Arriving recently in North Yorkshire to stay with a friend, I found myself, in her sitting room, chatting to another woman who told me that the Arts Society which she helps to run locally had enjoyed a very informed talk by Tony Faber. Topic: violins. When my ears pricked up she said he has also written a book. So sitting there, chatting over the teacups, I reached for my phone and bought Stradivarius: five violins, one cello and a genius as a digital download and I’m really glad I did.
I have played the violin on and off since I was seven and knew, almost from the beginning, that Antonio Stradivari was a famous Italian violin maker. As I grew up I learned that there were other esteemed makers in Cremona and that many of the surviving instruments are worth a lot of money. But that was about the extent of my knowledge until I immersed myself in Tony Faber’s fascinating, very readable book which was published in 2005.
Stradivari (c.1644-1737) lived a long and fruitful life – two wives and two sets of children some of whom followed their father into the trade – which he had, of course, learned from earlier makers such as Nicola Amati. He never stopped experimenting and trying to improve the design, shape and construction of his instruments. The experts reckon he made around 1,116 stringed instruments. Of these about 960 were violins. 650 or so instruments survive today of which 450-500 are violins. The reason that the figures are approximate, as Faber’s detailed account makes clear, are because of arguments about authenticity. The waters have been much muddied in the last three centuries because of alterations and updating made by people like Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, a nineteenth century luthier and shrewd businessman. Moreover, Stradivari was making violins and occasionally violas and cellos for Baroque use. As the music became more classical and then more romantic, needs changed and many older instruments were given, for example, longer necks and unfretted finger boards.
The backbone of Faber’s book is his tracing the history and fate of six specific instruments and he’s very good on the habits and business practices of dealers and luthiers. Then of course there are owners and players – often not the same thing. Collectors are not necessarily virtuosi. The Davidov cello, for example, named for Russian cellist Karl Davidov (1838-1889) who played it to great acclaim, later belonged to Jacqueline du Pre whose godmother purchased it and gave it to her. After illness forced du Pre into premature retirement from performance it was made available to Yo-Yo Ma (who couldn’t afford to buy it) for his lifetime by a benefactor. He says that whenever he plays the Elgar concerto he can feel the spirit of du Pre in the instrument.
The whole point about such instruments is that make a very special sound and no one quite understands why. Is it the varnish? Makers have been trying to crack the code for over three hundred years.
However, eventually instruments wear out and no longer sound as good. Many Strads are now in museums and unlikely to be played much, if at all. Faber hopes that one day a new maker of genius will discover and develop special techniques which, maybe, will surpass the Stradivari sound.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Island by Aldous Huxley