The Stradivarius Mystique
Perhaps no other art object can match the ongoing worldwide exposure of the Stradivarius violin— the Strad, as it is called by the cognoscenti. It is heard daily around the globe in live concerts and on countless recordings of leading artists, sharing credit for thrilling musical experiences. Advertisers have begun using photographs of the Strad as the ultimate metaphor for perfection attained by consummate skill, talent, and meticulous attention to details. For the mystically inclined aficionado, its eponymous creator was the possessor of the philosopher's stone who had a prescience of physical-acoustical principles. There seems to be no limit to the superlatives bestowed upon Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737). It would be bizarre to find so many sophisticates worshiping someone whose bequest to mankind was twelve hundred units of the same product, if these were not arguably the finest musical instruments ever made.
The 250th anniversary (in 1987) of Stradivari's death has prompted a new wave of literature based on old clichés signaling a need for critical reassessment. Recent publications have only added to the myths which continue to grow around the pedestal of Stradivari like kudzu on trees in the heart of Dixie. In his pretentious effort of scholarly interpretation (Measure for measure; a musical history of science, Simon & Schuster, 1994), television producer Thomas Levenson went over the edge stating: "Stradivari did not merely use Newton's methods, he exhausted them". This interpretation adds a new feather to the head of Stradivari, who has so far been viewed merely as a divinely inspired artist responding to cosmic vibrations. But was Stradivari a scientist of the highest level? Now the plot really thickens.
My present attempt to reappraise Stradivari's legacy originates from an unlikely environment, an academic science department, and scientists are highly skeptical of myths. Unbeknownst to many, and unwelcome by most, scientists are viewing the long-standing challenge of the Stradivarius violin as ripe for solution. What has already been learned from this research can hardly justify the elevation of Stradivari from the level of artisan to the rarified rank of genius. Rather, it seems that the indisputable superiority of most Italian makers from the "Golden Period" over the violins of other provenance may be due to fortuitous coincidences in wood acquisition and finishing technology, of which the violin maker was just a fortunate beneficiary. It appears that the fine furniture and the musical instruments of the period routinely received a chemical treatment against the woodworm and rotting fungi, and these chemicals had an unintended beneficial effect on the sound. In my opinion, which has been popular on the American Chemical Society lecture circuit, the unsung hero behind the exalted luthiers of Cremona could have been the anonymous drug store chemist, whose potions guaranteed acoustical excellence in all wooden instruments made in the town. It is plausible that neither the chemist nor the luthiers were aware of the vital role of the chemical treatments in enhancing the brilliance of the musical tone. This would explain why the “secret of Cremona” has been lost: the luthiers themselves did not know the chemical compositions and their role.
What remains to be explained is how Stradivari managed to elevate himself from a level playing field; we have to examine the origin and development of the Stradivari legend.
Hardly anything is known about Antonio Stradivari's life beyond some mundane census data. Contemporaries did not deem it necessary to eulogize the maestro and chronicle his deeds, as was done for the famous Renaissance artists. Perhaps there was nothing exciting to write about, although his wealth did generate some respect and envy, as one can judge from the local adage: Ricco come Stradivari. In a country which delights in erecting monuments to its many heroes, no particular honor was bestowed upon the great son of Cremona by his townsfolk until, very recently, his value in attracting tourism was finally recognized.
The first and still definitive book on Antonio Stradivari by the Hill brothers of London, written at the beginning of the 20th century, provides much valuable information about the master's work and productivity. The Hills probably knew most of his six hundred extant instruments (mainly violins, a few violas and cellos); in their estimate an equal number might have been lost. By the end of the 19th century, Stradivari's legend was firmly established along with the most prominent myth, which concerns his alleged secret and lost varnish recipe. The Hills were very emphatic in asserting that Stradivari had no personal secrets in the craft of violin making—that he was nothing more than a diligent and gifted artisan. A similar conclusion was reached by the influential restorer Simone F. Sacconi in his book published in 1972, which also details the methods supposedly used by both Stradivari and all other violin makers in Cremona. Obviously, exaggerations of Stradivari's merits have not come from professional luthiers who have rarely conceded much, if anything, to the grand old master in terms of know-how. But they paid him the ultimate compliment, the act of imitation, as witnessed by the millions of copies left by thousands of violin makers. The large number of mass-produced violins bearing the Stradivarius Cremonensis faciebat anno 1714 label is probably the main reason why Stradivari is a household word, even in small-town America. If just a tiny fraction of the copies were judged comparable to the real Strads, there would be no Stradivari legend. However, the 19th and the 20th centuries did not produce any violin maker of such towering prominence.
Experts are frank to admit that not all Strads are great or even average as musical instruments. While some may always have been mediocre, some may have declined because of misuse and abuse. Further, there are connoisseurs who find particular violins of his contemporaries, Guarneri 'del Gesu' and Carlo Bergonzi, equal or superior to a fine Strad. Why is it then that their fame has remained much below Stradivari? In what regard was Antonio Stradivari so superior to his colleagues in the trade that he has become the one and only legend? These questions beg for a fresh examination.
