The Prices Paid for Stradivari Instruments.
It may be useful to commence this chapter by giving the information we have been able to glean concerning prices paid for Cremonese instruments previous to the time of Stradivari.
Vidal quotes the following: "In 1572 Charles IX. of France ordered to be paid to one Nicolas Dolivet, a Court musician, the sum of fifty livres tournois to enable him to purchase a Cremona violin for his use." The livre tournois, a nominal not actual coin, was approximately equivalent to the franc of to-day (1902), and fifty of them thus represented £2 of our money. We believe that the purchasing power of the livre tournois then was six times that of the franc now. The price paid, therefore, by Dolivet for his Cremona, was approximately equal to £12; and we may reasonably assume that the instrument was by Andrea Amati, as he was the only Cremonese maker of repute at that time.
Again, very interesting and instructive is a correspondence which took place in 1637-38 between the astronomer Galileo and his former pupil the Servite monk, Fra Fulgentius Micanzio, concerning a violin which Galileo wished to procure for his nephew.
Galileo writes to Father Fulgentius Micanzio, in Venice, as follows:--
ARCETRI (Near Florence), NOV. 20th, 1637.
"... When you receive the amount of my small pension, please keep it until my nephew Alberto, who is in the service of His Serene Highness the Prince of Bavaria, and is now staying with me here, passes through Venice on his return journey to Munich and pays his respects to your Most Reverend Paternity. He wishes to purchase a violin there, either of Cremonese or Brescian make, being a very good performer on that instrument; and the said small pension will help to pay for it. I suppose that these instruments, though made elsewhere, can be found in Venice; but should that not be so, and it becomes necessary to obtain one from somewhere else, you will greatly oblige me by making arrangements so that some competent musician shall select one from Brescia, an instrument of the highest order."
In reply Father Micanzio writes:-
VENICE, December 5th, 1637.
"I have received your most kind letter of the 20th of last month, and I have already obtained the amount of your small pension by inducing the Most Illustrious Baitello to give an assurance to that scamp Arisib that you are still alive. Concerning the violin which your nephew on passing through here wishes to buy, I have spoken to the Musical Director of the Concerts of St. Mark's (Maestro di Concerti di S. Marco), who tells me that I can easily find Brescian violins, but that those of Cremona are incomparably the better-in fact, they represent the non plus ultra; and by the medium of the Cremonese Signor Monteverdi. Chapel-Master of St. Mark's, who has a nephew living in Cremona, I have given the order for a violin to be sent here. The difference in the price will show you the superiority, for those of Cremona cost at the lowest twelve ducats each, whilst the others (Brescian) can be had for less than four ducats. As your nephew is in the service of His Highness of Bavaria, I think he will prefer by far the one ordered to be sent to Venice as soon as possible. . . ."
A second letter from Father Micanzio, dated Venice, January 16th, 1638, says:--
"If I have delayed writing to you it is only because I am still awaiting that blessed violin from Cremona, for which Signor Monteverdi assures me he has made so many repeated applications; yet, notwithstanding, it does not appear...."
A third letter, dated Venice, March 20th, 1638, says
"I am still pining for that blessed violin. Every day I am shown letters which explain that in order to construct a perfect instrument it has been found necessary to wait until the cold weather has passed away, and that in a couple of days it will be ready; still, there is no end to the delay. You may rest assured that I do not cease from pressing them. . . ."
A fourth letter, dated Venice, April 24th, 1638, says
"Concerning the violin, Signor Monteverdi has recently shown me a letter in which his nephew writes him that the new one is in progress, but as he wishes to send an instrument of exquisite work, it cannot be brought to perfection without the strong heat of the sun; he can, however, offer an old one of superlative merit, but the price asked is two ducats more-that is, fourteen. I have requested him to have this one sent at once, irrespective of the price ; he has promised to do so, and I am expecting it from day to day.
" Having been obliged to negociate (sic) this matter through other hands, you must excuse me (for the delay). I give you my word of honour that I have not neglected it; on the contrary, I have left no stone unturned. And now, kissing your hands, believe me, etc., etc."
