Updated: Mar 4, 2021
The many and varied circumstances under which Antonio Stradivari's instruments have been played, repaired and preserved over the centuries have exerted a profound effect upon their current condition and appearance. In fact, much of the beauty of the eighteenth century Italian instruments we see today may be attributed to the way in which the varnish has worn naturally over the years, revealing layers of colour and texture.
Musicians and connoisseurs alike recognise the essential qualities which distinguish one violin from another. These comprise aesthetic beauty, tonal power and refinement as well as playability. By the time each newly-completed instrument left Antonio Stradivari's hands, he had applied his genius to achieving a result which succeeded on all three counts. Equally remarkable was the longevity of the master's creative life-none of his rivals remained so industrious over such a long period, nor left such an incomparable legacy. Indeed, a musical landscape without Stradivari's instruments is unimaginable. He set the benchmark for excellence, which every successive generation has striven to attain.
Many have speculated during the ensuing years on the 'Secrets of Stradivari', especially with regard to his varnish. Yet it comes as no great surprise to learn of the latest research by Jean-Philippe Echard, who concludes that there is nothing unique or very exceptional in the chemical composition of Stradivari's varnish. His woodwork was touched with genius just as was Michelangelo's stonework, yet both men did no more than appropriate the techniques and materials available to them at the time. If one wants to know the 'Secret of Stradivari', therefore, one need look no further than to the great maker himself. As George Eliot observed: 'Tis God gives skill, but not without men's hands: He could not make Antonio Stradivari's violins without Antonio'.
A great painter or sculptor, however, does not have the same practical pre-occupations as a violinmaker. Michelangelo had but one overriding concern-visual aesthetics. Stradivari, by contrast, had two-aesthetics and utility. This is the unique defining attribute of the work of art known as the violin: it has a function.
In striving to achieve the finest tone, Stradivari and the Amati family who preceded him perfected an iconic shape that is as recognisable today as an object as commonplace to us as a desk or chair. Charles Reade, the nineteenth-century English novelist, framed this observation in his apocryphal quote, 'tone is heard with the eye', for there seems to be an intrinsic relationship between visual beauty and tonal excellence. Perhaps not every beautiful violin sounds wonderful, but it is rare to see an ugly instrument that exceeds expectations!
Of the Stradivari instruments extant today, some have suffered enormously while a few have survived almost unscathed. In the course of their lives all spend time in the hands of both players and restorers, and each kind of handling takes its own toll.
The restorer needs to consider the same criteria as the maker: visual beauty, tone and playability. But there are additional factors to be addressed. The restorer must maintain the instrument's structural integrity and try to leave its appearance as close as possible to what the maker originally intended. If anything is done which irreversibly degrades the instrument, it will widen the gulf between its original conception and its current state far more than the mere passage of time. Unfortunately, most of the irreversible damage that has been done to Stradivari's instruments has been at the hands of the unenlightened and poorly skilled restorer rather than those of the player. Happily, however, today's best restorers share an over-riding commitment to honouring the maker's intentions.
Stradivari was certainly blessed with being in the right place at the right time. When he commenced his working life, he had not been influenced by seeing a poor quality violin - there are now a plethora. From our contemporary viewpoint, it seems incredible that he would have found it as difficult to see a bad violin in his day as it is rare today to see a truly great one. And so for modern makers and restorers it demands effort, and a certain degree of perception, to locate inspirational instruments which retain many ingredients of their original flavour despite the ravages of time. These are the instruments by which the restorer should be guided and the ideal repair will leave the instrument looking as if it has experienced no more than the natural effects of time and use.
The outer surface is the most vulnerable and easily degraded part of the violin. It is also the area of the instrument which suffers most from the differing tastes of owners and restorers. Even instruments taken to the violinmaker for nothing more than a clean and polish may be subjected to treatments far less innocuous than they might seem. Perhaps the most unnecessary of these are the relatively recent practices of cleaning with pumice and French polishing with a solution containing an alcohol solvent. Excessive use of these processes results in the creation of a shiny surface with an unnaturally homogenous texture. We have enough surviving examples of unpolished instruments to know that this appearance is alien to the intentions of the maker. We can also deduce the typical look of a naturally-worn Stradivari violin in the mid-nineteenth century from the imitations made by J.B. Vuillaume, which retain the natural appearance of varnish that is chipped at the edge. The use of pumice and alcohol solvent in cleaning softens and erodes the edges to be found on naturally-worn varnish. In particular, the cumulative effect of repeated French polishing flattens the rich variety of varnish texture that should be found on the surface. In addition to the disturbance of the natural patina, one can often see the effect of added layers of discolouring polish that exceed the thickness of the remaining varnish. Worst of all, when repeated many times over the years, the outcome is irreversible. For the restorer facing a polished violin, there is little choice but to match any new repairs to the existing glossy patina. Even today, many will argue that choosing between 'matte or shiny' is simply a matter of taste, and the fact is that some owners like a shiny violin. But in my view, both owners and restorers should take very serious account of the irreversible long-term results of this process.
Fortunately, the technical and artistic standards of restoration are now far higher than at any time previously. All aspects of instrument restoration have been developed and improved. Maintaining structural integrity, achieving fine tone, repairing cracks, retouching varnish and every aspect of woodwork have benefitted from the dedication and expertise of today's master craftsmen.
What can owners do to help preserve their instruments?
At J & A Beare, our philosophy is to interfere with the violin as little as possible and avoid excessive polishing although a regular check to make sure that the seams of the instrument are glued will help prevent problems with buzzes and loss of tone. Soundpost adjustments should always be performed judiciously, and, if they are to the long-term detriment of the instrument, short-term benefits might not be as advantageous as one thinks. Even if, for example, the use of an excessively tight-fitting soundpost seems to have an immediate positive effect on the tone, one must still remember that the force of such a tight soundpost could push apart the front and back, eventually causing distortion and loosening the post.
This problem is often then compounded by fitting an even longer soundpost to accommodate the distortion caused by the previous one.
Dryness is the violin's enemy. Maintaining a reasonable level of humidity prevents cracks and stops the glue from drying out. Open seams and loose purfling can lead to a loss in tonal power as well as being a source of buzzing. Instruments are particularly vulnerable in the winter when buildings are artificially heated. Where possible it is best to keep instruments in a room with around 55% humidity, although a moderately higher level will do no harm. Humidifiers exist which can be kept in the instrument case or even in the instrument, although it is important to avoid anything which can leak water. For cases, there are now gel packs available, designed to release moisture without the risk of leakage, and these have not been found to cause problems. Wild fluctuations in temperature can cause problems with pegs slipping and strings going out of tune. This is not usually a structural issue, but damage may sometimes result if all the strings lose tension and the tailpiece is left lying on the belly. Loss of all tension can also lead to the instrument falling out of tonal adjustment after which it will need some time to be played until it reaches its peak again.
Finally, from today's perspective, we may all too readily forget that one of Antonio Stradivari's goals - and perhaps his most important - was quite prosaic. He simply had to produce violins in order to support his family, and his artistic legacy was not at the forefront of his mind. Several centuries later, we are far more aware of the importance of leaving these instruments for posterity than was the great master himself. With that awareness comes our obligation to do what we can to make sure that these unequalled functional works of art continue to live for the next few centuries.
] & A Beare
Article first published in 2010 in Antonio Stradivari, Jöst Thöne Verlag.