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.

reviews of the exhibition:

in the Gramophone Magazine  here.

Strad Magazine: review by Philip Kass

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, short reflections and rambles.

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. To Andrea can be credited the general use of the inside mould method of construction, which gives a certain consistency of proportion from one instrument to the next ( which in turn permits a rapid evolution within that form).  Andrea’s sons Girolamo and Antonio 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, sculpture and rhetoric. 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 too

Seen 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?
The view which I have just expressed is of course a  romantic one, and it could do with balancing 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 influence is not new: there are violins by the 18th c. London maker Daniel Parker, clearly inspired by Stradivari’s work, which were made around 1720, well within Strad’s lifetime. So as a maker, one is not so much influenced by Stradivari, but by his compound influence on ten or fifteen generations of makers, musicians, historians, collectors, myth makers and story tellers!  (edit in progress)
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 could go, with a mixture of skill, reverence, homage, mass production, positivism, ruthless business sense (with a soulless 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 consequence that to capture, one has 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, trying to learn from what has been done, as well as dialogue with musicians, colleagues etc.) ?   Are these two attitudes in a binary opposition?
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.

Ashmolean Strad Poster large

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.

Thurs 20 June from 14h

Thurs 27 June at 14h

Thursday 4th July 14h

(Saturday 6th July at 11h  Lecture)

Thurs 11th July at 14h

Thurs 18th July at 14h

Saturday 27th July at 14h

There is a very well put together catalogue for the exhibition available from the museum, with truly excellent articles by Carlo Chiesa, C+P Beare, Jon Whiteley.

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.


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