A fifth letter, dated May 28th, 1638, says:-
". . . As regards the violin, Signor Monteverdi read me a letter which he had received from his nephew, in which he wrote that he had the violin, and that it proved on trial to be a singularly successful instrument; that he had consigned it to a boatman who lay at anchor, and was on the point of starting for Venice; that he had not been able to get it for less than fifteen ducats, besides the expenses of the carriage and the case. I replied that I would settle everything, and begged the gentleman not to delay any longer, as too much time had already been wasted over such a trifle. As soon as it arrives I will at once consign it to the Illustrious Signor Residente Rinuzzini. . . ."
It is again to be regretted that throughout this correspondence the Cremonese violin-maker's name is unmentioned ; as in the previous instance, we cannot but assume that he was one of the Amati family,-most probably Nicolo, who at this date had reached his maturity as a craftsman.
Now, the ducat was a Venetian gold coin of the value of eight shillings; and, on the assumption of its purchasing power being three times that of to-day, we find that the price for a new Cremona violin, as quoted by Fra Micanzio, was equivalent to £14 8s., whilst a Brescian instrument could be had for £4 16s. It is instructive to remember in this latter connection that Maggini had been dead but six years.
Our next record is that cited by Forster and Sandys, obtained from the Warrant-books of the time of King Charles II., preserved at the Record Office. The warrant is dated October 24th, 1662 :--
"To John Bannister (a violinist, 1630-1670), one of his Majesty's Musicians in Ordinary, for two Cremona Violins by him bought and delivered for his Majesty's Service £42."
The purchasing power of the above sum to-day (1902) would be approximately double; the violins, therefore, cost not less than £40 apiece. Once more our curiosity to learn who was the actual maker is baffled, though, as in the previous instances, he was doubtless one of the Amatis.
Our last record bearing upon the prices paid for early violins is furnished by Vitali's petition, presented to the Duke of Modena in 1685.
Vitali therein says that he had paid for the violin, on the assumption of it being a genuine Nicolo Amati, the sum of twelve pistoles. The pistole, or double ducat, was a Spanish gold coin of the approximate value of sixteen shillings, and its equivalent purchasing power today is £2 8s. The price paid would thus be equal to £28 16s. The value Vitali set upon the violins by Francesco Ruger, three pistoles, was equivalent to £7 4s of today.
If we now summarise, we arrive at the following conclusions :--
1. In 1572 a Cremona violin (Andrea Amati?) cost approximately £12.
2. In 1637 a Cremona violin (Nicolo Amati?) cost approximately £14 8s; an old one cost £16 16s.
3. A Brescian violin at the same period could be purchased for £4 16s.
4. In 1662 two Cremona violins (Amatis?) cost £40 each.
5. In 1685 a violin accepted as a Nicolo Amati (it should be remembered Amati died in 1684) cost £28 16s. The violins of F. Ruger were valued at £7 4s.
From the publication of the Arisi Manuscripts, we learnt definitely that which had previously been but a matter of conjecture. Far from being an obscure, unheeded man, Stradivari is held up to us as one of the notable citizens of Cremona, recognised far and wide as the most distinguished violin-maker of his time. Indeed, we find that kings, princes, noblemen, the dignitaries of the Church, and the most renowned musicians of the day were among his patrons, and all were unanimous in their testimony to the unsurpassed merit of his productions.
This subject, and that of the remuneration Stradivari received for his instruments, and their ever-increasing value reckoning from early times, are of considerable interest, and will, we feel sure, justify us in dwelling more at length upon them than has been done by writers in the past.
Up to the present time we have been baffled in our efforts to discover some authentic document giving the actual price paid to Stradivari for one of his instruments (on this point all writers are silent with the exception of Fetis), and so far our own researches in the different archives of Italy have proved futile.
On ascertaining that in 1715 the Elector oF Poland ordered twelve violins from Stradivari and sent Volumier-the director of his music-to Cremona to await their completion, we turned our attention to the Dresden archives (there are none at Warsaw), but with the same negative result.
