!

April 19, 2006 at 04:01 PM · He came here to the Yale bookstore and I missed it! I'm so disappointed I didn't get to meet him. I would have loved to hear him speak.


April 19, 2006 at 06:55 PM · Thank you for the review, Laurie! I'd seen this book but wasn't sure if it was a good read, and now you've convinced me to try it.

April 20, 2006 at 04:17 AM · Thanks for the book review, Laurie. I will look for the book.

I love what Menuhin said and how he said it. It's so true that a violin carries the souls of everyone who has loved and played it. I have one of the violins that my teacher played, and it is so precious to me.

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