The Astonishing 300 Year History of the Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius

“The true artist does not create art as an end in itself; he creates art for human beings. Humanity is the goal.” ~ Bronislaw Huberman

Now owned and played exclusively by Joshua Bell, the Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius violin was made in Cremona in 1713 by the most revered luthier of them all: Antonio Stradivari, during what was known as his ‘golden period’ from around 1700 to 1725.

Illustration of Antonio Stradivari in His Atelier

Illustration of Antonio Stradivari in His Atelier – Image by © Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis

If the origin of a violin or stringed instrument is the key to its value, then a large part of that provenance is inexorably wrapped up in its history after its departure from the  Stradivari workshop in Cremona.

If a violin can be said to imbibe the qualities of its owners, world events and individuals who have influenced its journey; then this violin’s history is virtuosic, violent, secretive, poignant, beautiful and courageous.

Recent History

Joshua Bell talks about how it was ‘love at first sight’ when he first saw and heard it during a rehearsal with its then owner, British violinist Norbert Brainin, a former member of the esteemed Amadeus Quartet. He felt its tone was sweet as well as ‘gutsy’, which is not surprising considering who has played on it and where it has been. Norbert joked that one day it might be his…if he had 4 million dollars to spare…

Joshua Bell - Huberman_violin

It must have been written in the stars that one day it would be his. That day came in 2001 when Joshua Bell was at J & A Beare’s in London having some maintenance work done on his ‘Tom Taylor’ Stradivarius violin. He learnt from Stephen Beare that the Gibson ex-Huberman Strad was on their premises being prepared for imminent sale by Brainin to a German industrialist.

Joshua had to act fast, and managed to purchase the violin before it was gone from his grasp, probably forever. He performed on it at the Royal Albert Hall the same day it came into his ownership and has never played another instrument since.

How it Sounds

If a violin can be said to have a soul, then I think the Gibson/Huberman violin’s soul is Polish. It may have been crafted in Cremona, but its roots are entwined with its most celebrated owner, Bronislaw Huberman. Perhaps that’s why it sings so resonantly to the music of Chopin.  Here is his nocturne in C sharp minor performed by Joshua Bell on the Huberman Strad for his first album release (Romance of the Violin), after purchasing the violin.

I recently watched The Return of the Violin; an incredibly moving documentary film, (tissues were needed), and felt compelled to share it with you. It’s a film about the depth of the human spirit and the story of the violin’s incredible history coming full circle,  the ultimate testament to the healing power of music.

Narrated and produced by Roy Mandel, directed by Haim Hecht, he talks to the central figure of the film, holocaust survivor Sigmund Rolat, whose tragic memories and brutal observations of the Nazi invasion of Poland ties together their respective Jewish families from Czestochowa, along with 20th century Polish wunderkind violinist, Bronislaw Huberman and composer Johannes Brahms.

Bronislaw Huberman (1882 – 1947)

A Jewish boy from Czestochowa, he was a child prodigy who grew to be one of the most iconic violinists of the 20th century. He was known for his individualistic and personal interpretations, which I find very refreshing in this day and age of focus on technique.

Violinist Bronislaw Huberman, aged 18.

Violinist Bronislaw Huberman, aged 18.

He began learning the violin at the age of four, because his father (a law clerk), wanted him to play the piano, but not being able to afford one gave him a violin instead. His immense talent soon became obvious and according to the film, he was gifted the Stradivarius violin that had been owned by the family of Count Władysław Zamoyski (1853–1924).

I love this 1930 Huberman recording of Bruch’s beautiful theme based on Hebrew melodies written originally for cello, Kol Nidrei:

He’s also amazing with Chopin! Gorgeous vintage recording:

For a time the young Huberman was tutored by the great Joseph Joachim in Berlin. He introduced Bronislaw to the composer Joahnnes Brahms, (who was having a bit of a revolt on his hands from the violinists of the day), over the difficulty of his Violin Concerto in D Major. Not so for the Polish wunderkind. Brahms didn’t believe Joachim until he heard the  young boy perform his work at a legendary concert in Vienna.

My sheet music of the Brahms Violin Concerto Op. 77 in D major

My sheet music of the Brahms Violin Concerto Op. 77 in D major

I have to admit I didn’t know much about Huberman, and when I saw the film and learnt of his courage and devotion I was full of admiration for him. He was a remarkable man, a visionary and humanitarian.

Not only was he the founder of what is now known as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, he rescued as many of his fellow European Jewish musicians (and their immediate families) from the horror of the holocaust as was possible, by giving them a place in his new Orchestra of Palestine.

