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Stradivarius: Fascinating Facts You Might Not Know

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

Stradivarius in his workshop

Stradivarius in his workshop

Stradivarius: The Violin Maker's Violin Maker

Just about everyone has heard of Antonio Stradivari, or to give him his Latin name, Stradivarius. And those who do know of him will almost certainly know he is the most famous violin maker of all time and that his violins are the most expensive. In fact, the top price at auction was a paltry $16 million for the 'Lady Blunt' Stradivarius. It had belonged to the great-granddaughter of Lord Byron and bears her name.

But read on and see if you know any of these little nuggets about Stradivari's fascinating instruments.

Stradivarius mandolin

Stradivarius mandolin

Not Just Violins!

Stradivarius made around 1,200 instruments during his long life, of which approximately 650 survive. Of those somewhere in the region of 500 are violins, but he also made violas, cellos mandolins, harps, and guitars. He also made bows. The technical name for a stringed instrument maker is a luthier.

Probably the most famous cello in existence is the 'Davidov,' once owned by Jacqeline du Pre and now owned by Yo-Yo Ma.

Yo-Yo Ma and His Davidov Cello

Stradivarius: Man of Mystery

Though other craftsmen at the time were curious, even desperate, to discover his secrets, Stradivari never disclosed what made them special. He died taking his unique methods of working to the grave. The first known violin he made was in 1666: the 'Serdet.' The Great Fire of London burned ferociously that year. Just as well Stradivari wasn't a cockney.

Even his date of birth isn't known but has been narrowed down to between 1644 and 1649.

Pablo Sarasate playing his Stradivarius violin namesake

Pablo Sarasate playing his Stradivarius violin namesake

What's in a Name?

Every Stradivarius has been given a name. Some bear the name of a previous owner, such as 'Jean-Marie Leclair', the baroque French violinist and composer and 'Wieniawski' also a composer and violinist from Poland who died in 1880. The great virtuoso Sarasate had the instrument he played named after him, unsurprisingly as 'Le Sarasate' and was previously owned by Paganni, and a violinist from the 20th century has been honoured - 'Oistrakh' after the wonderful Russian player David Oistrakh.

The sobriquets can be rather romantic. The 'Sleeping Beauty' is one, with others sounding like characters from the fairy tale: 'Prince Obolensky,' 'Baron Deurbroucq,' and 'Compte D'Amaille'. Two are linked to a duo of towering artists: the 'Leonardo da Vinci' and the 'Titian.'

Stradivari's Golden Period

Although all Stravarius violins are all fine, some are finer than others. From 1700 to the early 1720s Stradivari produced his most refined instruments. They became longer, and the body flattened. The varnish he applied was also rethought. Previously he had coated his instruments with a yellow varnish similar to those of whom is presumed to have been his master, Nicolo Amati, but changed it to a red-orange preparation.

Stradivari continued working into his nineties if you count 1644 as his birth date.

Antonio Stradivari's golden period violin from 1703 is housed in the Musikinstrumentenmuseum in Berlin

Antonio Stradivari's golden period violin from 1703 is housed in the Musikinstrumentenmuseum in Berlin

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Stradivarius Decorated

Although many of Stradivari's instruments are plain, if I dare venture to write such a thing, some were decorated. Only 11 decorated instruments remain in existence, four of which are in the Spanish Royal Palace collection and designed by Stradivari specifically as a quintet but the tenor viola has been lost. The cello is the only one still in existence that bears decoration. There is more about this cello later in the article.

The Smithsonian archives five of the rare decorated instruments, another is at the Ashmolean Museum, and the twelfth is privately owned.

We know from a priest called Father Arsi who liked to drop in at the Stradivari workshop that it wasn't unusual for him to enhance his creations. From one of his letters, we know Stradivari painted figures, flowers, and fruit and used ebony and ivory inlay.

The 'Hellier' has finely worked filial decoration to the ribs and on the side of the scroll and in place of the usual plain inked purfling—the defining black line around a violin's perimeter—it is embellished with a continuous ivory string of dots alternating with lozenges sandwiched between two thin wood bands both on the front and back. The 'Ole Bull,' named after a Norwegian violinist and composer, is ornamented in the same manner.

The 'Hellier' Stradivarius

The 'Hellier' Stradivarius

The 'MacDonald' Viola Played by David Aaron Carpenter

Rolf Lislevand Plays the Sabionari Guitar

The 'Sabionari' Guitar

Apart from a few fragments, there are five Stradivrius guitars in existence. The 'Sabionari' guitar is the only one that is able to be played and recently received a makeover to return it to its original baroque set-up, doubling up four of the catgut strings (A,D, G and B) which was the norm at the time, plus a single E.

Listen to the fine playing and rich clear tone on this rare footage.

Joshua Bell Playing the Bruch Violin Concerto on the 'Gibson' Stradivarius

Stradivarius: Targets of Theft

Because of their rarity and value, Stradivarius instruments have been targeted by thieves. At least ten have gone astray during their long lifetime. Some of the top players have instrument 'minders' who might carry the instrument or watch and are in overall charge of its safety.

The 'Gibson' was taken from the dressing room of the violinist Bronislaw Huberman in 1936 while he was on stage playing on another of his violins, a Guarnerius. The thief kept the violin for nearly fifty years until he contracted cancer and asked his ex-wife to take possession of it. She, in turn, held on to it for another four years or so until she suspected it was rather more than merely an old violin and handed it in. She picked up the finder's fee for her trouble—a cool $263,000.

