The "Betts," a Stradivarius violin made in 1704, is part of the Library of Congress' collection of rare musical instruments. Library of Congress
Music commentator Miles Hoffman, a nationally renowned violist, and NPR's Steve Inskeep visit the Library of Congress' small, priceless collection of Stradivarius instruments. Hoffman plays some of the rarest instruments in the collection, including a violin called the "Betts," crafted in 1704 by Antonio Stradivari.
"What's interesting about playing a Strad, about playing any great old Italian instrument, is under the ear, there's a sweetness to it, there's a depth of sound," Hoffman says. "And also you have the sense that no matter how much sound is coming out of the instrument, somehow or other there's always more."
"It's like a great race car — there's more power than you need and it responds to the slightest touch..." Hoffman says.
Below is background on the history and sound of Stradivarius instruments, from The NPR Classical Music Companion by Miles Hoffman:
Stradivarius is the Latinized last name of Antonio Stradivari (ca. 1644-1737), generally regarded as history's greatest maker. Stradivari was Italian — he lived and worked all his life in the northern Italian city of Cremona, not far from Milan — but the paper labels he glued inside his violins were in Latin:
Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis
Faciebat Anno ——
(Antonio Stradivari of Cremona
Made in the year ——).
This is why a violin made by Stradivari is known as a Stradivarius. Musicians and instrument dealers often take the liberty of shortening the name to "Strad," as in, "She just bought a beautiful Strad."
Stradivari learned his craft as an apprentice to Nicolò Amati (1596-1684), whose paternal grandfather, Andrea Amati (ca. 1510-1580), is thought to have perfected the form of the modern violin, and whose family established the illustrious tradition that made Cremona the home of the world's finest violin makers for two and a half centuries. Working into his nineties, Stradivari probably made a thousand violins or more, of which about 650 survive. A Stradivarius today can cost a fortune: some of his instruments bring prices in the millions of dollars. (Grandfather's old violin in the attic is not likely to be a Strad, unfortunately, even if it has a label that says "Stradivarius." Such labels are found in mass-produced violins by the thousands, and they usually just indicate that the instruments are copies of Stradivarius models.) Stradivari also made cellos and violas, although in far smaller numbers than violins — somewhere upward of fifty-five cellos survive, and fewer than a dozen violas. He made other kinds of stringed instruments, as well, including guitars (only two survive) and most probably harps, lutes, and mandolins.
Why are Stradivarius instruments so highly prized? The most important reason by far is their sound. The best Strads have a rich, refined, resonant sound from the lowest notes to the highest. They're versatile: the same instrument can produce a dark, deep, velvety sound, or a stunningly brilliant sound. And they're powerful. A striking characteristic of Strads is that their sound seems to blossom, so that even over great distances they project clearly and beautifully. The power of a Strad, however, is not just a question of volume; true power depends on purity of sound, which is the quality that also enables a Strad to project beautifully in very soft passages, even in the largest concert halls. Lesser-quality instruments may seem quite loud "under the ear," but they don't project as well because there's more surface noise and less core to their sound.
A fine Stradivarius is also a joy to play. It's extremely responsive to the slightest changes in pressure and contact from the bow, and it feels easy to play. The violinist never has to force the sound from the instrument, and there always seems to be more sound available when needed. You might say that playing a Strad is like driving a high-performance automobile: it responds to the slightest touch, and there's always power in reserve.
Although there are many theories, there is no one secret to the sound of a Stradivarius and no simple explanation of Stradivari's genius. Many factors contribute to determining how a violin sounds, including the qualities of the wood, the shape of the instrument, the degree of arching and the precise variations in thickness of the wooden plates that form the belly and the back, and the qualities of the varnish, which seals and protects the wood but allows it to vibrate. The physical beauty of Stradivari's instruments attests to his excellent training, brilliant craftsmanship, and his eye for form and proportion. Beyond that, he must also have had a remarkable ear, along with an extraordinary knowledge of wood and a profound understanding of its acoustical properties and possibilities. Do Strads get better with age? Perhaps, but age itself is not responsible for their quality: Stradivari was famous during his own lifetime, and he made instruments on commission for kings, cardinals, and distinguished musicians and collectors all over Europe.
Not all Stradivarius instruments sound terrific, though. Each one has its individual characteristics, and although the general level is remarkably high, some are far better than others. The greatest Strads may be unsurpassed, but not every Strad sounds better than the best violins of less celebrated makers. There is even one violin maker whose instruments, far fewer in number, are considered by many concert violinists to be more desirable than those of Stradivari: Giuseppe Guarneri (1681-1744). Guarneri was a third-generation member of another of the great violin-making families of Cremona. The name he used on his labels was Joseph Guarnerius, but he's also known as Guarnerius del Gesù (of Jesus), or simply del Gesù, because his labels included a cross and the inscription IHS (for Jesus Hominum Salvator, Jesus, Savior of Men).
Guarneri's violins, while often less refined in appearance than those of Stradivari, are renowned for their tonal beauty and power. The nineteenth-century Italian virtuoso Niccolò Paganini played a del Gesu (his instrument was nicknamed "the Cannon" for its powerful sound) and did much to establish the Guarnerius reputation.
A common question: In a blind test, could a nonmusician or "uneducated" listener tell the difference between a Stradivarius and some other violin? The answer is that it depends. If the other violin, whether old or modern, were an excellent one by a fine maker, the differences might not be readily apparent. But in a direct, side-by-side comparison of a great Stradivarius with a commercially produced instrument — or even with a handcrafted violin that was merely very good — the differences would be absolutely clear, even to the most inexperienced listener.
From The NPR Classical Music Companion by Miles Hoffman, copyright 1997 by Miles Hoffman and National Public Radio. All rights reserved.