Over the past year and a half, I have been fortunate enough to come across nearly a dozen violins made by the most famous violin maker in history, Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737). Stradivari, who lived well into his nineties and had a working career of six decades, produced over 1,200 violins in Cremona, Italy, with approximately 600 violins still in existence.
What continues to amaze me with Stradivari’s work is the fact that he never ceased to experiment, redefine, and create instruments that varied in construction, sound, and form. A long-pattern Stradivari violin made during the 1690s is quite different from one made during his ‘golden period’ (which lasted from 1700-c.1720), and which varies from a later-period Strad constructed in the 1730s. As a violinist, it is very difficult to say whether there is one particular Strad that could be set apart from the rest, although experts, collectors, and violin enthusiasts continue to fixate on violins like the 1716 “Messiah,” 1721 “Lady Blunt,” 1709 “Viotti” and “Pucelle” that are all exceptional due to their preservation.
Sean studying the 1709 “Viotti” Stradivarius at the Royal Academy of Music, London
Playing a Strad is a completely different experience than admiring the instrument based on aesthetic beauty. Issues like bow speed and bow pressure, vibrato, and phrasing all need to be given the utmost attention. There is, so to speak, a certain type of respect that one develops for the violin, as the purity of one’s technique is amplified on a Stradivari. Since the majority of the twelve Strads that I’ve seen were used in a variety of concerts in New York, I had a limited timeframe to get adjusted to each instrument. My veritable “crash course” on learning the inner workings of each Strad that I played on (which ranged in years from 1692, 1694, 1702, 1718, 1726, 1732) was definitely a challenge. Each violin is individual and unique with its own limitations, which need to be understood and analyzed.
Sean performing on the 1718 “Duke of Marlboro” Stradivarius
It is the quest to attain “perfection” that makes playing on a Stradivari so rewarding; just as the maker himself never became complacent with a “final” design and construction of a violin, we as artists must always continually experiment with different colors, textures, and phrasings of the compositions at hand. If there is one takeaway that I obtained from my experiences and concerts, it is precisely that a great Stradivari violin brings out the human quality of the artist. Like Mozart, Shakespeare, and Da Vinci, it is the never-ending quest and passion for perfection that guided Stradivari for his entire life, and a trait that guides musicians to this day.
Sean with Andrea Mosconi, curator of the fine instrument collection of Cremona, Italy and “Il Cremonese” of 1715, one of finest surviving Stradivaris in the world