Such supremacy by one person in the history of any particular endeavor is intriguing to historians of science and technology who are concerned with issues of priorities and merits. The classical model of the violin was presumably invented by Andrea Amati around 1560 when he was commissioned by the court of Charles IX of France. Attempts by the sons and grandson of Andrea to improve on the original were unsuccessful. Stradivari himself, who apprenticed with the Amatis, tried to modify the design throughout his long creative life as he sought to assert his independence and originality. He made it a little longer, made it a little shorter, and made it generally flatter in the arching and broader in the waist, but he, too, discovered the limits to artistic freedom in violin making which are measured in a couple of millimeters. While all innovations and idiosyncrasies of Stradivari have been extensively copied by his imitators, some of these features are becoming distinctly unpopular with the more aggressive players. For example, the protruding corners of the Strads which may be artistically beautiful are viewed impractical by some virtuosos who prefer the slimmer waistline created by Joseph Guarneri and Carlo Bergonzi.
In the art of coloring and applying varnish, Stradivari has been considered good but not spectacular. The myth of his superior and secret varnish formula still persists among laymen in spite of some evidence that all violin makers of Cremona were supplied with the same choice of varnish made by the local apothecary. Some of his most famous violins, known by monikers such as "the Betts", "the Soil" and "the Cessol", still have plenty of a rich purple-brown plum colored varnish on them. However, some of his varnishes were rather opaque and might have been deliberately rubbed away by restorers. Suffice it to say, he did not become a legend because of his varnish.
Most people would say the sound has made the Stradivarius the gem that it is. Undeniably, the very essence of the violin is its sound, but this ethereal commodity is too difficult to grasp. Dealers can tell you it never enters into the arcane formula that determines the market value of fine old instruments. Musicians, audiences and critics often profess their preference for a certain tone quality—a late period Amati, a mid-period Strad, or a late 'del Gesu'—but anecdotes abound on how easily they can be misled. I have personally witnessed several amusing cases, one of them involving a concert of a famous string quartet whose players had just a year before switched from the customary mix of antique instruments to a matched set of four Strads. Alerted to this rare occasion by the press and the program notes, many aficionados entered a state of nirvana induced by what they believed to be the most homogeneous fabric of string voices. The intermission was buzzing with variations of oohs and aahs, and the newspaper critic also found it to be a once in a lifetime experience. In reality, there was no matched set in play; two of the four Strads had been left at home for maintenance and replaced with other instruments. Probably, only a few gifted listeners have the discernment to recognize individual string voices. The ranking of fine violins is even more difficult, and it requires time for a consensus of expert opinions to develop.
Actually, scientific tools to describe and identify the intimate sound of a particular fine violin do exist, but, ironically, they are used more often to hearken for the messages of advanced civilizations from outer space, and to measure engine noise. Despite the available technology, there is no rush from the price setters of the antique business to adopt such high-tech methods which would remove the evaluation of tone quality from the murky waters of subjective opinion. Neither is there any demand by the clientele for changing the present practices. Musical genius lives in the parallel universe of the intuitive right hemisphere of the brain, and it has understandably little need for a mass of objective information. In a field where technical/scientific prowess is proudly eschewed, the advocacy of computer programs for appraising the quality of musical sound will be slow in catching on. This generally conservative attitude favors the maintenance of the status-quo as much as the significant financial stakes involved.
The ability of Stradivari to maintain control over the defining aspect of his product, the tone quality, was truly amazing since he could rely only on his subjective judgment in creating and modulating a desired tone color. How this could have been done was suggested to me in 1957, i.e., before the advent of the computer era, by Brenton Langbein, a concert-violinist in Zurich, who noted that the various notes of his Strad corresponded to specific vowels song by soprano voices. He could clearly recognize these vowels—mainly a, e and ?— in most fine Strads, while most modern violins had other vowels. Thus the quality control practiced by Stradivari could have involved the adjustment of certain notes to specific vowels. However, one can argue that Guarneri 'del Gesu' was even more focused on tone, and he also possessed the same talent of aural quality control. The more penetrating sound of his violins was actually favored by Paganini, the greatest 19th century virtuoso. Perception of beauty in violin sound is very much in the ear of the beholder. The beautiful sound was an important reason, but more is required to explain the Stradivari supremacy. It must be a combination of several factors, two of which come from the obvious dichotomy of the violin, as a visually pleasing object of art and a mechanical sounding device. No other violin maker achieved such high level in both aspects as Stradivari. His chief tonal rival, Joseph Guarneri del Gesu, was a downright sloppy craftsman in his late period.
It is also reasonable to assume that Stradivari had several advantages of a non-artistic nature which could have raised him into a dominant position even during his lifetime. Being the heir to the great Amati tradition, as the best-ever student of Master Niccoló Amati, was a good beginning. Setting a longevity record among violin makers was a good follow-up. And there are the following factors to consider in the general area of production and business skills.
