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No Strings Attached

This review appears in the July/August issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, please click here.

Stradivari’s Genius
by Toby Faber
(Random House, 233 pages, $23.95)

SEVERAL YEARS AGO I decided to make a violin. Having played one for most of my life, and having some fairly well-honed woodworking skills I thought I might combine the two and get satisfaction out of the process if not the result. I found a good little book entitled You Can Make a Stradivarius Violin, containing all the instructions, a set of plans, and, on the first page, an admonition to the amateur violin maker:

As far as the dimensions are concerned, the violin as passed on to us by Stradivari is completely standardized… It is a waste of time and effort to try to improve on the design finalized by Stradivari. If you alter [anything] the quantity and quality of the tone are almost sure to be adversely affected. The Craftsman is therefore cautioned to strictly adhere to the plans and dimensions detailed throughout this book.

Antonio Stradivari lived from 1644 to 1737 in the small northern Italian town of Cremona and, in the course of his life, made over 1,000 violins, violas and cellos, a harp, and a couple of lutes. He became known throughout Europe as the master of his art, and virtuosi, kings, wealthy merchants, and competitors lined up at his door to buy his instruments. He became the singular standard-bearer of his craft, and his instruments remain the most sought-after, and the most expensive, in the world.

Tony Faber, the former managing director of Faber and Faber, his family’s famous publishing company (of which T. S. Eliot was editor for many years), traces six of Stradivari’s most famous instruments from their creation to the present. In the process he tells us about the famous and often eccentric owners of those instruments, the often bizarre way they were acquired, the many attempts — some quite successful — to copy Stradivari’s instruments, and a good deal of music history as well.

In our computer and high-tech age when we have at our fingertips sophisticated tools, analytical machinery, and precision equipment of every sort, the best that the world’s greatest violin makers can do is copy instruments made by this 18th-century Italian hand worker. In fact, an effort to reproduce exactly a particular Strad, and to sell it as an original is considered the apex of a modern craftsman’s skill, and has only rarely been accomplished. It is often said that one of modern technology’s great embarrassments is its inability to match the quality of violins made completely by hand nearly 400 years ago by Antonio Stradivari.

Many of Stradivari’s instruments immediately fell into the hands of Europe’s finest musicians. Many have been purchased by wealthy collectors, although it is a common practice for such collectors to lend these instruments to famous musicians or even aspiring young musicians. I recall talking to a fantastic young German violinist, whose instrument was a Stradivarius; he told me that it was one of three owned by Deutsche Bank available to Germany’s top young players. Most of Stradivari’s instruments have remained at the pinnacle of the music world and have, over the centuries, entertained countless millions of people in every corner of the world. What a story each of these instruments could tell!

And they do. Faber takes, as an example, Stradivari’s Davidov cello (many of the most famous Strads have acquired names over the years, often for one-time owners), one of only 21 surviving cellos made by Stradivari. Now played by Yo-Yo Ma, it was purchased for him, probably for several million dollars, by an anonymous admirer and lent to him for life. But Yo-Yo first played the Davidov years before, when it belonged to Jacqueline du Pre, and subsequently borrowed it for several years from her, as she found it difficult to play. Made in 1712 for the Medici family, it remained in the Pitti Palace until Austrian troops occupied Venice in 1737, who presumably took it back to Austria. Somehow it wound up in Russia, where it was played by a number of great cellists, including Carl Davidov, the royal court musician to the Czar, who performed on it with Franz Liszt, among many others. It was then purchased by a Polish nobleman named Wielhorski sometime in the middle 1800s for $200,000, a Guarneri cello, and the finest horse in his stable. Wielhorski was an amateur but was able to get a sufficiently fine tone from his Strad to inspire Felix Mendelssohn to write his second cello concerto for him, and Robert Schumann to write that he was the most gifted dilettante he had ever met. After several more owners, including the famed Hill brothers in London and the Wurlizter shop in New York, Daniel Barenboim, du Pre’s husband, bought it for her. Not bad for just one nearly 300-year-old cello!

The Cremonese luthier has been an inspiration to every serious musician ever to encounter his handiwork and will no doubt continue to be so for hundreds of more years into the future. Faber’s book is a fine introduction to this legend of a man.

And oh, yes, the violin I made? I followed the directions exactly — did not change a thing. It looks pretty good, but somehow it just never sounded like a Strad.

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