In Thrall of Stradivarius

Stradivarius. Those five talismanic syllables are certain to excite even the novice string player. How many tens of thousands of instruments have been labeled “Antonius Stradivarius” in an attempt to borrow some of the luster of the famed Cremonese craftsman’s name! But since fewer than 650 authentic Strads survive, to play one, even for a brief moment, will, for most who have the opportunity, constitute a experience that will be remembered for life.

The encounter begins with the first sight of the instrument as it lies in its case (itself probably an object of fine manufacture designed to be worthy of its contents). How has the varnish fared over the past three centuries? Does it glow as if illuminated from within, inviting the eye to look down into the depths of the wood, or has it been dulled over the years by inept attempts at cleaning and/or retouching? Is it the delicate golden yellow-brown of the Master’s earlier period when he was still under the influence of Amati ideals, or does it blaze with the strong red tones which typify his later productions? Are the sound holes still pristine, or has the sharpness of their f-shaped outlines been blurred by the blundering hand of a repairman carelessly wielding his metal soundpost-setting tool as he attempts to adjust the position of that critical dowel (which the French call l’âme, literally “the soul” of the violin) coupling the instrument’s belly and back? When the instrument is extracted from its coffin, other noteworthy aspects are revealed. Are the corners and scroll outlines still relatively sharp, or have they been rounded with wear? Is the back of one piece of wood or two, jointed in the middle? Is the wood plain or highly figured? In which direction does the grain run? Has the plank been cut longitudinally from the tree (cut “on the slab”), or have the pieces been made from wedge-shaped slices (cut “on the quarter”)? And, in the case of the larger instruments, is the wood maple, poplar, or willow?

Though each of these observations is worth prolonged and repeated study, the player makes them all in an instant, for he is eager to set bow to string. All of those years of tedious practice on lesser instruments are about to be rewarded with the glorious sound that will certainly issue forth from this miraculous wooden gem now held in hands that are perhaps quivering just a bit with anticipation. And yet, before the instrument is placed under the chin or between the legs, the post-concert anecdote of the famous violinist and his admirer may flit across the outskirts of the mind, instilling a bit of doubt. “Your Strad sounded marvelously well tonight, Maestro! It must be in particularly fine form,” gushed the one. “That’s odd,” replied the other, holding the instrument up to his ear. “I don’t hear anything.” What illustrious hands have coaxed sound from this particular Strad over the years? In which of the world’s most important concert halls has it been heard? The player had best not think of the current value of the instrument, lest he become nervous at the thought of holding several million dollars worth of fragile wood. The care he instinctively gives his own instrument will suffice.

Then the first notes are sounded. The observer of this ritual can tell a great deal about the ego of the player through his choice of what to play. Some will rush in with a passage of Tchaikowsky or Dvorak, the better to display their own virtuosity. Others, more sensitive, will begin cautiously, drawing slow bows over the open strings, then perhaps essaying a few resonant scales, exploring the proper point of contact and seeking the perfect combination of bow speed and pressure in order to draw the most, sweetest, brightest, or darkest sound from the instrument, according to their own predilection. For a surprisingly large number of players, particularly those without any experience with really fine instruments, this will be enough. They can brag of their encounter, which will live on in their minds as a red-letter day, a high point of a career.

But for those who are really interested to establish a dialogue with the instrument, the process will take rather longer. At first, the player will ask of the instrument only that which he has to date sought in his own violin. And the Strad will respond, fulfilling the player’s sonic expectations and urging him to explore further. As the player rises to each successive challenge, his perception of what might be possible begins to alter, his sonic imagination begins to expand, and his own timbral universe is forever widened. For even when he, with reluctance, sets the Strad aside and returns to his own instrument, he will carry with him the memory of what it was like to have had, even for a short time, such a responsive partner. Non-musicians think that we string players play our music on our exquisitely-crafted wooden boxes. True musicians, however, know that the most important play is the interaction that takes place between the dots of ink placed on the page by the composer and our interior musical imaginations. By stretching our sonic horizons, Strads subtly but inexorably change our way of approaching those notes.

Despite its obvious allure, to describe the sound of a Strad is not easy. Attempts to verbalize the ineffable can begin to approach the arcane language of metaphor used by oenophiles: “It has cigar box, tobacco leaf, slight earthy components, mushroom, ripe raspberry mixed with soft notes of vanilla and spice.” In their classic 1902 study of Stradivari’s work, for example, the Hill brothers speak of the “woody, round, and brilliant tone, full of charm and singing quality” perfected by Stradivari, contrasting it with the “remarkable sonority, rich, full, and telling in quality, with a touch of pathos in it suggesting a fine soprano voice rendering some moving song” they found in the violins of Maggini. Players may speak of “a corona of resonance,” “a dark, chocolate quality,” “great depth and cushion,” the “athletic response” of an instrument, or the prominent “core” of its sound. Often, what the player is straining to express is as much the way the instrument feels under the bow as how it actually sounds. The Strad sound is typically one of great clarity of the upper partials of the pitch, combined with a equally great depth of resonance under each note, giving the player a comforting sense of untapped tonal reserves lurking beneath each bowstroke. This tonal profile is present at both high and low volume levels, and accounts for why some of the most intriguing sounds of which a Strad is capable are not those which, in clarion fashion, shout to the back of the hall, but rather those soft sounds that, siren like, coax and inveigle the ear with their bewitching sweetness.

Over the past three decades, during which it has been my great privilege to work closely with the instruments of the Smithsonian Institution’s remarkable collection (which includes at present not fewer than five Strads, as well as many other excellent Old Master violins, violas, and celli), I have on innumerable occasions witnessed the get-acquainted rituals observed between players and these precious objects. In rehearsals for hundreds of concerts on museum instruments, my esteemed chamber music colleagues and I have repeatedly been charged with a sense of wonderment at the visual and tonal beauty of these seemingly timeless masterpieces. If we are all to some extent in thrall of these instruments, it is only because the spell they cast, silent or singing, is so powerful.

                                                                                                                         —Kenneth Slowik ©