Stradivari was probably obsessed with his work and totally committed to the goal of becoming the most prolific maker of violins in history. The numbers speak for themselves. While the lifetime output of most violin makers remained under two hundred, and many of them had to practice an auxiliary trade, Stradivari flooded the market with twelve hundred new instruments. This effectively eliminated the need for fine violin making for two generations during which time much know-how was lost. In addition to being remarkably diligent, Stradivari was almost certainly a good organizer and innovator in several practical aspects of the violin business. Relegating the trivial chores to others, spending his money on the best materials, and cultivating his relationships with clients and potential customers could have helped him outperform the typically introverted violin maker who insisted on a one-man operation.
The fact that Stradivari seemed to have maintained a substantial inventory of more or less finished violins also could have played a role. The tone of brand-new violins is never impressive, but if Stradivari took time to age his for a while, this could have given him an advantage when a critical buyer came to town to make his selection among all the shops of Cremona. Stradivari could have offered the customers a choice in tone quality, power and color. With a large stock, he was also in a position to satisfy the big buyers who were looking for the many instruments needed to equip whole string orchestras. The Hills mention in their book that when the emissary of the Polish court arrived in Cremona to buy twelve new violins as soon as possible, Stradivari delivered them within ten weeks—next to no time as violin making goes.
However, the single most important factor assuring the lasting reputation for Antonio Stradivari may have been his marketing decision to cater to the very rich: the royal courts, dukes and counts, marquis and earls, archdukes and archbishops. In a way, he reinvented the violin as an investment property. The high price of his violins guaranteed that the owners would handle them carefully and maintain their investment in good condition. His violins were rebuilt, modernized and probably improved by the greatest French masters, whose own acoustical concept has become an important ingredient in all of the present Strads. The cheap fiddles bought and played by the itinerant fiddlers at county fairs got unavoidably abused, and many of these violins must have perished with time. Certainly, an insufficient number of Carlo Bergonzi violins remained to spread his reputation beyond a small circle. But given the starting position of the best possible pedigree for twelve hundred instruments, Stradivari had the critical number of advertising labels in the right hands to go around on their historical journey, from Milan to Paris, then from Paris to London, from London to New York, and more recently, of course, to the Far East and Russia.
Perhaps it was not just the money but rather a better life expectancy why Stradivari preferred the ownership of collectors over the professional players. He must have noticed that some professional musicians consumed their violins faster than the hungriest woodworm in Milan. Although the profile of Strad owners changed considerably after the heyday of royalty and aristocracy, the prestige of previous owners remained a lasting influence even as the bourgeois amateur player/collector made his presence known, followed by the ascent of the professional violin virtuoso. Many famous virtuosi and violin pedagogues were also collectors and active participants in the trade of fine violins, a tradition which remains widespread in our day. The Who's Who of the past great masters of the violin—Viotti, Ernst, Joachim, Sarasate, Elman, Szigeti, Oistrach and Milstein—reads like a list of endorsements for the Stradivarius violin whose aristocratic pedigree gained an added luster by their names. The elegant playing style of these artists was better served by a Strad than by any other violin. In this artistic symbiosis, the glory of these violinists also became the glory of the Strad and of Cremona. The great stars must take the lion's share of the credit for creating the Stradivarius mystique. They were the ones who helped place Stradivari on a pedestal, provided much of the vocabulary of superlatives in his praise, and sent prices on their escalating track.
It is fitting that the Stradivarius was eventually discovered in the 1970's by business journals and recommended for investment purposes. Since then, the prices have risen dramatically as the Strads have become a hot investment property for a new generation of collectors with no musical expertise. The winning combination of visual perfection and tonal beauty is easy to sell, and the trade of the best antiques has become brisk and expansive. One of the most skillful dealers, Bein & Fushi of Chicago, reported a volume of $17 million in 1992. If the appraised values of Strads would indeed correspond to their commercial values, they may soon compete with French impressionist paintings. A set of string quartet instruments decorated with inlayed designs, which have been donated to the Simthsonian by Dr. Herbert Axelrod, was appraised in London for $50 million. Many Strads are donated, some are purchased for museums where they are placed in display cases, out of harm's way, and they are played only by a trusted few. The survival and visibility and a limited audibility of the Strad will be secured for future generations.
With the interminable chain reaction of success, the legend also keeps growing: novels and poems are written and anecdotes are told. The first big-impact story was that of Tarisio, one of the first violin collectors, who died as a poor man alone in a room crowded with dozens of the best Strads and many other Cremonas. The oldest violin trade journal is even named The Strad, and seems to be dedicated to fostering a reverence for the master and his violins. In our time and culture, the winner's share is disproportionally large, and the victory of this violin maker from Cremona is complete. In a way, it is also a victory for the common man who works hard with his hands, well past his retirement age, to accomplish his goal. Stradivari does not need to be compared to Newton and Einstein to be one of the most influential man in history. Even if we could prove that all his activities were ordinary, devoid of unusual intellectual accomplishment, no one can deny the effect of his legacy on our culture. By becoming so dominant, he was responsible for setting the standard for the ideal violin tone, one with a certain oboe-like quality, which has been the favorite of all great orchestra conductors. If Eugene Ormandy could have had his way, every violinist in the Philadelphia Orchestra would have played a Strad.
