Thursday, July 14, 2016

Stradivarius in his Nineties- Great Violins in His Last Years

By Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins

One of the amazing things about Antonius Stradivarius is the longevity of his working life.

Born in 1644, Stradivarius' earliest instruments date from about 1670, at age 26. By age 26, Stradivarius was already a well trained luthier with finely honed skills. He kept working and making great instruments until he was 93.

From age 26, Stradivarius worked many, many years. He worked long after most people would be thinking of retiring. In his sixties, when people of the twenty-first century think about retirement, Stradivarius was achieving his best work and best instruments. 1710 to 1720 stand as years of his 'Golden' period. And he kept working away into his early 90s. There are even a few instruments from the year of his death, 1737.

Early in my career as a luthier, while I was still an apprentice, I had the privilege of studying violins at Yale University's Musical Instrument Collection. I spent the  majority of the day studying a very late Antonius Stradivarius violin, made in the year 1736.

3/4 size violin by Stradivarius, 1736 ,"D'anni 92"

3/4 size violin by Stradivarius, 1736

This violin has Antonius Stradivarius' label with the last three digits of the date handwritten. Below this first label there's another handwritten label: "D'Anni 92" (At my age of 92). The provenance of this violin is very well known. Hill and Sons acquired the violin in Italy, held it in their collection, and sold it to Belle Skinner. Belle Skinner played it and kept it in her collection. When she passed away, this violin and her collection of musical instruments went to Yale University. The violin is currently part of the Yale University Musical Instrument collection.

Adding to the special nature of this violin, the instrument retain much of its original varnish. That much original varnish on an old instrument is extremely rare.

About a year ago, I was asked to help sell another well known late period Stradivarius violin. The 'Lord Norton', made in 1737, was one of the last violins Stradivarius made. Like the 1736 3/4 size violin, the 'Lord Norton' has a beautiful one-piece back.

For many, many years, the 'Lord Norton' was played by Charles Libove.

Charles Libove playing the 1737 'Lord Norton' Stradivarius

How did Antonio continue working into his 90s? Well, how many 90 year olds do you know that can work and live independently AND make violins for a living? Hmmm. None??? Antonius obviously had the help of a much younger second wife (30 years his junior), a daughter that stayed in the family home, and three sons to help run his workshop- Francesco (in his 60s), Omobono ( in his 50s) and Paolo (in his 20s!) The later years of Stradivarius' working life and his sons contribution is excellently documented in two articles by John Dilworth. And, of course, Stradivarius had helpers and apprentices. Thus the Stradivarius workshop, Dilworth says, was "a violin factory, producing on average 15–20 instruments a year, with bows and in all probability cases and other fittings too."

Andy Fein holding a 1737 Antonius & Omobono Stradivarius violin.

Just recently, I was asked to help sell another late period Stradivarius violin. Another one with a one piece back. In fact, it could be the same tree or collection of wood as the 'Lord Norton' back. Hey! Anyone sensing a pattern here? I have to admit, I love the sound of the late period Stradivarius violins. Anne Akiko Meyers described the sound of the late period Strads as "chocolaty". I agree! The late period Stradivarius violins have some of the characteristics of del Gesu violins in that they're very rich, somewhat mellow, but have a tremendous carrying power. Dare I say it?- A more mature sound than the Golden Period Stradivaris. I think Stradivarius couldn't help being influenced by del Gesu, the Bergonzis, and even his own son, Omobono.

1737 Antonius & Omobono Stradivarius violin

1737 Antonius & Omobono Stradivarius violin

1737 Antonius & Omobono Stradivarius violin

1737 Antonius & Omobono Stradivarius violin

1737 Antonius & Omobono Stradivarius violin

As of this writing, this violin is still on the market. For those of you thinking it would be great to stop in and play this Stradivarius... Sorry. Not so fast. As you might imagine, security is very tight on this violin and it is not kept at our shop. The price? We'll discuss that with seriously interested prospective players. But it's well below the $16,000,000 the 'Lady Blunt' Stradivarius sold for, but still has six zeros after the numbers. Yes, it's in the millions.

You can hear Fein Violins office manager Amy Tobin playing this beautiful violin. Note the distance from my iphone camera and Amy playing on the altar of the church we were in. The carrying power of this violin is astounding!

Are you a violinist or interested in becoming one? While they aren't the original, we have many excellent Strad models. Take a look!

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