Among the Great Masters of Music: Scenes in the Lives of Famous Musicians Stradivarius byWalter Rowlands
Crowest, the English writer on musical subjects, says: "Two hundred years ago, the finest violins that the world will probably ever have were being turned out from the Italian workshops; while at about the same time, and subsequently, there was issuing from the homes of music in Germany, the music for these superb instruments, - music not for any one age, 'but for all time.'"
"In the chain of this creative skill, however, a link was wanting. Nobody rose up who could marry the music to the instrument. For years and years the violin, and the music for it, marched steadily on, side by side, but not united. Bach was writing far in advance of his time, while Stradivarius and the Amatis were 'rounding' and 'varnishing' for a people yet to come. It was not till the beginning of the present century that executive skill, tone, and culture stepped in, and were brought to bear upon an instrument that is, perhaps, more than any other, amenable to such influences. Consequently, to us has fallen the happy fate to witness the very zenith of violin-playing. A future generation may equal, but can scarcely hope to surpass a Joachim, a Wilhelmj, or a Strauss, - players who combine the skill of Paganini with a purity of taste to which he was a stranger, and, moreover, with a freedom from those startling eccentricities which, more than anything else, have made the reputation of that strange performer."
The greatest violin-maker that ever lived, Antonio Stradivari, or Stradivarius, was born in Cremona, probably in 1644. No entry of his birth has been found in any church register at Cremona, but among the violins which once belonged to a certain Count Cozio di Salabue was one bearing a ticket in the handwriting of Stradivarius, in which his name, his age, and the date of the violin were given. He was then ninety-two years old, and the date of the violin was 1736. He was the pupil of another famous Cremonese violin-maker, Niccolo Amati, and his first works are said to bear the name of his master, but in 1670 he began to sign instruments with his own name. His early history is quite unknown, but a record exists showing that in 1667, when twenty-three years old, he married Francesca Ferraboschi. For about twenty years after his marriage, Stradivarius appears to have produced but few instruments, and it is supposed that during this time he employed himself chiefly in making those scientific experiments and researches which he carried into practice in his famous works. It was about the year 1700, when he was fifty-six years old, that Stradivarius attained that perfection which distinguishes his finest instruments. The first quarter of the eighteenth century witnessed the production of his best violins, - the quality of those made after 1725 is less satisfactory.
During his long life (he died in 1737), the great violin-maker worked industriously, and produced a large number of instruments, but a far greater number are attributed to him than he could possibly have made. His usual price for a violin was about twenty dollars, (Haweis says fifty dollars), but a fine specimen from his hand now sells in the auction room for hundreds of dollars. In 1888, a Stradivarius violin brought the large sum of five thousand dollars, and double this sum was paid a few years since for the celebrated "Messie" violin, made by Stradivarius in 1716, and still in perfect condition. Count Cozio di Salabue had bought it in 1760, but never allowed it to be played upon, and when he died (about 1824) it was purchased by that remarkable "violin hunter," Luigi Tarisio. Thirty years later, he, too, passed over to the majority, and his friend, the Parisian violin-maker Vuillaume, bought the "Messie" from Tarisio's heirs, along with about two hundred and fifty other fiddles, many of which were of the greatest rarity and value. Vuillaume kept the "Messie" in a glass case and never allowed any one to touch it, and many anxious days he passed during the Commune, fearing for his musical treasures. However, they luckily escaped the dangers of the time, and when, in 1875, Vuillaume died, the "Messie" became the property of his daughter, who was the wife of M. Alard, the celebrated teacher of the violin. From his executors it was bought in 1890 for 2,000 pounds, for the English gentleman who now possesses this most famous of all the works of Stradivarius. Charles Reade, the novelist, who was a lover of the violin and an expert in such matters, in 1872 had thought this instrument to be worth 600 pounds, so that its value had trebled in less than twenty years. The celebrated violinist, Ole Bull, owned a Stradivarius violin, dated 1687, and inlaid with ebony and ivory, which is said to have been made for a king of Spain. In the "Tales of a Wayside Inn" Longfellow speaks of it:
"The instrument on which he played
Was in Cremona's workshop made,
By a great master of the past
Ere yet was lost the art divine;
* * * *
"Exquisite was it in design,
Perfect in each minutest part,
A marvel of the lutist's art;
And in its hollow chamber, thus,
The maker from whose hands it came
Had written his unrivalled name, -
Haweis, in his admirable book on "Old Violins," reproduces for us "the atmosphere in which Antonio Stradivari worked for more than half a century.
"I stood in the open loft at the top of his house, where still in the old beams stuck the rusty old nails upon which he hung up his violins. And I saw out upon the north the wide blue sky, just mellowing to rich purple, and flecked here and there with orange streaks prophetic of sunset. Whenever Stradivarius looked up from his work, if he looked north, his eye fell on the old towers of S. Marcellino and S. Antonio; if he looked west, the Cathedral, with its tall campanile, rose dark against the sky, and what a sky! full of clear sun in the morning, full of pure heat all day, and bathed with ineffable tints in the cool of the evening, when the light lay low upon vinery and hanging garden, or spangled with ruddy gold the eaves, the roofs, and frescoed walls of the houses.
"Here, up in the high air, with the sun, his helper, the light, his minister, the blessed soft airs, his journeymen, what time the workaday noise of the city rose and the sound of matins and vespers was in his ears, through the long warm days worked Antonio Stradivari."
Edouard Jean Conrad Hamman, who painted the picture of Stradivarius - deep in thought amid his violins - which accompanies this, was a Belgian. Born at Ostend in 1819, and a pupil of De Keyser, he lived a long time in Paris, won many medals and other honours, and died in 1888, leaving behind him numerous pictures, several of which are reproduced in this book. His "Erasmus Reading to the Young Charles V." is in the Luxembourg, and the Brussels museum has his "Dante at Ravenna," and the "Entry of Albert and Isabella into Ostend." Besides these he produced "The Mass of Adrien Willaert," "The Childhood of Montaigne," "Shakespeare and his Family," "Vesalius," "Hamlet," and "Murillo in his Studio." One of his paintings, entitled "The Women of Siena, 1553," shows the women of that city working on the fortifications intended to resist the besieging army of Charles V., and another depicts Columbus first sighting land on October 12, 1492.