Monday, August 26, 2013

Monday Musical Offering Violins Violence edition

I have written here before about how wonderful Stradivari violins are, and how they have a hold on the popular imagination.  One thing that’s not well-publicized about them, and that I had no clue about until I was more thoroughly introduced to the world of lutherie, is that the “Stradivarius” instruments performed on today are quite different from what left Antonio’s shop back in the early 1700’s. 

The difference between the Stradivarius that left the maker’s hands three hundred years ago and the instrument played today is akin to the difference between a Model A Ford, fresh from the Dearborn assembly line, and a tangerine-orange-sparkle chopped and modded Deuce Coupe hot rod.  Some of the modifications to the violins are simply a matter of maintenance—cleats to repair cracks, or patches to make up for distortion from the sound post.  

However, most of the modifications affect the performance of the instruments.  Bass bars have been replaced—part of normal maintenance, but the replacements are generally much beefier than the original slivers of spruce.  The tailgut attachments would be unfamiliar to Antonio.  Fingerboards have been replaced by something narrower, longer, and lighter.  All necks are modern replacements: Cremonese necks were actually (*gasp*) nailed to the body of the violin, while new necks are mortised into place.  Also, the neck angle is quite different from what Stradivari installed.  In addition to such structural issues, almost all surviving fiddles have been polished and revarnished an unknown number of times. 

All this modification leads to instruments perfect for a modern style of playing, but they are not what their author intended.  There is a movement towards playing baroque music—the music of Stradivarius’ time—on instruments that have either been left in their original state, or newly made to baroque spec.  However, it’s hard to find great original instruments.  If an instrument was good, then its owners generally paid to have it kept up-to-date.  Those instruments left untouched were, frankly, not touched a whole lot to begin with.  Nonetheless, the original instruments movement has its dedicated, sometimes fanatical adherents.

This leads to an intriguing story.  I have to be circumspect in relating this, since it is something that is being actively kept out of the news by the request of the concerned parties.  I found out about it through a person I am at liberty to describe only as a well-connected-friend-of-a-luthier in the Eastern Hemisphere.  However, as a story of musical intrigue and deceit, it ranks with the recorded legacy of Joyce Hatto, and I think it ought to be public.  Such is life in the internet age; keeping secrets is impossible and trying is futile. 

One of the 20th century’s greatest violinists was Erika Morini.  A child prodigy, she had a shining career performing around the world until her retirement in the 1970’s, after which her star rapidly faded.  Since her 20’s, she played on a 1727 Strad, known as the “Davidoff.”  She kept the fiddle after her retirement, almost until her death in 1995.  At some time during her terminal illness, when she was on her sickbed, the Davidoff, along with much of her musical and artistic memorabilia, was stolen.  The case has never been cracked, and the Davidoff-Morini Strad, worth over $3.5 million, vanished. 

Until, maybe, now.  About a year ago, a nondescript box from a nonexistent address in Madagascar arrived at the Chei Mi Museum in Taiwan.  It contained a violin.  The body and scroll and label appear, by every test, to be those of the Davidoff-Morini.  Comparisons of the mystery instrument with the best available photographs match, scar for scar, tree-ring for tree-ring.  However, the fiddle has been modified from when it was last seen almost twenty years ago.  A proper Baroque fingerboard has been fitted, underneath gut strings and a lower bridge.  The neck has (with extraordinary workmanship) been replaced by one fitted in the ancient method.  In perhaps the most shocking and visible bit of work, the instrument has been completely revarnished, with no regard to preserving the few scraps of original finish—it was varnished as if it were a new instrument.  It is clear that incredible effort and skill had been used in restoring the Davidoff-Morini to its 1727 condition. 

No individual has taken responsibility for this bizarre un-theft and anti-vandalism, although there was a note accompanying the violin.  The note was a manifesto, in French, signed by the executive committee of the “Stradivari Liberation Front.”  My contact sent me some camera-phone pictures, but between my poor French and poor lighting I can only approximate the manifesto's contents.  It avers that the instrument is the Davidoff-Morini.  It goes on to cite the “atrocities committed by Vuillaume and his legion of ...[unclear]… race for louder and higher and brighter noise,” and the history of insults to “the master of all of us luthiers.” Apparently the goal of the SLF is to “acquire, by legal means or otherwise,” great classic instruments and “rescue them from abasement and slavery and restore them to their rightful [unclear: ?condition?].”  The note apparently urges the Chei Mi, as “responsible guardians of the heritage of the world” to treasure the violin and present it before the public, playing the music it was meant to play, played in the style it was meant to be played.

Needless to say, this has caused a deal of consternation, though it has been kept very hush-hush.  The instrument has not been displayed, nor played in public (my contact insists that it sounds incredible).  The insurers—and it’s not clear how they found out about the instrument—dryly maintain that it is the Davidoff-Morini, and since they paid the claim when it was stolen, they are the owners.  The Chei Mi has not acknowledged the incident, officially or unofficially, although I’m told they intend to keep the instrument as "a violin of uncertain provenance, attributed to Stradivari, acquired by anonymous gift."

What brings this to a head—where the story gets so good that my contact couldn’t keep silent any more—is the arrival of another nondescript box from a nonexistent address (this time in Suriname) at the Chei Mi Museum.  It contained, by every test, the 1734 “Ames” Stradivari, perfectly restored to “authentic” condition.  The “Ames” was stolen in 1981, and its last known owner, Roman Totenberg, died last year.  The violin came with another note from the Stradivari Liberation Front, hinting at more to come and naming some names, but only if the instruments were played in public as the SLF intended.  This could get interesting. 

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