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September 6, 2004

'I don't consider it my violin. Rather, I am its violinist; I am passing through its life.'


Ivry Gitlis, speaking of his 1713 Stradivarius violin.

This, from a nice piece in the September 2 Economist about Toby Faber's new book, "Stradivarius: Five Violins, One Cello and a Genius."

Here's the article.

Lord of the strings

Even a tone-deaf trucker knows that the most famous, the most expensive, the most desired violin in the world today is a Stradivarius.

But why should these 300-year-old instruments be so sought after?

And why have they never been eclipsed?

These two questions lie at the centre of Toby Faber's enlightening book about a man with magical hands.

When Antonio Stradivari set up his workshop in the small northern Italian town of Cremona in the 1660s, the best-known violins were being made by the Amati family.

Small, yet beautifully inlaid, the Amatis' sweet, contained tone was ideally suited to music for the court or the drawing-room.

The violin, so human in range, so female in shape (as epitomised by Man Ray's 1924 photograph of a woman with a pair of S-shaped soundholes painted on her back), had already become the king of the orchestra.

Catherine de Medici, who ordered a set of 38 stringed instruments, was an early buyer.

But by the 18th century, music-making was beginning to change.

In order to make the violin project a rich, full tone to the very back of a music room and, eventually, of a concert hall, violin-making had to change too.

Stradivari became the master of that metamorphosis, perfecting the varnishing of his instruments, seeking out better and bigger pieces of maple from which to cut violin backs in a single piece, and experimenting with incremental changes to the length of the soundbox and the arch of the belly.

As George Eliot once wrote: “Tis God gives skill, but not without men's hands. He could not make Antonio Stradivari's violins without Antonio.”

The real delight of Mr Faber's book lies in his decision to tell the Stradivari story through the lives of six of the master's best-known instruments.

One of them, known as the Messiah, a violin with a magnificent tiger-striped pattern on its back, was found in Stradivari's studio when he died in 1737.

A century later, it was in the hands of Luigi Tarisio, a peasant's son who, despite his humble background, was then in Paris telling the leading instrument-makers of the day, Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume and his son-in-law, Delphin Alard, about the existence of a perfect Stradivarius from the master's golden age.

"So,” the exasperated Alard replied, “your violin is like the Messiah, always expected but never appearing." Thus its name was born.

Vuillaume never forgot Tarisio's claims-of a Stradivarius violin that had not been altered or even played.

When, by chance, he heard of the Italian's death, he collected together as much money as he could before heading for Italy and the smallholding where Tarisio's heirs lived.

Guided by Tarisio's sister, Vuillaume began opening drawers in a piece of rickety furniture.

There, in addition to five other masterpieces, he found the Messiah, which today is in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where it is the only instrument to have its own showcase. It has never been played.

The other instruments in Mr Faber's book have, however, been played - by Paganini, Yehudi Menuhin and Tasmin Little (pictured above) among others.

Each musician has tried to explain what they feel for them.

But it is Ivry Gitlis, a less well-known name, who has perhaps put it best: “I have a violin that was born in 1713,” he wrote four years ago. “I don't consider it my violin. Rather, I am its violinist; I am passing though its life.”

September 6, 2004 at 09:01 AM | Permalink


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If you could e-mail me a discreption or picture that shows the defferance
in a stradivarius than other violins?

Posted by: charles | Aug 10, 2008 5:50:34 AM

i have one violin "josph guarnnerius cremona anno 1740"
my name is jetmir makolli
i live in kosova
my phone number is +37744199597
i am interssting to sale it

Posted by: jetmir makolli | Feb 21, 2006 5:31:30 AM

Such powerful yet true words are spoken from Gitlis.

Posted by: emily | Dec 16, 2004 8:40:45 PM

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