In the wonderful world of music the names of Stradivari, del Gesú and Guadagnini have for a long time evoked the idea of a famous and beautifully crafted stringed instrument being played by a world-class musician.
Turbulent tales and inbuilt mysterious qualities have contributed to their gaining an immortal reputation. There is no doubting that they have an extra something that adds a richness and deep tonality to any performance of the music they were designed to play.
In our contemporary age for a musician to be allowed to play one of the surviving superb instruments made by the creatives from Cremona in Italy Antonio Stradivari (c.1644-1737) and Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri del Gesú (1698-1744) or those by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711-1786), who was born in Bilegno near Piacenza and worked in Piacenza, Milan, Parma and Turin, is considered both a privilege and an honour.
Guadagnini is considered the next most illustrious maker after Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri ‘del Gesu’ who was both Stradivari’s contemporary and rival in Cremona.
The hype surrounding these amazing instruments is all about their intrinsic beauty and an ability of its maker to craft from wood a box with a few strings attached that was capable of giving forth a very powerful and seductive melody.
It is one that still resonates long and loudly today, especially when a master technician plays one of these fine instruments.
In 2011 an anonymous Australian benefactor bought a $10 million violin, which was given on permanent loan to the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s principal violinist, Richard Tognetti.
Made by Giuseppe Guarneri, or, Del Gesu, known as the Carrodus, it is one of the four or five of the finest of the finest of violins in existence.
Tognetti said to the ABC reporter at the time “most violinists, you’re in awe of just getting close to an instrument like this, let alone having the incredible honour of it being my voice box”.
Since Stradivari’s time many have endeavoured to copy his style and sound, including Guadagnini, who would have known about his work and taken his renowned quality as a benchmark to model his own.
They are all violins, except for one cello that while bearing his father’s label dating 1730, is believed to have been completed by his son.
Antonio Stradivari along with Giovanni Battista Guadagnini and Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri del Gesú made a great many violins, lavishing more care on them than on any other instrument.
Today only those well experienced in recognising the many unique qualities of a historic instrument that any of this famous trio made alone can determine their authenticity.
Those surviving certainly have taken a lot of knocks after being in constant use for centuries.
Stradivari made his instruments from the wood of the Spruce tree obtained from The Tyrol, a heavily wooded area of Austria rich in cultural history.
Surprisingly this, the first major show of its kind, revealing just how 21 of his instruments on show, came to be considered among the finest and most beautiful of their kind.
They date from between 1666 and 1734, and many have interesting names such as La Pucelle, The Messiah, and The Lady Blunt (pictured left).
La Pucelle the Virgin gained its name because it miraculously survived in a state of virginal purity.
The Messiah, which actually belongs to the Ashmolean, had its name affixed because one of its owners kept it locked away in a case. Someone remarked it was like the Messiah, i.e. always talked about but never seen, and the moniker stuck.
Lady Anne Blunt was named for the great granddaughter of Lord Byron who first owned it.
Fetching a staggering 9.8 million pounds at a charity sale for the Japanese disaster relief after the earthquake and Tsunami of 2011, The Nippon Music Foundation’s president Kazuko Shiomi said
“While this violin was very important to our collection, the needs of our fellow Japanese people after the March 11 tragedy have proven we all need to help, in any way we can.”
One can only imagine that Stradivari certainly would never have ever been able to conceive a time when his musical creativity would have fetched such staggering sums of money.
The Lady Blunt is still considered one of the finest examples of a violin that he ever left to posterity.
Generally it is acknowledged that the finest of all Stradivari’s instruments were manufactured from 1698 to 1725 (peaking around 1715) and exceeding in quality those manufactured between 1725 and 1730.
Stradivari’s original tools, wooden models and patterns are today housed in the Museo Stradivariano at Cremona in Italy where visitors can follow the creation of a violin from a log of spruce wood through to the finished instrument.
While Stradivari seemed to follow the basic pattern for violin making like his contemporaries, he is however renowned for constantly trying minor variations on it.
He was all about producing instruments that appealed to his own sensibility of sound, which seems to be one that many fine musicians today find great satisfaction and joy with
The reason why seems to have been a riddle solved by a physicist and amateur violinist at the Elettra synchrotron laboratory in Trieste, Italy.
He developed a technique that compared a rare violin built in 1753 by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini, discovering that it was most likely that the tiny ‘imperfections’ of the Guadagnini violin he encountered contributed to it’s producing such a stunning sound. He stated that he believed it could also be the reason why both Guadagnini’s and Stradivari’s instruments have gained legendary status.
He said in an interview in December 2012 “If you make an instrument that is not perfectly symmetric you can in principle remove those unpleasant harmonics,” said Dr. Zanini. “Doing this is beyond a computer, so perhaps they were doing this by chance or trial and error, but it is not impossible that these imperfections have been made on purpose to remove this imperfect sound.”
Dr. Zanini and his team had to construct a special air-conditioned container to ensure the temperature and humidity the violin being tested was exposed to and did not change throughout the experiment for fear of damaging it.
He added: “After the scan, Peter Herresthal, the Norwegian violinist who owns the violin, played it and did not notice any difference”.
As he lived and worked until he was well in his nineties, Stradivari’s output was indeed prodigious and there are a lot of his fabulous instruments still around.
He made violins, harps, guitars, violas and cellos, more than 1100 instruments of which about 650 originals survive. The rest have been destroyed in fires, wars, floods, and other world disasters.
One thing to remember is that they have always been valuable, especially when they were new.
Some have a greater reputation than others and there are many people out there today, as well as trusts and foundations, who are willing to protect that elite sound for future generations.
The ACO Instrument Investment Fund is managed by JBWere and the investor has the added bonus of becoming a patron of the virtuosos to whom the instruments are loaned.
Big prices are achieved for them not because they are rare, but because of they are so very often pitch perfect.
For him they simply mad… ‘… a bigger more brilliant sound’, one that is just right for the late Baroque style, and right for later eras” he told a Telegraph reporter in England.
“When Beethoven needed a bigger sound it was Stradivarius’s violins that fitted the bill, and they still do now. It’s extraordinary to think that these instruments are as perfect for a concerto written yesterday as they are for music written three hundred years ago.”
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013