Arisi refers to this question of payment in the two following entries, but, unfortunately, gives us no precise information. He states that in the year 1685 Cardinal Orsini, Archbishop of Benevento, ordered a violoncello and two violins, which were sent as a present to the Duke of Natalona in Spain, and adds that the Cardinal, besides paying liberally for the work, expressed his appreciation by conferring upon Stradivari a title of appointment.
The Title of Appointment granted to Stradivari by the Archbishop of Benevento.
Brother Vincent Maria Romanus Orsini, of the Order of Preachers, by Divine Providence, Cardinal, Priest of the Holy Roman Church, of the title of St. Xystus, Archbishop of the Church of Benevento.
Considering the faithful service and kindly affection which Antonius StradivariUS, of Cremona, has shown us when opportunity offered, we have determined to show him in return our good will, and we desire to rank him among our familiar friends, in order that he may always be a partaker of the privileges, prerogatives, and exemptions which those enjoy who are actually engaged in our service. And therefore we exhort all and every one, that they show him the same favour, esteem, and due honour; and we on our part promise in return our best thanks. In testimony of all and everything above mentioned, we have commanded this writing to be drawn up. . . . signed by our own hand arid certified with the impression of our own seal.
Given at Benevento this 25th day of the month of June, 1686.
Brother Vincent Maria, Cardinal Orsini, Archbishop of Benevento.
NOTE-Notwithstanding various inquiries, we have not been able to ascertain the present ownership of the original of this document. The late Sig. Giacomo Stradivari informed us that it had always been retained in the family until he himself presented it to Vuillaume, of Paris; yet strangely enough we find that the only document known to have been in the possession of Vuillaume, and which in turn was presented to us by his family, is a reproduction. We have, however, reason to believe that the original is in existence, that it was Count Castelbarco, of Milan, who had it reproduced, and that this copy is the one now in our hands. Possibly the original may yet come to light!
Again, under date 1686, he tells us that Stradivari was requested by the Duke of Modena to make a violoncello and deliver it in person to him. The Duke not only expressed the pleasure it gave him to make his personal acquaintance and highly praised his work, but marked his gratification by making him a present of thirty pistoles in addition to paying the price agreed upon. Thirty pistoles was approximately equal to £24, and, as we have already seen, its purchasing power then was equal to three times that of today (1902). The present thus represented £72-under the circumstances a princely gift.
Now, although these references afford us no information of a precise nature, they yet offer valuable evidence in support of our firm belief that Stradivari obtained for the majority of his instruments more than the ordinary prices given to his working colleagues. He must have received good remuneration, otherwise it is impossible to think that he would have so unremittingly maintained that high standard of excellence, carried, as we have elsewhere shown, into the smallest details.
We believe that Stradivari varied his prices according to circumstances. Then as now, no doubt, violin-makers had to meet the wishes of their customers; hence his use at times of plainer and less costly material. Fetis states, on the authority of La Houssaie, the violinist (born 1735, died 1813), who visited Cremona not many years after Stradivari's death, that the price fixed by the master for a violin was four louis d'or ; also that in Cremona he bore the reputation of being a prosperous citizen. Forster ("The History of the Violin, etc.," by Forster and Sandys. 1864.) incidentally mentions that the elder Cervetto, violoncellist (born 1682, died 1783), had actually traded personally with Stradivari and brought a consignment of his instruments over to England, but returned them, as he could not get as much as £5 for a violoncello; but he does not enlighten us as to how much was really asked. If the story of the return of the instruments be true - which we strongly doubt - it only shows how unappreciative were the musicians here at that period. On the other hand, we find that William Corbett, the violinist (born 1668, died 1748), went to Italy in 1710, and brought back a collection of Cremona instruments. In the correspondence left by Count Cozio, and communicated to us by the Marquis Dalla Valle, we have the copy of a letter written to the Count by Paolo Stradivari (son of Antonio), dated June 4th, 1775, wherein he states that a certain Signor Boroni was willing to sell his Stradivari violin for eleven "gigliati."