Unfortunately for them, musicians could not prevent the Strad from becoming an investment commodity, and classical violinists cannot normally compete with investment bankers, computer magnates, and plastic surgeons at auctions. Many of the great Strads, after being the trusty soul mates of noted artists for awhile, have now re-asserted the meretricious dark side of their nature: a preference for a fancy display case over the skillful hands of a poor lover.
We are not there yet, but it can be anticipated: classical music without the Stradivarius. As I watch superstar Yitzhak Perlman on the Tonight Show or a PBS special playing his treasure, "The Soil" Strad (which was passed on to him by Menuhin in a welcome version of insider trading), I cannot help thinking that his lively spiccato is bouncing off a $10,000,000 property! He is surely cognizant of this, and it is fortunate that, having reached such consummate mastery, he no longer needs grueling practice time. Can he afford to knock off a corner with his bow while being carried away by the passion of performance? He and his few peers will always have a Stradivarius at their disposal, but they will have to control their artistic temper.
The gradual withdrawal of the Strads is definitely a welcome change to all the successors of Stradivari's trade who have lived in a love-hate relationship with the legend. Without Stradivari, the violin making profession may have had a social prestige just a little above the shoemaker, as it was once in Venice where Gobetti, a contemporary competitor of Stradivari, also dabbled in shoemaking.
In the afterglow of the Great Master's trail and basking in his glory, modern violin makers look at his achievement with awe and envy, fully realizing that craftsmen of our age will never reach the same global recognition. The makers who wish for their masterpieces to survive into the 22nd century will remember that creating the finest violins at a low price is contrary to Stradivari's chief legacy. Also, it is better to sell violins to Microsoft billionairs and brain surgeons than to players who wear them down. For the time being, it is the best fakes, the authentic looking copies are the ones which attract the investors and amateurs who pay the highest prices and hope for the sound to ripen in a few generations. The makers of the finest sounding new violins will also have a new kind of satisfaction. With the genuine antique instruments rapidly disappearing into bank vaults, after centuries of rejection, they will be afforded a proper hearing in the concert halls and on recordings. One can empathize with them and wish them success in convincing the musical community that the best new violins can be as admirable as fine Strads. In order to reach their goals, however, first they will have to establish a closer collaboration with a good chemistry laboratory; they are still lacking in the magic potion.
Yet it is doubtful that any contemporary craftsman will ever achieve such an exalted status no matter how good his product. No new instrument, however perfect, can transmit the sense of history, the perceived magic imbued in the Strad by the touch, sweat and tears of Paganini and others, which can be so electrifying to the present performer. The physical aspects may be reproduced, but as long as classical music survives—and perhaps beyond—there will always remain something intangible: the mystique of the Stradivarius.
The mystique of Guarneri del Gesù.
According to my own non-scientific poll, 95% of my college students have not heard of Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri who dedicated his violins with an inscribed monogram to Jesus Christ—hence he is often referred to by the moniker del Gesù. del Gesù is hardly a household name in any random population, but in the salons of the antique violin business his current popularity ranks second to none. The 250th anniversary of his death was celebrated in October, 1994 with almost as much pomp and circumstance as was Stradivari's just seven years earlier. This master, who is viewed by some as the Van Gogh of the violin, died unappreciated by his contemporaries, leaving us a total of about one hundred and fifty violins and a puzzle which is even more intriguing than Stradivari's. If the current trends continue, the rising star of del Gesù may eclipse Stradivari's. Since most of the treatises and recent commemorative articles were written or inspired by members of the antique violin business itself, one should have the right to be somewhat skeptical. Are the merits of Guarneri del Gesù grossly exaggerated? Is some of the new enthusiasm for this maker the direct result of state-of-the-art hype? Have the del Gesù violins gotten better with time, or has our taste for tone quality changed in this generation to his benefit?
As with Stradivari, our curiosity for reliable biographic details must go unsatisfied when we turn to the five luthiers of the Guarneri family, but there is no shortage of anecdotal information. The major work on the subject, "The Violin Makers of the Guarneri Family", was written by the Hill brothers, who did their best to divine the character traits and personalities from the available census data and from their expert examination of the meager output of string instruments.
In the opinion of all writers on this subject, the Guarneris were idle underachievers. The total production of their three generations of luthiers did not come close to Stradivari's. There are many speculations on this lack of productivity, and the earliest one, based on contemporary gossip of a bohemian lifestyle, also has a sociological rationale to it. The Guarneris were a noble family, albeit of a lower order of nobility. Competing with members of lower classes and, especially, laboring 12 hours per day in a tiny workshop must have held little attraction for Guarneri del Gesù. The short life span of del Gesù (1698-1744) is compatible with the anecdotal information of alcohol abuse and decadent lifestyle. It should also not stretch our imagination too much to give credence to the hearsay, first chronicled around 1800, that del Gesù did a few years in prison, even if the notion of such disgrace was dismissed by many admirers as unproven. The Hills also considered the other possibility that del Gesù was more inclined to playing the violin semi- professionally than making one. Indeed, playing in the band at parties and dances could have been a sensible preference for someone who enjoyed the access to wine and women.
