How Genuine Stradivarius Violins?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The name Stradivarius is associated with Violins built by members of the Stradivari family, particularly Antonio Stradivari. According to their reputation, the quality of their sound has defied attempts to explain or reproduce, though this belief is controversial. The name "Stradivarius" has become a superlative often associated with excellence; to be called "the Stradivari" of any field is to be deemed the finest there is.The fame of Stradivarius instruments is widespread, appearing in numerous works of fiction.
Stradivarius violins, constructed by famed Italian instrument-maker Antonio Stradivari between 1680 and 1720. Treasured for possessing sublime acoustic properties, these rare instruments have spawned dozens of theories attempting to explain their legendary tone, and luthiers, makers of stringed instruments, are still trying to reproduce it.
In 1908 a famous Belgian violinist named Eugene Ysaye was on a concert tour in St. Petersburg in Russia. He had with him four Stradivarius violins. One of the Strads was stolen from his hotel room, and was not recovered.
In 1951 a soldier in the Korean war found a violin hidden in the wall of a rundown farm house. It was subsequently authenticated as a genuine Stradivarius.
Out of such stories as these – which are supposed to be true – has arisen a collectors’ myth. That myth is that you might find an incredibly valuable Strad yourself – hidden away in your attic or basement or perhaps at a yard sale down the block. And many people actually have found violins which carry the name of that master genius of violin-makers, the maestro of Cremona, Antonius Stradivari (whose name some misrepresent as “Stradivarius”). But these people are most often the victims of a cruel, if perhaps unwitting, hoax.
Antonio Stradivari was born in 1644 and set up his shop in Cremona, Italy, where he made violins and other stringed instruments (harps, guitars, violas and cellos) until his death in 1737. He took a basic concept for the violin and refined its geometry and design to produce an instrument which has served violin makers ever since as the standard to strive for. His violins sang as none had before them, with a clearer voice and greater volume, and with a pureness of tone which made them seem almost alive in the hands of a great violinist. His was one of three great families of violin makers in Cremona during the 1700s and 1800s, the other two being those of Guarneri and Amati, but Stradivari’s violins have been judged by history to be the best. Two of Stradivari’s sons continued his work after his death.
Every Strad was made entirely by hand, with a painstaking care devoted to the selection of woods and even the texture of the finishing varnishes. This was no assembly-line operation, and the best estimates have Antonio producing no more than around 1,100 instruments, including the violins, in his entire lifetime. Of these, an estimated 630 to 650 still survive the more than 250 years since they were made. 512 of these survivors are violins. Many others were destroyed in fires or other accidents, were lost at sea or in floods, and some were destroyed by the fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II. Virtually none are unaccounted for. Today a genuine Strad is worth two to three million dollars.
So where did those violins which have turned up in attics and closets all over the world come from? Why would anyone who found one think he had a real Strad? The answer is very simple: copies.
Today master violin-makers are using modern science – including the latest scanning devices and digital imaging techniques – to unlock the “secrets” of Stradivari and recreate instruments of his quality. One Canadian violin-maker, Joseph Curtin, and his American partner, Gregg Alf, created a copy, right down to every scratch and shading of varnish, of a specific instrument known as the Booth Stradivari, which Stradivari made in 1716. It sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 1993 for $42,460 – to a concert violinist.
But for close to two centuries much shabbier copies have been made and sold – bearing “Stradivarius” labels. For this reason, the presence of a Stradivarius label in a violin does not mean the instrument is genuine. The usual label – both genuine and false – carries the Latin inscription “Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Faciebat Anno [date],” which gives the maker (Antonio Stradivari), the place (Cremonia), and the year of manufacture, the actual date either printed or handwritten. It was this Latin label which gave the world the name “Stradivarius.” After 1891, when the United States required it, copies might also have the actual country of origin printed in English at the bottom of the label: “Made in Czechoslovakia,” or just “Germany.”
Hundreds of thousands of these copies were made in Germany, France, central and eastern Europe, England, China, and Japan, starting in the mid-19th century and continuing into current times – and literally millions exist today. They bear counterfeit labels proclaiming them to be by not only Stradivari but Vuillaume, Amati, Bergonzi, Guarneri, Gasparo da Salo, Stainer, and others. Music shops and mail order houses originally sold these violins at prices which made it plain no deception of the buyer was intended – some were claimed to be “tributes” – they ranged from $8.00 to $27.00 apiece, and were identified in advertisements as “copies” or “models.” But their similarity to the instruments they were copied from is minimal to a trained eye – or ear. While some involved hand-crafting, the vast majority were mass-produced. It was not until 1957 that the words “Copy of” were added to some of the labels.
Even today one can find advertisements for a “Stradivarius Violin” which comes “Complete with Decorative Stand and Bow,” and is claimed to be “a wonderful replica of the eminent Stradivarius violin,” designed for displaying “on the wall or atop a bureau or coffee table” for a mere $29.95. Once in a while a real Strad turns up – usually after a theft or accidental loss. In 1967 a 1732 Strad, named for the Duke of Alcantara and owned by UCLA’s Department of Music, was loaned to a member of UCLA’s Roth String Quartet. He apparently either left it on top of his car and drove off, or had it stolen from inside his car. A woman turned up with it in 1994, claiming her former husband’s aunt had given it to her husband, and she had acquired it in a divorce settlement. She said their family lore had it that the aunt had found the violin beside a road. UCLA eventually gave the woman $11,500 to regain the violin and avoid a protracted court fight. So what should you do if you find a violin with a Stradivarius label – or that of any other famous violin maker from centuries ago? You should have it appraised by an expert, and most such experts are members of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. Expect to pay for the appraisal. The authentication of a violin can be determined only by a careful examination of such factors as the design, model, craftsmanship, wood, and varnish. It’s not hard to separate out the mass-produced violins from the actual hand-made instruments, but it takes a well-trained violin appraiser to be able to attribute the violin to a specific maker or place of manufacture. Don’t expect your find to be genuine. The odds against finding the real thing are slim to none. Nevertheless, you might have a decent violin, and if you can play the instrument, that will be its own reward.