It's thought it was possibly covered it in shoe polish to mask its ancient pedigree and it could never be played in public without alteration for fear of attracting attention. The 'Gibson-Huberman' is now owned by the spectacular violinist Joshua Bell.

More recently, in 2010 violinist Min-Jim Kym took a break, along with her precious Stradivarius, in a Pret-A-Manger at Euston train station in London, went to pick up her sandwich, and came back to find it had been nabbed. Happily, it was recovered in 2013 safe and sound. The perpetrator, John Maughan, had apparently tried to sell it to a bus driver who said he wasn't interested as his daughter already had a recorder! Maughan was jailed for four and a half years.

Viktoria Mullova: Stradivarius in Rio

Stradivarius Mishaps and Near Misses

In 2012 the unthinkable happened at a photo shoot in Madrid. A Stradivarius cello was being snapped at the Spanish Royal Palace in whilst displayed on a table and fell off. Sotheby's had estimated its value to be in the region of a staggering $20 million.

The neck of the highly prized instrument broke away from the body, which had previously met with a former accident in the nineteenth century and had to be replaced. A case of deja vu for the unfortunate cello.

The exceptional violinist Viktoria Mullova was traveling by plane and stowed her violin in the overhead locker. Unbeknownst to her a member of the cabin crew whipped it out again and stuffed in the hold. She was not best pleased. "I could have been smashed," she said. Not without foundation. I think most of us are aware that baggage handlers and conveyors at airports don't necessarily treat luggage—or Strads—in the most gentle manner.

Jaques Thibaud Plays Vitali's Chaconne

Air Crashes Destroy Stradivarius

At least two Strads have met their demise in air crashes. The late fantastically talented French violinist Ginette Neveu together with her pianist brother, Jean, who was also her accompanist, had just given a recital in Edinburgh from where they were due to fly to New York for another tour. Sadly the plane came down in the Azores with the loss of all on board and the Stradivarius.

Steven Isserlis, the celebrated cellist, recalled during an interview with Ida Haendel how his father had attended that final Edinburgh concert and never got over her untimely death.She was just thirty.

Almost four years on in 1953, another wonderful and respected violinist perished in the same manner. Jacques Thibaut, strangely also French, was on the Air France flight bound for New York when it got into difficulties during a storm, almost at its destination of Nice. It crashed into Mont de Cimet in the Alps, killing the 73-year-old Thibaut, Again his accompanist also died plus his daughter-in-law, and the Stradivarius, bearing his name, was lost forever.

David Oistrakh Plays the Final Movement of Brahms Third Violin Sonata on the 'Marsick' Stadivarius

Stradivarius Unplayed

You'd surmise, would you not, if you had a Strad in your possession, you would lift it out of its case and give it an airing in the concert hall. After all, there are players the world over who would give their back teeth to be seen in public with such an illustrious fiddle on their collar bone.

Not so. David Oistrakh was the lucky recipient of a Stradivarius when it was willed to him by Queen Elizabeth of Belgium. What wasn't so lucky was the awkwardness of the style in which it had been constructed - it was rather short and didn't sit easily under his hand, so he played his alternate instrument in preference, the 'Marsick.' Oistrakh's widow donated the shorter violin, named after him to the Glinka Museum and the 'Marsick' is currently in the talented hands of concert violinist James Ehnes.

Antonio Stradivari: His Life and Work (1644-1737)

Stradivarius Odds and Sods

  • Napoleon was once thought to have owned the 'Molitar' Stradivarius.
  • The celebrated Maxim Vengerov owns not one, not two, but four Stradiviaris.
  • A 16-year-old girl was given a Stradivarius violin by her immensely generous grandfather for her birthday in 1990.
  • Edvin Morton, playing his 'Paganni' Strad won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2008 together with Dima Bilan and Evgeny Plushenko.
  • Cipriano Landscape Design built a swimming pool modeled on the Stradivarius violin, complete with LEDs and clever projections to create the illusion of the strings. Even the chin rest has a place in the left corner, though of course they weren't used in Stradivarius' day.
The 'Molitar' Stradivarius

The 'Molitar' Stradivarius

Questions & Answers

Question: Where is the violin that Antonio Stradivarius himself played?

Answer: Tartini's Stradivarius is the first one that we know of the provenance. We do not know which one Stradivarius himself favoured.

© 2017 Frances Metcalfe

Please Comment On My Hub

Frances Metcalfe on July 05, 2019:

Hi Rob

I'm very pleased you liked the article - I really enjoyed writing it.

Rob on July 05, 2019:

Helpful very interesting and I'm formative much gratitude.

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on August 01, 2017:

Sorry to be so late in replying but have been away and computerless! Yes indeed every violinist,s dream to play one. I love string based music above all else - biased of course having been a violin teacher - and always wonder about the instruments performers are playing on.

Goh Tong Keat from Malaysia on July 23, 2017:

Interesting article! The strad is every violinist's dream.

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on February 26, 2017:

Hi Flourish. I always, as I know others do, keep a foot on the case if I put the fiddle down but it's difficult to balance a tray as well as a case (which is quite heavy if it's a good one) in a crowded area.... nevertheless!!! Often violinists have a strap and sling the case over their shoulder, but then there's the danger of bumping someone in a place where there's not much room. I simply went to places where there was plenty of it,ie not busy, and could always keep it line of sight, and preferably got served at the table. I don't normally go out with it now, and definitely not to a cafe.

FlourishAnyway from USA on February 26, 2017:

I enjoyed reading this. I can't imagine leaving such an instrument unattended while I grabbed a sandwich or stowing it in the overhead compartment of an airplane.

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