Let us review the most obvious facts about the creative life and methods of del Gesù. He learned violin making from his father, Joseph (filius Andreae) Guarneri, and he was obviously very familiar with the works of Stradivari. The renowned New York dealer, Jacques Français, thought that del Gesù was more influenced by the Milano maker, Carlo Testore, who himself was viewed by the Hills rather contemptuously as one of the "Milanese cheapjacks". Guarneri was a late bloomer, having made but a handful of violins by his late twenties. His most productive years are believed to have been the early and mid 1730's, and the violins of this period compare, with regard to workmanship, favorably with the best of the other Guarneris. The violins of his early career were already quite individual both in the minute details of mannerisms and the more critical aspects, such as the arching and thicknessing of the plates, which have a profound influence on the tone. The last eight years of del Gesù's career are characterized by a deliberate disregard for the visual norms of his profession. Apparently, he worked the wood freehand without templates and molds, and the resulting errors of symmetry are painfully obvious: many of the late del Gesùs are unattractive, with the only redeeming grace of a beautiful varnish. Ironically, these last violins were the ones which first caught the attention of Paganini and other virtuosos because of their unique tone. Like never before in the history of this craft, the entire reputation of del Gesù was invested in the commodity of the sound, which has steadily gained in appreciation and may arguably become the sound ideal of our time.
From this brief description of the stylistic deficiencies of Guarneri del Gesù, his lack of commercial success is not hard to understand. Even with his best looking violins made in the mid 1730’s, del Gesù was hardly a threat to Stradivari. One can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for del Gesù to see all those carriages of distinguished customers bypass his house en route to 2 Piazza San Domenico, the residence of the Great Old Man. Because of his 75-year long career of superior and steady performance, Stradivari was the nemesis of all contemporary violin makers, including all three generations of Guarneris. Stradivari owned the market of fine violins, and it is unlikely that he made any referrals. Even one generation later, Guarneri del Gesù was viewed as a second-rank violin maker by no less an expert than Count Cozio di Salabue—the first collector, appraiser and scholar of the Cremona violins. Cozio's first visit to Cremona was in 1775, hardly 30 years after del Gesù's death, when eyewitnesses were still around. On his visits with Stradivari's son, Paolo, and the members of the Bergonzi family, he must have received much valid information, along with a good remnant of the dirt on del Gesù. The Stradivaris and the Bergonzis were hardly unbiased in their appraisal of del Gesù. Indeed, no violin maker has a penchant for praising a gifted rival; this passionate craft has found little space for gentility. A competitor is measured up not by his best but by his weakest specimen against the workmanship standards established by the Amatis and Stradivari. By those meticulous standards, many violins of del Gesù could have been easy targets for insults. The Hills maintained that del Gesù had no other choice but to sell his violins to the people who played hard and earned little.
The much discussed decline in del Gesù‘s workmanship began to show soon after 1738, and it is believed to reflect the turbulence of his life and his troubled state of mind. True as this could have been in part, one should not overly psychoanalyze his rejection of the visual aspects in violin making; it could have been simply a weighed business decision. Possibly, he began facing up to the reality that his clientele would always be the itinerant fiddlers, the low class professionals and amateurs, and he drew conclusions according to the needs of his market. This meant relaxing the standards of workmanship to match the low remuneration he received. The artistic shortcuts dictated by expediency, such as the substandard scrolls and corners, did not affect the essence of his violins, their sonority. Delicate and sweet were not the words one would use for the sound of del Gesù. Those adjectives fit best the violins of Niccoló Amati, whose refined sound was favored even over Stradivari’s for the rest of the 18th century.
The players who worked the county fairs and market places required a violin with a powerful sound; they did not care much about the looks of violins they carried in canvas bags. The popular models with their high arching, which were impressive with their dulcet velvety sound in reverberating chambers of palaces and churches, were less suitable to anechoic open-air performances. Guided by his intuition for the underlying causes of tone production and, possibly, helped by his own experience in the field as a player, del Gesù pursued the problem of sonority and projection throughout his career with increasing success. He recognized that for maximum projection in the crucial middle range, the violin tone must combine a great deal of viola-like darkness with strong overtones reaching up to the metallic high frequency range. The result was a highly focused sound on the D string, like an intonation of the vowels ü (this vowel does not exist in English and Italian!) and e. The means he employed are too technical to be discussed here, but the key new principle was the increased longitudinal flexibility of the violin body. The most visible means to this end was to render the top plate arching low and the f holes more elongated. While he certainly obtained the result he wanted, it is arguable that he understood all the physical structure/ acoustical response relationships, with which he is often credited. There are other explanations for his choice of flat bellies, and we shall revisit this subject later in this article. When his violins were new, they could have been rather noisy and harsh sounding in smaller chambers, but were well suited to rustic environments. By now, of course, these violins possess the winning combination of burnished mellowness and silvery luster we admire so much in the recordings of Henryk Szering, Isaac Stern, Ruggiero Ricci, Pinchas Zukerman, and other artists.