The question remains: Are Stradivarius violins worth all the fuss?

There’s no objective answer, said James Lyon, Penn State professor of music in violin. When Stradivari was crafting violins, most musicians performed in churches and courts. Rulers and the wealthy sponsored artists to enhance their prestige. As music moved away from this patronage system in the first half of the 19th century, Lyon explained, musicians’ careers became dependent on fitting more people into concert halls. Thus, although they were originally built for much smaller venues, almost every Strad still around today has been altered to sound best in a large concert hall setting.The violin world frequently stages blind tests of modern and vintage violins, including Stradivari’s, Lyon noted, and as often as not the audience prefers the sound of the modern instruments. But many musicians and luthiers argue that these tests are virtually meaningless. For one thing, the player usually knows which violin is the Stradivarius and could unintentionally bias the results by playing the fabled instrument differently. For another, even trained musicians can’t reliably pick out the sound of a Strad, he said.Asking people to choose between modern and vintage violins, said Lyon, is like asking their favorite ice cream flavor. You never get complete agreement because people like different things. In addition, it takes a while to get to know an instrument, and the testing format doesn’t allow for this. Sometimes half a year after purchasing an instrument, Lyon explained, the player “is still learning how it wants to be played.”Still, luthiers since Stradivari’s time have tried to reproduce the classic “Strad” sound. Some claim the secret lies in the craftsmanship, others the varnish, others the wood. Virtually every aspect of the violin has been touted as the key. Scientists, too, have tackled the question from various angles.Some chemical analyses suggest that the smooth, mellifluous tones may have resulted, in part, from an application of an oxidizing mineral such as borax, often used in Stradivari’s day to prevent woodworm infestation. Dendrochronology, the study of annual growth rings in trees, suggests that the wood Stradivari used grew largely during the Little Ice Age that prevailed in Europe from the mid-1400s to the mid-1800s. Long winters and cool summers produced very dense wood with outstanding resonance qualities, the thinking goes. The dense wood also helps the instruments stand up over hundreds of years of use.In light of the dozens of theories put forth to explain the Stradivarius reputation, Lyon can’t choose just one. “I think there’s likely no magic bullet here. Stradivari was just an incredibly consistent craftsman, and he was a real groundbreaker.” But given technological advances over the last 300 years, he added, it seems crazy to assume that the old luthiers knew everything there was to know about their trade.The mystique remains, however. Asked if putting aside the monetary value of the instrument, he would like to have a Stradivarius to play, Lyon said, “Yes, I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t. Partly it’s the history that goes with them.”


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