In another letter, dated June 25th, he writes that the Rev. Father Ravizza has succeeded after some trouble in obtaining the violin for ten gigliati. A third letter, written to Signor Briatta, the Count's agent, by Signor Giuseppe Morandi on July 6th, 1775, says: "The present is to tell you briefly that we have come across a genuine Amati violin of large pattern, intact, as intact as if it were new, without a single defect, and with a fine tone, speaking freely, with an original label-Nicolaus Amatus-etc., etc., dated 1656. Forty gigliati is the price asked-I say forty-including a fine and well-made case. You must tell me precisely what you think about it. I am always at your command," etc.
We also learn from this correspondence that Antonio, the son of Paolo Stradivari, sold the inlaid quintet of instruments, together with two other violins, in 1775, to the Padre Brambilla for one hundred and twenty-five "gigliati." From the above information we glean certain facts: first, that an Amati violin was more highly valued than that of Stradivari-nearly four times more highly valued; secondly, that thirty-eight years after Stradivari's death the sums asked and accepted for one of his violins at Cremona was eleven and ten gigliati respectively; thirdly, that the grandson of Stradivari, who must have heard his father mention the approximate value the maker set upon these instruments, sold a special quintet of them - i.e. a violoncello, a contralto viola, a tenor viola, and two violins - besides two additional violins, for one hundred and twenty-five gigliati. We should apportion this sum thus: thirty-five gigliati for the violoncello, forty for the two violas, and fifteen each for the violins; twenty for the two additional violins.
It may be convenient here to give a list of the coins referred to in the text, with their values:
1572.-Livre Tournois. A nominal, not actual coin, equal in 1572 to 10d. of our money. Its relative purchasing power at the present time (1902) would be six times the above amount, viz. 5s. of our money.
1634.-Ducat. A Venetian gold coin, equal in 1634 to 8s. of our money. Its relative purchasing power at the present time would be equal to £1 4s. of our money.
1685--Pistole, or Double Ducat. A gold coin equal in 1685 to 16s. of our money. Its relative purchasing power now would be equal to £2 8s. of our money.
1775.-Gigliato, or Zecchino Fiorentino. The sequin of Tuscany was a gold coin equal in 1775 to 9s. 5d. of our money. Its relative purchasing power now would be approximately equal to £1 8s. of our money. The gigliato was so named because it bore the device of the Florentine giglio, or iris (fleur-de-lys), the emblem of the Republic, as it is today of the Commune of Florence.
It is extremely difficult to speak certainly as to the value of money in the past. The estimates as to the relative purchasing power, used in the text and given above, are based upon the standard of payment for labour; and in making them the advice has been sought of such experienced experts as the Keeper of the Coins in the British Museum, and M. Salvioni, Professor of Statistics in the University of Bologna.
A gigliati, was a Tuscan gold coin of the value of 9s. 5d. of our money (1902), and assuming that its purchasingpower was three times that of to-day, we arrive at the following results --
The price asked for the Amati represented approximately £57; the sum accepted for the Stradivari, i.e. ten gigliati, was approximately £14; that for the quintet of instruments, £148 (the violoncello about £50, the two violas about £56, the two violins £21 each).
If we now return to the statement of Fetis, and similarly multiply the purchasing power of four louis d'or, we get two hundred and forty francs-let us say £10; and as we do not believe any decided rise in the value of Stradivari instruments had taken place within thirty-five years of his death-the period of the transactions just mentioned-since their superiority was still keenly contested by those of the Amati and of Stainer, we may, with considerable probability of being correct, conclude that the sum Stradivari charged for a violin or viola was approximately equivalent to from £10 to £15 of our money of today (1902); for violoncellos, £25 to £35, the variation between the lower and the higher figures depending upon the individual merits of a given instrument.
For such exceptional specimens as those forming the inlaid quintet an exceptional price was paid. Any question as to the master having been but poorly remunerated can, we think, be dismissed without further discussion. No better proof to the contrary can be forthcoming than that given us by Arisi, who writes under date 1702: "Stradivari made a complete set of bow instruments which he intended to present to Philip V. of Spain on the occasion of the King's passage through Cremona, and he had prepared a memorial to that effect, but he was dissuaded and the instruments are still in his possession."