From the vantage point of posterity, the failure of del Gesù to gain commissions from the aristocracy might have been a blessing in disguise. Instead of turning out violins made for the prevailing taste, he was forced to invent something radically different as he became the violin maker for ordinary people. There was, however, also an unfortunate downside to working for the poor musicians: the violins shared their tough life. Several of the Gypsy violinists I encountered in Eastern Europe played on deformed fiddles which had been exposed to rain and extreme weather conditions during their travels. It is quite plausible that many of the violins made by del Gesu were abused in a similar way and eventually discarded. If this assumption is correct, then major apologies are due to him from many sources. It is possible that the Hills did him an injustice with the conjecture of an idle disposition, which would be a simplistic description of a creative person with manic-depressive tendencies. Perhaps, he concentrated more on research and development while maintaining a minimum output for survival, especially in the seemingly unproductive early years. We should keep in mind that he would not have put his label into his weakest violins destined to be the workhorses for the flotsam, which could have ended up being consumed ignominiously by rotting fungi or fire. What our generation is now fortunate to see and hear is likely the surviving natural selection of the fittest which could have been initially owned by the middle class musicians and bourgeois amateurs.
The 19th century owners of del Gesù violins were probably more cognizant of their special value, and total losses were rare. Although even routine professional use took its toll, some of this can be viewed as "value added". The normal wear and tear, the chips to the edges, the corners and the varnish, the damages to the sound-holes: this all makes up the patina of each individual artifact. As time passed, a new pleasing picture emerged with many details, like a landscape painting, which calls Shakespeare to mind: "beauty does varnish age".
The fine Stradivarius and the del Gesù are much more than their master's work: they are the end products of a long Rube Goldberg process which has unfolded over two centuries. There are many hands involved in creating the present burnished sound, and the most important ones were those of the French luthiers who modernized all original Cremona violins. The alterations performed in the early 19th century—on the bass bar, the neck and even the plates—had such a dramatic effect on the sound of the violins that their creators would not have recognized them. For example, a certain degree of nasality was introduced into some of them, and this may not meet with universal approval. One wonders if the influence of the French language with its nasal formants was the reason for a bias in this direction. The ongoing change and adjustment to the ruling taste was probably more beneficial for the del Gesù violin than for the Stradivarius. The same can be said for the gradual rise of the tuning pitch by a semitone. With all these changes done over the centuries, the del Gesù violin has attained a high degree of tonal beauty, a luster which could not have been there originally. Yet there is a general tendency to assign full credit for the presently known product only to the original maker. Fairness would dictate that the names of all restorers and adjusters, as well as the contribution of the many distinguished players be included as noteworthy components of this historical Rube Goldberg process. The balanced use of the entire four octave register in the hands of the best professionals must be clearly more beneficial than the mere "twinkling" of students, although it is unknown to what degree the tone of a violin parallels the virtuosity of its player. del Gesù got the ball rolling, but many virtuosos contributed an added value, some of which is real and musical, while a significant part is an illusory/ celebrity value. It is possible that too much ingenuity is currently being assigned to del Gesù.
While we are at distributing the credits, it should be pointed out that others, including Stradivari himself, also did some experiments with the low arched flat model favored by del Gesù. The "ex-Rochester" Stradivarius of 1720 looks and sounds similar to those made by del Gesù fifteen years later. "The Hart" Stradivarius, currently owned by Leon Spierer (Karajan's concertmaster at the Berlin Philharmonic), was made 30 years before del Gesù's explorations. I had the chance to analyze the tone of this remarkable violin note by note, and it shows a remarkable similarity to a late del Gesù sound. In the hands of Spierer, the straight tone of "The Hart" overpowered the other instruments in a string quartet performance. Obviously, Stradivari's clientele did not like this type of sound because the small chambers tended to bring out the noisy elements in it. This could have been the most plausible reason why Stradivari abandoned this model. One should recall that Stradivari did not work for pedestrian customers. This unique case clearly underscores the point that the blessing to classical music which these flat del Gesù violins represent came about only because Guarneri was not a successful businessman. Had he been commissioned by the aristocracy, he would have had to satisfy their taste with the fully arched models.
The slow rise of the del Gesù violin in public recognition was due to its dubious pedigree, its inferior workmanship and relatively low price, which, until most recently, has remained well below the Stradivarius. The pedigree problem was abated once Niccoló Paganini declared the del Gesù tonally preferable to the Stradivarius for his own use. The brotherhood of violinists must have felt a special kinship to Guarneri who served them well—live and posthumously—with suitable violins they could afford. Yet the positive attitude of the players should not be overrated for a number of reasons. Classical violinists are not entirely free of the common trait one finds among Gypsy violinists: they hate to spend much for a fiddle. This fact reduces their value as reliable judges, since the ownership of a particular violin is not necessarily an exaltation of its maker. Rumor has it that Jasha Heifetz acquired his del Gesù violin, the "ex-David"(now obviously, the "ex-Heifetz"), for as little as $13,000, and that is why he owned and played it. While this is hardly the full reason, Mr. Heifetz let it be known on occasions that the violinist is more important than the violin.
