I’ve been making a violin for the past couple of years. So as soon as I heard of the Ashmolean Museum’s summer exhibition of stringed instruments by Antonio Stradivari, the most celebrated luthier of all time, I was off to Oxford to pay my respects to the master.
I wasn’t surprised by the near-religious silence of the room in which 21 of the greatest instruments in the world, each worth millions, were displayed, by the darkness, or by the wonder in the worshippers’ eyes as they gazed at the glowing polished-wood contents of the glass boxes. To music lovers, Stradivari – often Latinised to Stradivarius – is a sacred name, and the violins and cellos he made – known affectionately as Strads – are treasured beyond all others. “His instruments are uniquely wonderful,” British cellist Steven Isserlis told me. “For the last two centuries, an overwhelming majority of the great violinists have determined that it is the instruments of Antonio Stradivari that give them the ability to express the beauty and passion of music that are closest to their ideals,” Canadian violinist James Ehnes wrote in the catalogue.
This overlap between Strads and the most famous players in a centuries-old musical tradition means that the instruments are not just extraordinarily beautiful – Stradivari is thought to have trained as a woodcarver before turning to musical instruments – and technically brilliant – he experimented endlessly with shapes, arches and sizes to improve the quality of sound, and the forms he created in his mid-life golden period are still the model for most violins today – but are also the stuff of performance legend. Each violin is named, sometimes just with a worshipful-sounding honorific (“La Pucelle” for its virginal perfection), sometimes for past collectors, but often in remembrance of a past owner who was also a star among performers: the “Viotti-Bruce,” the “Boissier-Sarasate,” or the “Fritz Kreisler.” Reverence for the instruments is fused, in the music fan’s mind, with reverence for the masters who’ve played them, something of whose genius may, as violinist Yehudi Menuhin had it, have rubbed off: “A great violin’s … wood stores the history, or the soul, of its successive owners.”
No wonder heads were bowed.
After all that reverence, however, it was a relief to leave the inner sanctum for the more down-to-earth outer room. Here one display case had a how-to guide to carving a violin, from chunks of maple and spruce right through to varnish, and another showed Stradivari’s – pretty basic – woodworking tools, moulds and sketches. In a corner was a mocked-up luthier’s workshop, very like the cheerful one I work in: an ordinary man-cave, with a scarred workbench, chisels and gouges on the walls, a pot of horse-glue bubbling and half-finished bits of work everywhere.
This homely artisanal mess was a welcome reminder that even Stradivari was, in the beginning – long before the awed religiosity set in – just a craftsman, wearing a white leather apron and speaking the Italian dialect of his home town of Cremona, whose job was to turn lumps of wood into something that could make music that moved people.
On a much humbler level, it was the idea of that alchemical transformation – that, just by working wood, you could do the musical equivalent of turning base metals into gold, and create a voice – that made me, also, want to make a violin. Yet, despite a childhood playing and an adulthood listening to and loving the purity and emotional resonance of violin music, it took me years to pluck up courage to try. Even when I did, I still half-expected to be confronted with secrets: impossible techniques, impenetrable mystique.
So I was astonished, when I got going, to realise how toy-like and insubstantial a violin actually is – like a balsawood plane, its sides only a millimetre thick, strengthened with skinny lining strips and held together with weak glue – and how simple the making technique. Your starter pack contains: some thin strips of hard wood to make the sides; a thick rectangular block of hard wood for the scroll and neck; two wedges of hard wood, usually maple, which will be glued together to become the back of your violin; and two wedges of soft spruce for the front, as light and splintery as supermarket crates. The idea is that the violin front works like the membrane of a drum – thin, responsive, and really just there to vibrate – while the back and sides are like the drum’s solid supporting body.
The act of making gradually strips away all remaining mystery. You take a flat mould cut to the shape of your future violin (most are Strad shapes), bend the thin strips to match its curves and glue them round the sides. You carve out the slopes of back and front plates and the scroll. You assemble them. There are no esoteric techniques – just infinite care, sore fingers, respect for tools, patterns and measurements, and trust for the teacher.
It feels natural to anthropomorphise the product of this labour of love and think of the form coming into being, through your tender care over each tiny step, as a baby. A violin is even shaped like a human body, and its parts named accordingly: neck, ribs, shoulders. When someone in the workshop picks up a finished violin to play it for the first time, everyone goes quiet. “We’re about to witness a birth,” someone more experienced whispered to me, my first time. As we listened to the newborn’s first tentative sounds, I was struck by the joy on every face.
However afraid you are that your lack of expertise will damage the tiny shape before you, and although you do inevitably go wrong, there is, reassuringly, almost always a way to put things right. There’s glue and sawdust, or a revised shape, to take in the mistake. As in Winnicott’s notion of “good enough” parenting, wood forgives.