The making of such a set of instruments represented the work of several months, and a poorly-paid worker would hardly contemplate such a costly present. The fame of Stradivari's instruments spread surely, if at first slowly. How interesting it would have been had the early writers, such as Burney, left on record who were the makers of the violins and violoncellos then in the hands of the foremost Italian players! The little we are able to glean from various sources points to Amatis and Stainers being reputed above all others, and it is consequently probable that these were the instruments upon which the majority of the renowned violinists of the early and middle part of the eighteenth century played.
Burney mentions that Veracini (born about 1685, died 1750) used two famous Stainers, which he christened "St. Peter " and "St. Paul," and that they were lost when he was shipwrecked. The same writer, referring to his visit to Signor Mazzanti, a distinguished musician in Rome, says: "He plays pretty well on the violin, and is in possession of the most beautiful and perfect Stainer I ever saw."
William Corbett, already mentioned, who bequeathed his collection of instruments to Gresham College, enumerates them in his will. There were specimens of the Amati, Stainer and Albani-this last-named, he adds, was the violin of Corelli. We also find in an old note-book in our possession, compiled at the beginning of last century, an entry concerning an Andrea Amati formerly the property of Corelli.
(Corelli, in his will, which is dated the 5th January, 1713, says: "To Signor Matteo Fornari I leave all my violins." Unfortunately, neither in the will nor in the inventory of the contents of his house is any mention made of either the value or the makers of these said violins. We also learn from his will that Corelli died on the 9th day of January, and not on the 18th as stated by his biographers.)
Corbett died in 1748, and unfortunately Gresham College refused his gift on the ground that there was no room in the College fit for its reception ; the instruments were therefore subsequently dispersed by public sale in 1751.
Some years before his death-in 1724-Corbett had already offered both his collections of music and of instruments for sale by public auction. The following is an extract from the Daily journal of May 16th, 1724, announcing the sale -
"Mr. Corbett's choice collection of musick, to be sold this day, the lowest price being fix'd upon each lot, at his lodgings near the Nag's Head Inn in Orange Court, by the Mewse : viz., A series of the finest Instruments made by the famous Amatuus's, and old Stradivarius of Cremona, by Gio. P. Maggini, Gasparo da Salo of Brescia; the noted Albani and Stainer of Tyrol, with two fine-toned Cyprus Spinnets, one of Celestini, and the other by Donatus Undeus of Venice. Wherein are the celebrated violins of Gobo, Torelli, N. Cosmi, and Leonardo of Bolognia, which those deceased virtuosos generally played on. Several hundreds of original Manuscripts of Latin Psalms, Operas, Cantatas, Solos, and Concertos never heard or seen in England ; all composed by the most eminent Masters. A small Collection of Pictures, Medals, and some Drawings, with valuable books of the Theory of Musick, and others in different Languages. Attendance will be given each day from Nine in the Forenoon till Seven in the Evening, till all are sold."
Curiously enough, the following numbers of the Daily journal (The following extract is not without interest: "Thursday an old Cremona Violin sold for thirty-six Guineas at the private sale of a deceased Gentleman's Effects in Bond Street, esteemed the finest toned Instrument in England."-Daily journal, 1756.) are silent as to the result of this highly interesting auction- presumably they did not think the matter of sufficient importance to chronicle. However, as Corbett still possessed a certain number of the instruments at his death, we must conclude that the prices offered for these lots did not reach the reserve, and that they were withdrawn.
The mention of " Old Stradivari " is extremely interesting. Corbett may possibly have visited Cremona, and met and conversed with the master, who was apparently then spoken of as ""vecchio Stradivari." Corbett, it will be remembered, visited Italy in 1710; and this date is instructive as showing that the master was then called "Old Stradivari." He was 66 in 1710, and 80 in 1724, when the instruments were offered for sale.
There can be but little question that at this period Stradivari's productions were, so to speak, on their trial; and unquestionably the easier production and lighter character of tone of the Amatis and Stainers, as compared with those of Stradivari, especially in the earlier years of the existence of the latter, carried the day in favour of Amati and Stainer.
