Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? The death of a man whose work is today the stuff of legend and whose God-like status only seems to increase as the centuries go by…
It’s all too easy to think of music history as the history of composers: a procession of great names, from Bach to Mozart to Beethoven and beyond, who shaped the course of music all by themselves. But classical music has always been collaborative. For starters, compositions have to be performed by people: the history of classical music is also the history of instrumentalists and singers. And it’s also crucial to remember the contributions made by one group of people who needn’t even turn up to the concert: the instrument makers.
Musical instruments, after all, don’t just appear out of thin air. They are painstakingly put together by experts with the most unbelievably fine eye for detail, aware that even the tiniest alteration can make a drastic difference. As well as everything else, music history is the history of musical instruments and the sounds they produce.
All of that said, the history of instrument making, just like the history of composers, is dominated by a select group of men whose influence is vastly out of proportion to everyone else’s. In fact, where stringed instruments are involved, there’s just one name which reigns supreme: Antonio Stradivari, who died in the Italian city of Cremona on December 18, 1737, at around 93 years of age. His unique instruments are the stuff of legend.
Over the course of his exceptionally long life, Stradivari made various types of stringed instruments: mostly violins, but also cellos, violas, harps and guitars, and around 650 of his creations survive today. Some are kept in museums, like the famed “Messiah” violin in Oxford’s Ashmolean museum (discussed in the clip above), but many are still played regularly. As violinist Daniel Hope discovers below, the Royal Academy of Music in London makes its own collection of rare instruments, including Stradivari, available to its students:
“That’s a Strad!” he says. Well, quite. But what is it that makes a Stradivarius violin so special? It’s a question that seems more or less unanswerable. There are a thousand details that make them unique: notably the very particular sort of varnish he used, whose recipe is lost to the ages. But overall, they all seem to add up to something almost supernaturally perfect.
It’s an even stranger thought that these instruments are so old. Not just because they’ve survived so well, but because they actually predate so much of the music now played on them. Bach’s Solo Sonatas and Partitas date from around 1720, and master violinist Vivaldi was a younger contemporary, too—but Mozart, Beethoven and all the rest of them came long after Stradivari’s death. Yet their music can hardly sound better than it does on his instruments. Perhaps the legendary sound of Stradivadi’s instruments has played its own part in defining our idea of perfection.
That’s one reason why a Stradivarius can cost well into the millions today—and also why one prominent trend in instrument-making today is to produce copies of specific early instruments. Luthier Florian Leonhard is one of the leaders in this field, making brilliantly authentic-sounding copies. Here his workshop explains what’s so special about Strads, even almost 300 years since Stradivari’s death: