You don’t need to be a string player to recognise the name Stradivari. Famed the world over, Stradivarius violins are the crème de la crème of the string world, often generously loaned by foundations or private owners to leading violinists, who make sure we can all enjoy listening to these exceptional and unique instruments for years to come.
Across the 2019/20 season, the LSO will be joined by a number of soloists who are lucky enough to play Stradivarius violins (and a viola!). Here’s a look at Autumn’s ‘Strad’ concert, but first, some history on the violin maker himself!
Who was Stradivari?
Antonio Stradivari was born around 1644 in Cremona, Milan. As the home of Andrea Amati, credited with making the first instruments of the violin family as we would recognise them today, Cremona was the centre of violin making throughout the 16th and 17th century. In fact, in 2012 the ‘Traditional violin craftsmanship in Cremona’ was declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
It is generally believed that Antonio Stradivari was an apprentice of Nicola Amati, Andrea’s grandson, the prime piece of evidence being a label in one of Stradivari’s earliest violins (from 1666), which reads ‘Antonio Stradivari, pupil of Andrea Amati’.
Stadivari went on to become a violin maker (luthier) himself, in total making an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 string instruments, of which approximately 650 survive today. Throughout his career he experimented with violin-making, altering the shape to make the C-bout stronger, the F-holes straighter and longer and the scroll larger.
What makes Stradivarius violins so special?
In short, no one knows. Numerous experiments and theories over the years have attempted to explain the unmatched quality of Stradivarius instruments. Some theories from way back were that the wood was soaked in salt water or coated in volcanic ash, or even that dragons’ blood was used in the varnish!
More recent theories have also focused on the wood and varnish. At the time Stradivari was making violins, Europe was experiencing a period of unusually cold temperatures known as the Little Ice Age. This meant spruce trees grew more slowly and steadily, resulting in a more uniform grain and therefore a high end wood with which to make instruments. But if that’s the case, why did instruments made by other luthiers from the same time who had access to the very same wood not meet the same standard as Stradivarius violins?
Another recent theory from Joseph Nagyvary is based on analysis of the varnish Stradivari used, which included some unexpected materials such as borax and chromium. According to Nagyvary, this unique varnish made the violin porous where it shouldn’t be, leading to a change in tone.
No theory so far is without its many critics. Suffice it to say, there are likely many factors that make Stradivarius violins so exquisite, and investigations into the wood or varnish shouldn’t detract from the fact that Antonio Stradivari was an incredibly skilled craftsman. With that in mind, let’s take a look at one of his violins appearing on the Barbican stage this Autumn.
The ‘Gariel’ Stradivarius, 1717
played by Nicola Benedetti, courtesy of Jonathan Moulds
The ‘Gariel’ Stradivarius was made in Stradivari's Golden Period from 1700 to 1720/25 and is one of several instruments that passed through the hands of Luigi Tarisio. A well-known character in the history of the violin trade, Tarisio developed his hobby of violin playing into a business venture, acquiring and selling some of the finest instruments made in Cremona. (The jewel in his collection was the famous ‘Messiah’, the only violin Stradivari never sold, and the closest to a mint-condition Stradivarius that exists today!)
Tarisio sold the ‘Gariel’ Stradivarius to another famous violin dealer, Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, who in turn sold it to the eminent French engineer, physician and founder member of the Academy of Science in Paris, Charles-Marie Gariel, the instrument’s namesake. Gariel likely sold it on shortly before his death in 1924.
Fast-forward almost 100 years and the ‘Gariel’ Stradivarius, having been described as among the 30 most important violins ever created, now belongs to Chairman of the LSO Advisory Council, Jonathan Moulds, who generously loans it to Nicola Benedetti. On the violin, Benedetti says ‘lots of instruments just don’t suit the person playing them. I was incredibly lucky that we suited each other so well. It’s like falling in love.’
Keep an eye out in the new year for our round-up of Spring's 'Strad' concerts.
Thursday 14 November 7.30pm
Michael Tilson Thomas Agnegram
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto
Prokofiev Symphony No 5
Michael Tilson Thomas conductor
Nicola Benedetti violin