In a book entitled ,Advice on Violin-playing, with Practical Examples,"written by George Simon Lohlein, Leipzig, 1774, we read as follows: "One finds that Stradivari worked his bellies and backs almost the same thickness, still he left a little more wood in the middle near the bridge than at the edges; in addition, his instruments are rather large and of a flat model, clumsy head and corners, peculiar sound-holes, and thick in wood. They have therefore a light, penetrating, oboe-like, but at thc same time thin tone. On the other hand, Jacobus Stainer of Absam, like his master Amati (sic), worked with a high model-it is fairly thick in the middle, but in the cheeks (flanks), i . e. towards the edges of the instruments, the wood is very thin. This able man even surpassed his master, although one finds very good instruments of Amati."
The author then sings the praises of Stainer, one of whose violins he possesses; and later states that the Amatis, then the Stainers, and after that the Stradivaris, are the most famed; finally he says that Stainer has always this peculiarity, "that his tone is full and soft like a flute," and he gives his violins the preference above all makers for solo-playing, With the exception of the conclusion, which gives Stainer preference over the Amatis, such appears to have been the generally accepted opinion concerning the comparative merits of the makers named until well on towards the close of the eighteenth century.
Hawkins, in his "History of Music," published in 1776, says : "There were two persons of the name of Stradivari of Cremona, admirable artizans; the latter was living at the beginning of this century,"-and he concludes his remarks as follows: " The violins of Cremona are exceeded only by those of Stainer, a German, whose instruments are remarkable for a full and piercing tone."
We are enlightened as to French opinion by the following extracts from a work published in 1785, "Encydopedie Methodique," Paris, which treats fully of the construction, etc., of various musical instruments.
The writer, after minutely describing the process of making violins, adds: "The violins of the greatest reputation are those of Jacob Stainer, who, during the middle of last century, lived in a small township in the Tyrol, by name Absam, near Innsbruck, the capital of the country. This celebrated artist, who worked during upwards of seventy years, aided by a number of workmen whom he had trained, finished every violin with his own hands, and made a prodigious number, as he lived to the advanced age of nearly one hundred years. The violins, still in their original state, of this famous craftsman-those, namely, of which the interior has not been altered by any modern maker-are very rare and much sought after.
" The violins of Cremona are also renowned: there are two kinds-those made by the Amatis, and those which are the work of Stradivari. Those who excelled among the Amatis were, firstly, Andrea Ainati, the master of Stainer, and his violins, though of ungraceful form, were much sought after at the beginning of last century by those who preferred a quality of tone soft and pleasing; secondly, the brothers Antonius and Hieronymus, contemporaries of Stainer, who made admirable violins now much sought after and very expensive; thirdly, Nicolo Amati, who made excellent violins, but of varying merit, and not all possessing equal goodness of tone.
" Among the skilled makers of more recent date we find Antonio Stradivari, who, like Stainer, was long-lived, and made a very large number of good violins; the merit of his instruments consists in their masculine, powerful, and melodious tone. The Amatis made their violins of high build, Stradivari on the contrary nearly flat, yet these opposite methods have both furnished instruments of an equally perfect description.
"Among the fiddle-makers working in France stand out Bocquay, Pierray, Castagnery, and others, who have made violins which will bear comparison with those of the celebrated makers whom we have just mentioned."
As a further proof that such was the prevailing opinion, we have only to look at the different schools of violinmakers, men who were living during the latter part of Stradivari's life or immediately afterwards. The work of Romans, Venetians, Florentines, Genoese, Mantuans, and Neapolitans-especially the earlier work-was all strongly touched by a mixed Amati-Stainer influence; and it took years to eradicate their errors and to return to the earlier teachings upheld and emphasised by Stradivari.
In England, France, Germany, and Holland it was the same; especially in England, as Stainer influence was early imported here soon after 1700. How much richer we should be in old English instruments of merit had Stradivari's precepts obtained the firm footing acquired by those of his rivals!
That Stradivari violins were early brought to our country (England) is certain. We have the instructive fact that Daniel Parker, a maker who was working as early as 1714, and who was probably a pupil of Barak Norman, made instruments in which are reproduced more or less correctly the main features of the "Long Strad"; he even picked out the outline of the head and scroll in black. With the possible exception of Nathaniel Cross, none of the other contemporary makers seem to have been impressed by this worthy example; all soon became completely Stainerised!
One of the few Continental makers, if we except those of Italy, who early recognised the merit and did his best to reproduce the character of Stradivari's violins was De Comble of Tournay, who worked from about 1720 to 1750. He was forthwith dubbed pupil of the great master by Fetis, on what authority we know not.
Probably, as with Parker, De Comble had simply been fortunate enough to see a Stradivari, and the sight bore fruit. The earliest intimation hitherto met with by us affording evidence that Stradivari was coming to the front in England, is furnished by Richard Duke and Joseph Hill inserting a copy of his label in certain of their new violins made as early as 1750-60, instruments which they no doubt considered fairly good reproductions; and in 1780-85 John Betts intimates on his business cards that he "makes in the neatest manner violins after the patterns of Antonio Stradivari, Hieronymus Amati, Jacobus Stainer, and Tyrols." It should be observed that Stradivari is mentioned first.
Count Cozio's correspondence again furnishes us with an interesting item of news bearing on this subject. Paolo Stradivari, writing under date June, 1775, to the Count's agent, concludes his letter as follows: "An English gentleman, a person of rank, passed through Cremona, and wanted to buy two violins by Stradivari. I had not the courage to ask him his name, but I told him about you, and that you collect instruments by all the best and most renowned makers. I gave him your name and address, and he then wished to know if you had any instruments made by Stradivari, and I informed him that you had many, as I had sold you some a short time ago."
It is impossible to say whether we or our French neighbours were the first to recognise the superiority of Stradivari's instruments. We were certainly not behind them, and it is probable that conviction was brought home to both nations at about the same time, and that both were primarily indebted to Italian players for the impulse.
In "Les Luthiers Italiens" Gallay states that the arrival of Viotti in the French capital in 1782 (not in 1796 as given), his admirable playing, and the fine tone he produced from his Stradivari instrument caused quite a sensation, and from that moment a keen interest in the hitherto but little known master was evinced. Viotti's visit to England a few years later, and his subsequent prolonged residence among us, must have equally influenced the opinions of our musicians and amateurs.
We obtain a very instructive insight into this change of opinion through the very able comparison between Stainer and Stradivari found in a letter addressed by the Rev. Thomas Twining, M.A., to Dr. Burney, dated May 4th, 1791.
He says: "I have lately had a sort of fiddle mania upon me, brought on by trying and comparing different Stainers and Cremonas, etc. I believe I have got possession of a sweet Stradivari, which I play upon with much more pleasure than my Stainer, partly because the tone is sweeter, mellower, rounder, and partly because the stop is longer. My Stainer is undersized, and on that account less valuable, though the tone is as bright, piercing and full as that of any Stainer I have ever heard. Yet, when I take it up after the Stradivari, it sets my teeth on edge. The tone comes out plump all at once; there is a comfortable reserve of tone in the Stradivari, and it bears pressure, and you may draw upon it for almost as much tone as you please. I think I shall bring it to town with me, and then you shall hear it. It is a battered, shattered, cracky, resinous old blackguard, but if every bow that ever crossed its strings from its birth had been sugared instead of resined, more sweetness could not come out of its belly."
At the opening of last century Stradivari's transcendent merit was being widely proclaimed. The Abbe Sibire, an intimate friend and admirer of Nicolas Lupot, from whom he is understood to have received the information incorporated in his charming little book entitled, "La Chelonomie, ou le Parfait Luthier," published at Paris in 1806, expresses the prevailing sentiment there when he writes: "Antoine Stradivarius! A ce nom auguste et venerable je m'incline profondenient devant le patriarche des luthiers."
With but few exceptions, all the notable players of the day had acquired and were playing upon his instruments; amongst others, La Houssaie, Kreutzer, Rode, Baillot, Habeneck, Lafont and Bouchet; in England, Viotti, Mori, Kiesewetter, Loder, Salamon, Libon, Raimondi, Cotton Reeve and Alday. The violin-makers, equally impressed, threw over their lingering Stainer-Amati sympathies, some not without a considerable struggle, and vied with each other in adopting Stradivari's principles and form.
