Notes and Editorial Reviews
VIOLIN MASTERS: 2 GENTLEMEN OF CREMONA
PBS VIMA601 (DVD: 59:26)
The perception of the violin as an archetype of eternity, splendor, passion, elegance, mystery, and wealth has apparently changed little since it sprang fully formed, like Minerva from the head of Zeus, into existence about 460 years ago. It wafts through the ether of public consciousness, appearing, as PBS’s documentary about Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù makes clear, in settings so pedestrian as daily crossword puzzles (every
puzzler has entered “STRAD” and “AMATI” countless times into a grid); and the sound of the instrument pierces the orchestral veil in Hollywood movie scores to underline moments of heightened expressivity. It’s also been made the subject of recurring journalism, buffeted, though its history and technique have been documented thoroughly enough, by broadcasters who have dipped only deeply enough into its lore to put together a breezy “piece” to fill the space between more important interviews with actors or politicians. PBS, on the contrary, has devoted an hour to the instrument in which a gnat could swim or an elephant drown—both of them happily. The DVD offers only Dolby D; with English subtitles its only special feature. Yet everything’s first-rate: the narration by Alfred Molina, the videographic imagination, the interviews with violinists, makers, and experts—all of them among the best known—and the general organization.
The program divides into 10 sections, each of them a treasure to behold. The first,
, features a general introduction by violin expert and dealer Charles Beare (now OBE), tracing the rise of the Amati family in that storied city. Then violin maker and historian Carlo Chiesa and bass player and historian Duane Rosengard discuss Stradivari’s background and general development as a luthier. While their presentation may be largely anecdotal, they also engage in serious speculation about critical subjects (although they don’t discuss the various stages through which Stradivari passed in detail, refraining from mentioning by name his early Amatisé—and a bit later, long-pattern—instruments). There’s no misinformation; in fact, its overall accuracy should rocket this documentary to the very top of any list of popular journalistic studies of the instrument, either print (consider Joseph Wechsberg’s
The Glory of the Violin
, interesting and comprehensive but riddled with errors), or audio-video. Itzhak Perlman and Midori chime in to flesh out a portrait of a maker who searched continuously throughout his career for structural and acoustic innovations.
contrasts the meticulous workmanship of the older Stradivari, who sold instruments to the nobility, with the inspired, reckless experimentation of Guarneri, who supplied “local musicians” (Peter Oundjian).
Sculptors of Sound
explores some of the explicit differences in the two artists’
. For example, it appears that Stradivari bought large supplies of good wood in 1680 and in 1700, using a stock of a lesser quality in lean years but finally digging into his treasure-trove as he grew older. On the contrary, Guarneri consistently used fine wood, which, Beare speculates, he obtained from Yugoslavia through his brother, Pietro Guarneri, a violin maker in the port of Venice. Violin restorer John Becker observes the care with which Stradivari worked out the internal details of his violins, contrasting it with Guarneri’s concern with the “complete visual work,” which reveals so much of his personality. (Violin maker Bruce Carlson mentions Guarneri’s haste, which never, however, led him to neglect important details.)
Finally, we reach a larger group of violinists; and Joshua Bell, Cho-Liang Lin, Pinchas Zukerman, James Ehnes (whose violin playing—from his recording
33:1)—pervades the presentation), Vadim Repin, Midori, and Julian Rachlin, expatiate on their preferences for either the Stradivari or the Guarneri ideal (with their respective instruments identified as they speak). John Becker claims that while individual instruments of either may be bright or dark, there’s a more general difference in the response of the two makers’
oeuvres. El Diavolo
recounts the story of Nicolò Paganini adopting a 1743 Guarneri (which he dubbed “The Cannon,” a name that’s stuck), thereby establishing the fitness of that maker’s works for the use of first-rate artists (Elmar Oliveira pays explicit tribute to Paganini’s part in Guarneri’s popularity). Jazz-violinist Regina Carter describes her experience of playing the Cannon—the magic of even holding a violin favored by Paganini and touched by so many great artists. The seventh section,
, enumerates hypotheses that have been advanced to explain why Stradivari’s violins have charmed so many, including soaked wood, wood from the mini ice age, decomposed organic matter, and varnish (John Becker believes the ground coats to be responsible). Collector David Fulton, however, suggests that, rather simply, there can’t be more Stradivaris because the original maker has died, just as there can’t be any more Michelangelos.
Objects of Desire
probes the instruments’ awe-inspiring mystique, explaining that great violins have followed money and power (becoming, as my wife has suggested, status symbols without peer). So while violinist-conductor Lorin Maazel notes that human contact keeps violins young, Beare points out that for many violinists, like competition winner Marié Rossano, such contact can be guaranteed only through sponsorships.
documents the return of violin makers to 20th-century Cremona, and
the living legacy of the city and its luthiers. Near the end, Perlman likens the differences of Strads and del Gesùs to the differences between Burgundy and Bordeaux wines (each with its devotees), and Bruce Carlson stoutly maintains that the fascination and extremely high valuations of these instruments can’t be due simply to “hype,” as otherwise musicians would have moved on. Everybody involved proves to be a cogent story teller, and the production crew has organized those stories into a riveting narrative. The best of its kind, it deserves to be on the DVD shelf of anyone who has ever heard a violin. Amen.
Still, as I wrote my prayer, “amen” the Angel (or might it be the Devil) of the violin whispered in my ear, “But you have to tell the whole story.” And I remembered that the blurb on the DVD case had promised to explain why these instruments have commanded prices reaching into eight figures from violinists and collectors. Luckily, nobody in the presentation tried to fulfill that promise. But the assumption of legitimate value seems to underlie the whole program, perhaps sparking the interest of many who otherwise might care little about violins. But the Angel breathed a different story into my consciousness. It provided fertile ground for her suggestion, because my violin-maker great-grandfather, the first of a family of violin makers, firmly believed that modern makers could create instruments in many (if not all) respects equal to the older ones (though he revered Stradivari, one of whose violins he owned and copied) as a perfect craftsman. I’d never have believed his claim if the Angel hadn’t insisted. Then there’s the collection of rumors about dealers who inflate prices of the antique instruments, of violinists who fear to do without them (I know an orchestral violinist who felt it necessary to acquire first a Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, then a Giuseppe Rocca, and finally a J. B. Guadagnini, advancing by painful steps from worths of about $175,000 to about $1,000,000). Great violins now command prices upwards of $15,000,000, although Fritz Kreisler, a violin collector extraordinaire, reputedly played his Vuillaume, fooling listeners who thought his Strad or del Gesù sounded particularly vibrant on that particular evening. “But,” the Angel insists, “tell too about the experiments conducted by psychoacoustician Claudia Fritz and luthier (and MacArthur Foundation genius) Joseph Curtin.” These two confirmed in controlled experiments that violinists, blindfolded, didn’t (couldn’t?) pick the great instruments from an array of violins they tried. And last summer, at the Violin Society of America’s Violin Acoustics Workshop at Oberlin College, I watched as violin makers and violinists, myself among them, failed to evaluate what they heard. In fact, some of the results seem too embarrassing to relate.
So might violins be like certain luxury cars, tough to drive but status symbols nonetheless? Do today’s violin makers already possess the secret of Stradivari? Could they? Might the jury still be out about these instruments, or has it in fact come back into the courtroom bearing a verdict too timorous to pronounce? In short, might my great-grandfather, Otis, have been right? The Angel of the violin wants you to consider these alternatives, and so do I.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
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