Remembering that made it endearing to see, at the Ashmolean, that Strads also have their tiny visible imperfections: wonky f-holes, lopsided scrolls. There’s even a theory that these are what makes their sound so exquisite. Dr Franco Zanini of the Elettra Synchrotron Light Laboratory in Italy suggested in 2012 that the asymmetries, patches, and imbalances in thickness revealed by examining a Cremonese violin with high-energy light beams might have helped get rid of the harsh, unwanted harmonics that make a note sound unpleasant – which, he said, occurred more in a perfectly symmetrical instrument: “It is not impossible that these imperfections have been made on purpose to remove this imperfect sound.”
Many other modern attempts have been made to find technical reasons for the greatness of Strads. Do they resonate differently because of a Little Ice Age that slowed down the growth of the wood Stradivari was using, or because the wood had been soaked in seawater and hardened? Or was there a secret ingredient in the varnish – crushed amber, fruit sugar, volcanic ash? But no science has yet explained the magic.
Paradoxically, although always admired, Strads have not always been considered the greatest violins. In the decades after Stradivari’s death, his instruments were not the most expensive or sought-after instruments from Cremona’s glory days. The main advance of his technical experimenting was a flattening of the curvier front and back arches preferred by his Cremonese predecessors, the Amati family – giving a more powerful tone. But while instruments were mainly used at 18th-century courts, and played in small private rooms, “Strads performed probably rather worse than the famously sweet-toned Amatis,” Toby Faber writes in Stradivarius: One Cello, Five Violins and a Genius. It was only in the 19th century, with the emergence of the violin as a solo instrument played in big halls, and of Romantic-era star soloists – including Viotti, Lipinski and Paganini – that stringed instruments began to need the power in Stradivari’s design. As violins were altered for the new virtuoso style, with longer fingerboards and tilted necks, “Stradivari’s later instruments, designed for power, responded magnificently. The sweet-toned, high-arched violins of Amati…did not,” comments Faber. The supreme irony? “The brilliant and powerful tone for which Strads are famous, and which is most responsible for their value, is very different from what their maker himself must have heard.”
Later developments consolidated the Strad’s position at the top. The rise of the concert soloist was followed, as more Europeans moved into cities, by the rise of the amateur orchestra, an explosion of demand for new instruments, and an explosion in prices for the more glamorous old ones. This encouraged energetic mythmaking by a new breed of silvery-tongued dealers, led by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, who himself owned and sold dozen of Strads. His more questionable activities – even passing off his own copies of Strads as the real thing – may have raised the question of when a violin was a fiddle, but he certainly established Strads as the instrument every top musician should aspire to play. In the 20th century, as Americans came to the instrument market, the potential number of buyers of the 650-odd known Strads rose, and, since 1945, the market has grown further with Asian collectors joining the throng.
Amidst the adulation, the unnerving question is sometimes asked: are Strads really the greatest instruments? Tests such as a 2010 “blind hearing” at the Eighth International Violin Competition of Indianapolis raise doubts. The 21 professional violinists listening ranked one violin their least favourite of the six being played. It turned out to be the only Strad. Faber’s book raises questions: have at least some of Stradivari’s masterpieces been so overworked in the 20th century – exposed to the sharp temperature changes of quick global travel, the brutal pull of modern steel strings, and centuries of use – that they’ve worn out and lost their voice? “Some are sad, damaged ghosts of what they must have been, and a few, frankly, just don’t sound as great as one might hope, and probably never did,” Ehnes says, realistically. Yet, as a player of Strads, he still feels the magic: “But never have I come across a Stradivari violin that did not have something special, something beautiful, somewhere in the sound.”
I have a different kind of scepticism, arising from the unstoppable upward march of art prices, which means that Strads, no less than Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, have far outstripped the buying power of players. In 2011, the nonprofit Nippon Foundation sold the 1721 “Lady Blunt” Strad for £10 million ($16 million). Some instruments in private collections or museums are lent to gifted musicians. But others lie untouched. As they are redefined as part of the luxury goods market – art investments made of wood, valued for their value rather than their sound – these artifacts stop being, in any real sense, “instruments” for making music.
The 19th-century virtuoso Nicolo Paganini once said that Stradivari made violins from trees nightingales sang in – a reminder that a luthier’s transformational magic is worked to give wood sound, and that the whole point of a violin is its ability to move hearts with its voice. But you can’t hear the 21 violins behind glass in that quiet room in the Ashmolean. You can only look. Stradivari’s nightingales, caged by well-meaning collectors, have been silenced, and his magic undone.
The amateur violin I’m making, in a cluttered workshop full of aproned people talking about local orchestras while trying to carve the perfect curve, will never look or sound as beautiful as a Strad. It may turn out more blackbird than nightingale. It might even be a crow. But my efforts will, at least, give some bits of wood a voice. And that voice will be used as every maker, from Stradivari down, always intended for the instruments they’ve brought into the world: to sing.
Vanora Bennett’s latest novel, Midnight in St Petersburg, is about violin makers.