Long gone are the days when professional violinists were paupers, and as their prosperity increased, they could afford to bid more for fine violins. Sometimes they felt pressure to mortgage the house for a violin because the ownership of a fine Cremona instrument was often viewed as a ticket to a prestigious orchestra position. The most enviable ones are the top star soloists, the multi-millionaires, who own both Strads and del Gesù violins. They want to play the best violin money can buy. In our materialistic society, high monetary value and high public esteem are inseparable, and the once inexpensive fiddle and its second-rank maker had by now reached the pinnacle of both. The noted collector, Dr. Herbert Axelrod, purchased several del Gesùs in 1998, among them the "ex-Cessol" of 1736 for 4.5 million dollars. The "ex-Kochanski" del Gesù of Aaron Rosand was sold in 2009 for $ 10 million—more than what was paid for the Strads in the recent past. We have to pause here for a moment to catch our collective breath while we comprehend the full meaning of this development. In just one generation the affordable Guarnerius del Gesù has gone out of orbit, bypassing even the Stradivarius, at least until Mr. Perlman will be ready to sell his famous Strad, "The Soil". What happened in the last 30 years to cause such a dramatic development? Surely, $10 million for a musical instrument is an inordinately huge sum of money. Of course one can also say no painting is worth $80 million.
Our generation has witnessed unprecedented social and economic changes leading to the concentration of enormous wealth into a new, almost invisible group of people, who, unlike the ceremonially active former aristocracy, are not well known for commissioning new art. The present nouveaux riches have huge amounts of liquid capital at their disposal which is being used by skilled investors in the area of antiques with the same manipulative spirit as shown before in computer development and pork belly futures. Antique violins offer a nice diversion, a hedge against inflation, or even a good return for the money. (The ten-fold increase in the prices for the top Cremona violins during the last twenty years is more than twice the inflation rate.) The violin market, just like impressionist paintings, will respond to the proper manipulation. Indeed, the Cremona violin prices began rising rapidly after 1970 responding to an increasing demand and all the publicity of setting new auction records for Stradivarius violins.
The traders of the top brand antiques have been lucky, but also smart and pro-active in this new era of wonderful opportunities. They have made use of the faster and better communications in sustaining desirable publicity, and they have received considerable help from their natural alliances: the concert artists, the recording industry, and the music writers and critics. Selling the great violins to investors is a legitimate and respectable business, and it pays more than just the bills.
The respective pricing of the individual Strads and del Gesù violins will follow the practice of the antique trade. The Guarneri del Gesù, being the violin with smaller surviving numbers, may have an added rarity value and is bound to end up on top. The higher decibel output, or the superior projection generally associated with the del Gesù has become an important new selling point. Predictably, there will be a temptation to ignore the enormous differences in quality among the violins and to price them high mainly for the value of their label. The celebrity status of the current owner will be an important "added value": an "ex-Stern", or an "ex-Menuhin" designation may possibly double the price. The top dealers who are often also experts in the actual art of violin making and restoration, have a clear dilemma on their hands: questions of conviction, conscience, and ethics. Is it proper to sell the best musical instrument just for the profit and thus cause a loss to the performing art? It is not a coincidence that Bein & Fushi are also the leaders in helping young artists with access to Strads and Guarneris on loan from collectors.
Although a good part of the available Guarneri literature was written by the violin dealers themselves, they have until recently been quite factual and only moderately opinionated. This too has changed. In the October 1994 memorial issue of The Strad, the primary trade magazine of this field, all stops were pulled in the exaggerated praises of Guarneri del Gesù. There is hardly any blunder of his blade that the chief spin doctor of the British dealers, John Dilworth, could not turn into a sign of virtue, boldness, expression of masculine grace or unfathomable genius. One wonders: is he looking at the same errors which would eliminate a violin in the preliminaries of a modern competition? Possibly, I have limitations in art appreciation. Perhaps the beauty of the del Gesù is like one of those computer-generated illusions, from whose monotonous patterns only the patient eye can wrench its hidden image. It is also possible that the del Gesù, despite its coronation as the new emperor, has been dressed up with invisible clothes.
In any case, the greatest seducers are not the writers but the best players of the violin. Ever since Paganini, the leading virtuosos have been the most effective champions for the immortality of their favorite maker. Their effectiveness has continued to rise due to the increased concert schedule of the jet age and through exposure in television and recordings. They can find not only a few dozen complimentary adjectives but also vivid metaphors to describe some aspects of their treasured possession. Lord Menuhin could look at his del Gesù ("the Lord Wilton", 1742) and sense in it the rich beauty of the stained red glass of the Sainte-Chapelle. Another great legend, Ruggiero Ricci, also liked the French theme: he preferred the distinct Burgundy wine flavor of his old warhorse (the "ex-Hubermann") to the Bordeaux flavor of the Stradivarius. Most great players built their careers on lasting relationships with a handful of violins to which they relate with almost conjugal loyalty. Doubting the sincerity of their glowing praise for their beloved del Gesù would be like questioning Dante's admiration for Beatrice. Some artists, like Yitzhak Perlman, have a rather nonpartisan affection for both great violin makers, and alternate a Strad and a Guarneri according to musical demands. The better suitability of the Guarnerius to fill the largest modern concert halls—a very contemporary selection criterion—makes its possession desirable.
Most Guarneri owners are unequivocal in their preference and are not shy in championing the cause of gaining converts. Since we are now talking about large sums of money, the future potential for a conflict of interest cannot be discounted when violins are judged by artists. With the Guarneris the tone is of primary importance, and smart buyers should also consider consulting with an acoustical engineer who is familiar with the computer analysis of the violin sound.
A genius or just a lucky strike?
Nothing that has been presented here could disprove the widely held notion that Guarneri del Gesù was indeed an iconoclastic genius. It is hard to disagree with this view in light of his contribution to the history of classical music making. Most of the time, I also subscribe to this popular view which, however, is anything but proven. But as a "devil's advocate", I should point out that there are alternative explanations for the present excellence of these violins which do not require the apotheosis of their maker. A more detailed technical argument will be presented in a separate article, and only the conclusion is mentioned here for the benefit of those are not inclined to read about technical details. Accordingly, one can also argue that Guarneri del Gesù was less than a brilliant violin maker who was the beneficiary of many fortunate coincidences.
As discussed before, the crucial structural aspect of the del Gesù violins is the generally low arching which makes them more flexible, and this flexibility is further enhanced by the elongated ff holes. These structural features that are especially the characteristics of the late period violins led to the acoustical outcome of enhanced emission in the lowest octave which is responsible for the darkness of the tone. These features, instead of being the masterstrokes of acoustical planning, could have also represented a significant shortcut in the time required to craft the violin. Some of the least attractive factory violins are also made with a flat arching because there is less wood to carve away, and expediency is important. He also left the plates, especially the maple backs, rather thick—once again a shortcut in crafting a violin. If anything is sure about del Gesù 's modus operandi, it was the urgency of it; it was geared for the maximum speed. Some of his violins look like they were ordered on Monday to be played on Saturday. With his method of carving mostly freehand, this was possible. The customer certainly could not make any demands under such circumstances, especially, if the price was also right. Conceivably, del Gesù could have made hundreds of violins on the flat model, sending out most of them without a label. His expectation concerning the fate of those violins is easy to guess: he could have hoped for only the cream of the crop to survive. It did, and each violin was improved, beautified and modernized by successive generations. Finally, in our time, with our hearing dulled by loud rock music and our preference for the big sound, the del Gesù may have arrived at the pinnacle of appreciation.
The Guarneri del Gesù story is truly intriguing, and much more than some antique dealers drumming up business as usual. It is an unusual combination of added values and changing taste which would greatly surprise the folks of 18th century Cremona, including the Guarneris. For del Gesù to anticipate that the sound of his hastily produced violins would be the wave of the future would have been as unfounded as for Mr. Suzuki to expect his factory violin to conquer Carneggie Hall in the 22nd century! There are no indicators available in our time for such an improvement of tone quality nor for such a dramatic change in public appreciation to take place.
Perhaps we should return to the well researched conclusions of Cozio di Salabue and Fetis which were based on eyewitness testimonies. It is more realistic to view Guarneri del Gesù as a good craftsman with limited professional options and many personal problems who liked to work with wood and sound in an unorthodox way. Like Stradivari, and unlike all later generations, del Gesù was also a lucky beneficiary of a unique local process of wood processing that included the use of the borax insecticide and provided unintended acoustical benefits. He might have enjoyed the pleasure of freely sculpting the violin shape. He could have found satisfaction in working for the musician unlike Stradivari who worked for the patrons of music. He might have also derived some gratification knowing that his well projecting violins were able to reach large audiences. This interpretation may be less outrageous than those currently being pushed.
The del Gesù legacy.
We may never be able to understand the enigma of Guarneri del Gesù, but we can be pragmatic and draw conclusions from his approach to violin making. Fortunately, many of his extant violins are still in healthy shape, and continue to be examined by craftsmen and scientists. There may also be a more abstract legacy to sift through. There is a moral to the story of this wildly temperamental man who dedicated his work to Jesus Christ, which should inspire those who have chosen his métier. First of all, the luthier should serve the violin players, no matter how lowly their professional, or amateur status, nor how little they can afford to pay. Such dedication may not bring instant gratification, but it may in time earn honor and a lasting name. del Gesù's example also reminds us that the essence of the violin is not in its visual appearance, but in its sound which should be rich, mutable and expansive, like the voice of a dramatic soprano. There should be freedom to sculpt the violin in many variations, and one should not surrender to those who think greatness can be confined to fixed measurements and templates.
By our contemporary standards, Guarneri del Gesù could be viewed a loser in his life time. Yet a violin maker is not a loser if his violins are played by good professional players. The comforting legacy of del Gesù is in not having to reach top price in order to be appreciated for extraordinary service. It is the acceptance of the fact that the real star of the violin is not its maker but the performer. One wonders whose act is harder to follow: Stradivari's or del Gesù 's?
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