Early last month, CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker’s excellent 60 Minutes piece, The City of Music, profiled the long history of violin making in Cremona. The small Italian city has produced some of the world’s finest violins, including instruments by Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and luthier families such as Amati (active between 1537 and 1740), Guarneri, and Bergonzi.
Itzhak Perlman talks about the characteristics of his Strad and plays briefly. He describes his mental image of the sound and its sense of “sparkle.” Violinists Cho Liang Lin, Salvatore Accardo, and Anastasiya Petryshak also appear.
With one hundred and fifty shops, Cremona is still an epicenter of fine violin making. Whitaker offers an inside look at violin making and restoration, including the selection of wood which is based on resonance.
The debate surrounding comparisons between priceless, old Italian Stradivari and Guarneri violins and the work of top-level, modern luthiers rages on. Meanwhile, the quality of some of the finest contemporary instruments is undeniable.
Brooklyn, New York-based luthier Sam Zygmuntowicz has great reverence for the old Italian makers, but he refuses to be intimidated by their mystique, rejecting the notion that “mystery” surrounds their brilliance. Through extensive research, he has attempted to gain an increasing understanding of the way design impacts sound. The Renaissance principle that “beautiful form leads to beautiful function” applies. Zygmuntowicz has used vibration scanning technology to understand how violins “move.” Watch the surprising slow motion CT scan of an undulating Strad here.
In this clip from last year’s Banff International String Quartet Competition, Sam Zygmuntowicz has some interesting observations about Strads and modern violins. He mentions that violin making has become fairly homogenized, compared to the distinct French, German and Italian schools of the eighteenth century. In each of these schools, the style of violin making was informed by a distinct concept of sound. Zygmuntowicz points out a key advantage of modern instruments: luthiers are able to work with violinists to craft an instrument which meets their specific expectations and needs. He describes the violin as “a conduit for energy,” which passes from the player through the bow, into the bridge and ultimately through the air and into the listener’s eardrum. At the end of the lecture, we hear a brief demonstration of two of Zygmuntowicz’s violins.
You can also hear one of Zygmuntowicz’s violins in action in this excerpt from Richard Strauss’s ballet suite, Der Bürger als Edelmann (Le bourgeois gentilhomme). The violinist is Steven Copes, concertmaster of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Last week the music world was shocked by news of a well coordinated theft of the priceless 1715 “Lipinski” Stradivarius. The violin was on loan to Frank Almond, concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Following a concert, the thieves used a stun gun to incapacitate Almond, who was not seriously injured. A $100,000 reward has been offered for information leading to the safe return of the instrument. You can read a statement from the violin’s owner at Almond’s website.
Last May I profiled A Violin’s Life, Frank Almond’s excellent recording featuring the “Lipinski” Strad. A Violin’s Life was an honorable project because it allowed the public to celebrate the sound and distinguished history of this extraordinary instrument. On some level, a work of art of this caliber belongs to all of us.
As musicians we develop deep emotional bonds with our instruments. We spend many hours together. We put in our energy and the violin gives back. The greatest violins offer up a seemingly endless array of tonal colors. Over time, the violinist has the joy of discovering what the instrument can do and how to draw the best sounds out.
As this open letter to the thieves states, it will be impossible for the violin to be sold for many years. This means, if not returned, it will probably sit in a vault unplayed. Besides its value as an investment, what good is an unplayed violin? We can only hope for a happy ending to this story.
A great violin is both a technological tool and a work of art. The PBS documentary, Violin Masters: Two Gentleman of Cremonashowcases history’s two most respected violin makers, Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698-1744). The film highlights some of the aspects which make these violins so extraordinary as well as the differences between them (Strads are generally sweet while the Guarneri is known for a deep, rich chocolaty sound). Joshua Bell talks about his Strad in this clip.
Modern violin makers, known as luthiers, still copy the Strad and Guarneri models. No one has improved on this combination of dimensions, wood, varnish and craftsmanship. The “secret” regarding what makes these instruments so great also remains a mystery. This short film features a behind the scenes look at the work of Oregon luthier David Gusset:
[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Red Violin[/typography]
The 1998 film The Red Violin offered a romantic view of the long life of a great violin. The movie’s score was written by American composer John Corigliano. Here is violinist Philippe Quint playing music from the film:
[quote]Every time I open my violin case and find this treasure inside, my heart jumps just a little bit. This 300-year-old artifact is the perfect unity of art and science, one of the most remarkable constructions made by a human being.[/quote]