The 400-year-old Amati Brothers violin is currently on display at The National Music Museum in Vermillion, S.D.
The 400-year-old Amati Brothers violin is currently on display at The National Music Museum in Vermillion, S.D. Andrew Dipper
On a typical summer day, the University of South Dakota campus is quiet — save for a few summer school students and those who are getting the school ready for the next academic year. But inside the former Carnegie Library on the campus, there's the potential for a lot of sound. It's the home of the National Music Museum, said to hold the most eclectic collection of instruments in the U.S.
Inside the museum, Far East gamelan instruments and medieval mandolins co-exist with a display featuring a post-war novelty act, the Korn Kobblers. Everything on exhibit was either purchased directly by the museum, or donated by sponsors.
"Otherwise, the whole thing wouldn't work," says Dr. Andre Larson, the executive director of the museum. "And that's — to do that in South Dakota is a minor miracle — but those of us who love South Dakota and believe in this state and its people knew that it would work. And it has worked, and we're very proud of it."
Since its opening in 1973, the National Music Museum has become one of the first places people think of when they come across a rare instrument. Its latest acquisition — a 400-year-old Amati Brothers violin, made to order for King Henry IV of France — is one example. Violin expert Claire Givens, who has lent her expertise as an appraiser to The Antiques Road Show, brokered the deal that brought the instrument to Vermillion.
Givens first saw the violin 13 years ago, in a conservatory in Wisconsin. "But they weren't interested in selling it, or deaccessioning it," she says. "And so we continued, every year, to make sure this violin was in good condition."
The violin was made in 1595 by two brothers who were part of a family of premiere craftsmen from Cremona, Italy, says Arian Sheets, the museum's curator of stringed instruments. "Their father, Andre Amati, was actually the first documented violin maker in Cremona. And we know he had set up his own shop by 1538," Sheets says. "Antonio Stradavari claimed on some of his labels to have been a student of Nicolo Amati. But we don't have any record of that." Though most everyone has heard of the Stradivarius line of violins — and several can be seen in Vermillion — Sheets says the Amatis were established in Cremona before Stradavari came along.
In May, a good-sized crowd gathered to take part in the transfer of the violin to the National Music Museum. It hadn't been played since 1997, but University of South Dakota music professor Euhno Kim was given the chance to welcome the instrument to town, with a solo violin sonata by Bach.
The four-century-old violin did not disappoint.
"I don't usually get teary when I hear something," said Andrew Dipper, who restores stringed instruments and has worked to maintain the Amati violin. "But that was quite an extraordinary exhibition of the sound of an instrument that's that old."
Dipper says even the case containing the violin has its own history — it's decorated with the symbols of French royalty. "It has a Louis XVI violin case with it, and the interesting thing is the armorials on the case, which were illegal to have during the revolution," he says. "They have been partially blacked out, because if you were found with royal armorials with anything in your house, you would go to the guillotine at that time."
The Amati Brothers violin has survived more than 400 years; it was protected through the French Revolution, a number of wars and handing down through generations. After all it's been through, it now has a chance to rest, on display at the National Music Museum.