From the 13th June 2013 the ASHMOLEAN MUSEUM in Oxford is hosting a remarkable exhibition of instruments by ANTONIO STRADIVARI. This exhibition was organised through the enthusiasm, huge knowledge and sheer hardwork of Jon Whiteley, and Charles and Peter Beare.
See the Ashmolean website for details.
It is open and it is amazing! 21 stunningly beautiful instruments by the most imaginative maker ever, who opened so many possibilities within these simple forms, plus some of his tools & drawings brought over from the museum in Cremona.
(The Ashmolean is a 3mn cycle ride from my workplace!)
There are luthier demonstrations (details below), and lectures by Curtis Price touching on issues of authorship and authenticity, Jon Whiteley on the ‘secrets’ of Stradivari, Tony Faber on ‘the mystery of Stradivari’s inimitability’. I will give a lecture on violin-making Saturday 6th July at 11am, with lots of pictures, and perhaps instruments and bits of wood.
The picture above is of a detail of ‘Le Messie’ from the permanent collection at the Ashmolean. I am posting photos of the exhibition here
Having to talk to people about instrument making and the qualities which Stradivari brought to the craft has led me to start to write and re-write a few soundbites, reflections and rambles around the received idea of ‘secret’ which surrounds him and his work.
Readers of this, please comment and contribute in the box at the bottom of the page!
It is worth remembering when thinking about Stradivari, that he had his own historical context to work with: the violin-shape as we still know it had arrived 150 years previously, refined largely (but not only) by Andrea Amati in Cremona. His sons Girolamo and Antonio had evolved the shape further, and by then the specificity of the instrument’s shape and role was firmly established: at the beginning and during the course of the 17th c. , music had started to appear which exploited the particular timbre and singing qualities of the instrument, and its potential for virtuosity (like for example Monteverdi’s Madrigals also purely instrumental music by Merula and others); one can spot links between the evolution of the music and of the instruments. Stradivari possibly learned from the grandson of Andrea, Nicolo Amati, starting from a very strong grounding in a craft which was still steeped deep in the obsession of the Italian Renaissance with architecture and sculpture. He was clearly very fluent with the use of tools from an early age, and from then on tirelessly worked and experimented until his death at the age of 93.
Context tooSeen from my perspective as a maker 300 years later, he was someone who within the simple forms and materials of the violin or cello, saw possibilities opening out before him, and knew how to realise them. The subtlety, organic and tactile quality, balance, liveliness at every point and proportion are a pleasure and an inspiration, and most importantly, these qualities do translate directly into sound, this is the whole point of the things.
He is one of few makers who went into another realm of realised possibilities: whereas most of us work within a room of our personal views and conditionings, he seems to have opened the door into a very interesting garden. This is easy to perceive, seeing and hearing his results, but not easy at all to do oneself! A secret?
History? The deeply held view which I have just expressed is of course a blatantly romantic one, and it needs to be balanced out! I have just read an article by Oliver Webber which around a project of re-creation of ‘Monteverdi’s violins’, highlights some of the problems, prejudices and partiality of a ‘progress’ ideology when it comes to history. Here is a quote from his article:
(…) we need to study carefully the evolution of the violin – and to understand it as such. It is vital to recognize that we are not dealing with simple “progress” towards modern “perfection ; instead we are looking at an instrument which has at each stage adapted to suit the prevailing musical style (and which in turn has influenced that style ). In some ways this is very similar to Darwinian evolution: each species adapts to its environment but also influences that environment, creating a stable but flexible ecosystem.(….) History of history? The Stradivari myth (to which I subscribe wholeheartedly) is not new (edit in progress) Questions A question which is asked a lot is: ” why can’t one replicate the things and get good results that way?” The 19th c. makers especially in France pushed that idea almost as far as it can go, with a mixture of reverence, homage, mass production, positivism, ruthless business sense, and exploitation of the workforce. I think that there is an issue which is almost a moral one: does one want to capture something which has been done, (with the implications that to capture one needs to trap or stiltify the ideas and energies) or to try and attempt to bring to life, from the possibilities afforded by personal limitations, shapes, materials, and actual time spent (this of course includes influences, learning from what has been done, as well as dialogue with musicians etc.) ? Are these two attitudes in a binary opposition? Secrets The so-called ‘secret of Stradivari’ takes all sorts of shapes: some interesting some ludicrous: floating of trees as part of seasoning, mysterious varnish ingredients, mysterious under-varnish ingredients, glue, mini ice age affecting the wood he used, shrimp juice, volcanic ash, fungi…. Aside from completely genuine and valid investigation, there can be signs of an understandable envy at work; to minimise the discomfort of it, one option is to try and reduce the achievements of others, whether alive or dead. The implication which I think is lurking behind the belief in a single ‘secret of Stradivarius’ could be that as modern violins are on the whole more precisely crafted than most old ones ( this is construed to be a virtue above design and understanding) , the only thing that they lack in order to be even superior to Strads, Guarneris etc. is essentially a trick, which he had at his disposal which they don’t have (or have, in which case their instruments are indeed superior!) .
Anything there at all? One strand of thought is a partial or complete denial by some modern makers that there is anything particularly interesting tonally or otherwise in old instruments. (It is surprising how much one hears in that vein in fiddle making circles; composers don’t tend to talk like that: it wouldn’t come to their mind to denigrate Bach!)
Possible The fact that these instruments have happened, (the Cremonese making of the 16th to 18th century, Stradivari in particular ) is to me a source of joy: the clarity of purpose they still show 300 years on, a miraculous expression of the possible.
Michael Kearns and myself from Oxford Violins assisted by John Milnes have helped to set up a ‘working’ violin-making workshop (artfuly designed and realised by Clare Flynn and Paul Evett from the Ashmolean ) in one of the exhibition rooms.
We will be providing fiddle-making demonstrations.
Dates and times:
Thurs 20 June from 14h
Saturday 6th July at 11h Lecture
Thurs 11th July at 14h
Thurs 18th July at 14h
Saturday 27th July at 11h
There is a very well put together catalogue for the exhibition available from the museum.
Also, the recent catalogue of the permanent collection, an absolute treat which can be got here
It was compiled by John Milnes with an array of specialists, including John Dilworth, Michael Fleming, Tim Baker, Linda Sayce etc. with great photography by Tucker Densley.