Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The New and Improved Stradivarius

The "Messiah" violin
I'm just kidding. No one has every improved on making a better violin than Antonio Stradivarius. However, some things take longer than others and, let's face it, it's only been 300 years since Mr. Stradivarius made his first fiddle.

However, the "NEW" part of the title of this post is almost true.  There is one Stradivarius that is like new.  It's known as the Messiah. And it is in brand new condition, i.e., it has  never been played. Stradivarius never sold this violin. He kept in his studio until he died as if to leave one of his masterpieces forever unused for posterity to study.

What made his violins so special? Was it the wood? It was from the same trees of Cremona that the other instrument craftsmen there used. Was it the workmanship? The varnish? No one knows for sure. Whatever it was that made his violins so special remains a secret that he took to his grave.

Stradivarius made about a thousand violins in his lifetime and over 600 have survived. Some of their names sound like the names of cigars. There's the Lady Blunt (owned by Lady Ann Blunt grand daughter of Lord Byron, the Firebird (so named because of the red color of the varnish) the Benny (owned by Jack Benny) and the Red Mendelssohn (the inspiration for the 1998 film THE RED VIOLIN).

The average Stradivarius violin is worth several million dollars. The Messiah is priceless.
After Stradivari, most of its owners also refused to part with it until their death. And over the past two centuries, it has rarely been played, meaning it is in uniquely superb condition, with little signs of the wear-and-tear that inevitably come from putting a delicate wooden instrument through its paces every day.When the Messiah was bequeathed to the Ashmolean museum in England last century it came with the caveat that it should never, ever be played again: it was to hang, majestic but silent, in its glass box for eternity.

Incidentally, if you have an old violin in your attic, peer into one of the "F" holes (on either side of where the strings cross the "bridge") of the instrument and look for a label like this:

But don't celebrate too soon. Experts estimate that there were at least a million phony labels like this stuck on the inside of cheap fiddles. They add that the chances of the existence today of any unknown Stradivarius violins is very slim.  -Ed