In France, Fent, Aldric, Pique and Lupot were the principal makers who did so with success; in England, Dodd, Fendt, Tobin and Panormo ; in Germany and Austria the best copyist of Stradivari of the period known to us was Geissenhof, of Vienna; in Italy the craft was in a declining stage-in fact, it had all but ceased to exist. A slight revival took place later with the advent of Pressenda, Rivolta, Gibertini and, lastly, Rocca. The brothers Mantegazza, who were capable workmen, appear to have turned their attention more to repairing. Lorenzo Storioni, Joannes Rotta, the elder Ceruti, and Carlo Bergonzi (the last fiddle-maker of that family), all of Cremona, just managed to keep alive the embers of that city's former ardour, and maintain there, though imperfectly, Stradivari's teachings.
Now, France was unquestionably favoured in her intercourse with Italy: her geographical position, the intimate relations between the two peoples, the fact that most of the cultured musicians generally wended their way first to Paris, where, at the period of which we write (the early part of last century) all the most brilliant executants were to be met with, and, lastly, the advantageous dealings early commenced between the indefatigable Tarisio and the principal Parisian luthiers, soon brought into their country a far greater proportion of Stradivari's instruments than were possessed by other nations.
We gather from various sources that, previous to the Napoleonic upheaval, Spain also was particularly rich in Stradivari and other high-class Italian instruments. Arisi mentions several orders received by the master from the Spanish monarch and other grandees; and no doubt the distinguished Italian musicians, such as Manfredi, Brunetti and Boccherini, who held appointments at the Spanish Court, did their best to foster the taste for their great countryman's work. Guillelmi of Barcelona and Contreras of Granada, surnamed "il Grenadino," both highly meritorious makers, who were working during the latter half of the eighteenth century, had clearly seen and appreciated Stradivari's instruments; their productions, especially the violoncellos, were excellent -decidedly Italian in character: in fact, to-day we generally find them passing as Italian, needless to add minus their original labels.
As with Italy, so with Spain: war and its accompanying evils played sad havoc with the country's prosperity, and early in the century its Stradivaris began to migrate to more prosperous lands.
We may mention here that no fewer than six violoncellos by Stradivari have to our knowledge been brought to France and England from Spain. Old records in our possession enable us to throw an interesting light on the introduction of many of Stradivari's instruments into England, and on dealings in them during the early part of last century.
The Betts family, whose business premises were situated at the Royal Exchange, were the foremost dealers of their day; the others were Dodd, Forster and Davis. Whether Betts was in direct communication with similar firms in Paris, such as Pique, Lupot, Koliker or Gand (Koliker was especially reputed as a dealer), we know not; but we do know that an active intercourse was kept up with the Continent, either through the medium of well-known city merchants of those days, such as the Cazenoves and the Rivaz-members of which families were distinguished amateurs, keenly interested in the subject, and brought several fine instruments to our shores-or through the foreign players who were constantly visiting us.
Arthur Betts, who was an excellent violinist, was taught by Viotti; and what more probable than that the intimacy between the two may have been the means of inducing the Italian to obtain from Italy Stradivari instruments, which were then sold for their mutual benefit? At all times there have been well-known musicians who have found both pleasure and profit in combining playing and dealing in instruments.
(Parke, in his "Musical Memoirs," speaking of Giardini, the celebrated Italian violinist (born 1716, died 796), says: "Giardini, when in his zenith, produced on the violin a tone more powerful and clear than any of his contemporaries; and even on an indifferent fiddle he displayed nearly the same admirable qualities. This knack, if I may be allowed the expression, proved very profitable to Giardini, enabling him to sell his inferior instruments at a large price to gentlemen who, in his hands, admired the powerful tone, though they found afterwards, to their great surprise, that they could draw forth very little, apparently not aware that the tone came from the skill used, not from the fiddle." ("Musical Memoirs," by W. T. Parke, London, 1830, Vol. L, P. 1155.)
Proceed to Chapter Eleven, Part Two.
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