Guarneri (del Gesù), Stradivari and Nagyvary – The Debate over Ancient Violins vs. Modern Masterpieces

“’Tis God gives skill, but not without men’s hand: He could not make Antonio Stradivarius’s violins without Antonio.” ~ George Eliot

When it comes to the value of violins, (and for that matter violas and cellos); provenance matters. The allure of such revered names is enough to send any stringed player into a frenzy…

Ultimately, the quality and rarity of Amati, Stradivarius and Guarnerius violins will render them more expensive than their modern counterparts, no matter how good and comparable the modern violins may be. With only around 600 Stradivarius instruments left in the world not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to play on one, (at least all of the time), let alone own one. And of course, the provenance greatly affects the asking price. Who has owned it, and when, who has played on it, what music has been written for it, the condition, these elements all add to the mystique and desirability of the instrument. Much like a work of art, a painting is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. And in many instances they pay millions.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPaganini’s violin, the priceless ‘Il Cannone’ was made by a contemporary of Stradivarius; Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri of Cremona, in 1743, and is famed for its power and resonance. Interestingly, when it needed maintenance and repairs, these were undertaken by luthier Jean Baptiste Vuillaume in Paris, who constructed a replica violin so precise in every detail that even Paganini could not distinguish one from the other! Eventually he came to recognise the slight differences in tone, and was able to tell the original by sound. The violin and its replica are kept on display in Italy at the Genoa Town Hall. Occasionally it’s lent to performers.

The Devils’s Violinist (trailer) – A film about Paganini, played by violinist David Garrett:

Jazz violinist Regina Carter recorded an album on his beloved ‘Il Cannone’ (Paganini: After a Dream). Here is the track After a Dream arranged from Faure’s classic:

The debate over the sound quality of ancient Italian violins compared with each other and mostly to their modern counterparts has endured for years. Virtuosos past and present, such as Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Nigel Kennedy, Midori and Sarah Chang have owned, or played, and in some cases preferred, Guarneri over Stradivari.

Amati violinWho can say exactly what that special ‘je ne sais quois’ is, that elevates the Cremonese creations from all other violins? There are so many aspects to making a stringed instrument, and to me it makes sense that skill in every area of construction affects the finished product.

I think it’s worth making the point that for most musicians it’s the relationship that they develop with their instrument that’s the most important thing. After so many hours of practice and performance the feel and touch and memory of every curve and angle is interwoven into your psyche, and it can feel like part of your body!

My own violin is Hungarian, (late 19th Century), and to me its tone is amazing, considering it’s probably a gypsy violin. That’s why I was so interested in the story of the Hungarian born Dr. Joseph Nagyvary.

As the violinist and heroine of my novel, Isabelle Bryant does get a little caught up in this debate. In my story, she plays the Nagyvary violin that was once played by Yehudi Menuhin.

Here’s a brief excerpt that touches on this subject from chapter 1 of The Virtuoso. The protagonist has just given a masterclass at the Royal Academy of Music:

She made her way south on the underground from Baker Street to London Victoria. The dreary grey sky hung like a heavy cloak over the platform. As the train jolted to halt she quickly found a seat by the window, and nestled her case vertically between her feet and knees. As more passengers entered the carriage she touched the edge of her violin case lightly, smiling with resigned humour as a passing stranger made a joke about her carrying a machine gun.

Her violin represented another limb to her, it was that precious. It felt so natural, like an extension of her body. She gently rubbed her neck which was feeling a little sore. The rough, red patch of skin on her neck just below her jaw was often mistaken for a love bite, when in fact it was what she affectionately referred to as a violinist’s hickey. Many hours of gruelling practise had left their marks.

Her mind drifted to her earlier private viewing of the Academy’s museum, where she had been shown round by the curator in person. She had spent a blissful afternoon paying particular awe and reverence to their recent acquisition of Italian virtuoso Giovanni Battista Viotti’s 1709 Stradivarius, renamed as the Viotti ex-Bruce to honour its British donor, which the Academy extolled as one of the most important and well preserved Stradivarius violins in the world.

She had studied the sheen of the dark, pinky brown maple, picturing the old master craftsman huddled in his workshop in northern Italy; surrounded by the distinctive wooden shapes that would become so valuable over three hundred years later. Sadly there were so few of them remaining.

Her own violin, a modern Nagyvary, was crafted by the eminent Hungarian professor Joseph Nagyvary, who had spent his life studying the craftsmanship of Cremonese violin makers; namely Stradivarius and Guarnerius.

Nagyvary violins were made as closely to those of the ancient genius as possible, and there had been many debates about whether or not they actually sounded as good as those of the master. Isabelle adored its sonorous tonal qualities and projection power. If a Nagyvary violin had been good enough for Yehudi Menuhin to play for fifteen years, then it was good enough for her. Gerry, in his nothing is too much of a challenge for me attitude, had managed to do a deal with Joseph Nagyvary to loan Isabelle the instrument indefinitely.  It was her most precious possession – except that she didn’t own it.

Here is an interesting article in Scientific American

Can you tell the difference?

Dr Nagyvary discovers what preserved the violins from Cremona and Venice:

The Stradivarius Mystique – By Joseph Nagyvary

New York Times Article: What Exalts Stradivarius? Not Varnish, Study Says

Smithsonian: Scanning a Stradivarius

List of Stradivarius Violins and their provenance

Wonderful video from the Library of Congress with Peter Sheppard Skaerved, an award winning British violinist, who has performed on ‘Il Cannone’ five times.

An Introduction to Stradivari:

The mystery and romance of centuries old Italian violins has filtered into film making, with the brilliant 1998 movie, The Red Violin. The actual violin that inspired the Red Violin is Stradivari’s 1721 ‘Red Mendelssohn’, currently owned by Elizabeth Pitcairn, heiress to the PPG fortune, whose grandfather purchased it for her 16th birthday at auction for $1.7 million at Christie’s in London.

And on that note, I will leave you with the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack to the film, composed by John Corigliano and performed by Joshua Bell on his Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius:

3 thoughts on “Guarneri (del Gesù), Stradivari and Nagyvary – The Debate over Ancient Violins vs. Modern Masterpieces

  1. Pingback: The Art of Violin | rhap.so.dy in words

  2. Pingback: Beautiful Violin Gems 🎼🎻 of the 3 B’s: Bériot, Bull and Bazzini | rhap.so.dy in words

  3. Pingback: What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Gerard ter Borch the Younger’s Masterpiece: The Gallant Conversation (c.1654) | rhap.so.dy in words

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