“One has to build a fist against anti-semitism – a first class orchestra will be this fist.” ~ Bronislaw Huberman

Talk about playing for your life! I can only imagine the stress of some of these musicians must have felt when auditioning for a seat in Huberman’s new orchestra; which if you earned yourself a place essentially meant escaping the death camps.

Perhaps Hollywood should make a movie called ‘Huberman’s List.’

The Thefts

The first time the Gibson/Huberman Strad was stolen was in Vienna in 1919. Fortunately, it was quickly recovered and Huberman continued to wow audiences on it for another 17 years.

And so it played out, on that fateful day – 28th February 1936 – whilst Huberman was on stage playing his Guarnerius violin during a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall, (to raise funds for his new orchestra in Palestine), the Huberman Strad, laying in repose in its double case in his dressing room, was stolen.

I can only speculate if Juilliard trained violinist Julian Altman had premeditated his musical larceny, or whether it was a crime of passion, an opportunistic urge on the night to steal the Gibson Strad.

With breathtaking contempt and audacity the shyster Altman played on it at weddings and other political events. No-one was any the wiser for half a century, with the possible exception of his friend, Luthier Ed Wicks who lived in Danbury. He carried out repairs to the bridge and neck of the violin in 1983 and noticed the inscription inside.

Although Altman told him it was a copy, I suspect he was of a different opinion, but he wasn’t to know that it had once belonged to the great Bronislaw Huberman. Sadly, Huberman never saw his beloved Strad again.

Huberman was reimbursed to the tune of $30,000 dollars (its value at the time), and ownership of the stolen strad passed on to its insurer: Lloyds of London.

It was only while in jail and on his deathbed in 1985 that Altman confessed to his crime, telling his wife she could find the supporting documents to corroborate his story in between the violin case and its canvas cover. His estranged wife Marcelle collected the instrument from the home of Ed Wicks and returned the instrument to the authorities, whereby Charles Beare verified its authenticity.

Charles Beare in The Strad magazine:

“As I lifted the violin from its case, I didn’t appreciate that Mrs. Hall and her friends and family were still in doubt about the violin’s identity. Very slowly I said ‘No — problem’, and it turned out that in the second or two between the two words Mrs. Hall almost died with disappointment. After that there was joy all round.”

“Out in the better light of the garden, away from the crowd and the popping champagne corks, I had a good look at Huberman’s remarkable violin. In 1911, when the young virtuoso purchased it, Alfred Hill of W. E. Hill and Sons wrote ‘The red varnish is in a pure state, as applied by the maker.’ Now you could barely see it, submerged as it was beneath layer upon layer of dirt and polish. . . .Nevertheless the violin was clearly a masterpiece, and in the pale sunlight its handsome wood and red varnish glowed reassuringly.”

Marcelle Hall was paid a finder’s fee of £ $263,475.75  by Lloyd’s of London, which was the focus of much legal wrangling by other beneficiaries of the Altman estate.

Full Circle

Although his entire family were murdered, Sigmund Rolat survived the Second World War and made a successful life for himself in America, returning several times in later life to his and Huberman’s birthplace of Czestochowa.

It was Rolat’s dream to hear Huberman’s violin played by its current owner, Joshua Bell, (who also has Jewish ancestry), in the concert hall that stood on the foundations of the old synagogue before it had been destroyed by the Nazis.

Poignant just doesn’t cover it.

The Return of the Violin

That dream came true in 2009 in conjunction with Rolat’s efforts to open the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw:


Discussion about The Return of the Violin with Sigmund Rolat, Joshua Bell and Budd Mishkin:

Slight Confusion

According to Charles Beare:

W. E. Hill and Sons purchased the violin in the nineteenth century from an old French family, subsequently selling it to Alfred Gibson, a prominent English violinist who also owned one of the Stradivari violas exhibited in Cremona. In 1911 it returned to Hills and was sold to Huberman, at which time Alfred Hill wrote that “the fine red varnish which covers it is in a pure state as applied by the maker.”

This account contradicts the story that the Gibson Strad was given to Huberman by Count Zamoyski. I can’t quite tie together all the loose ends, but it doesn’t matter. This remarkable violin has had remarkable owners, and a dramatic history.

Portrait of Alfred Gibson with his Stradivarius by Herbert Olivier (uncle of Laurence), c. 1899

Portrait of Alfred Gibson with his Stradivarius by Herbert Olivier (uncle of Laurence), c. 1899

It has been celebrated, coveted, admired, and heard in live performance by many (including me).

One thing’s for sure, it went incognito for 51 years before returning to its well-deserved spotlight!

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: