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  • Writer's pictureCraig Birchfield

4/28/2013 Who Was Tony Stradivari?

Quick, name the greatest trumpet maker of all time? No takers? How about the father of saxophone builders? If you mention guitars someone would probably come up with Leo Fender but that is the electric guitar. Few outside of the esoteric world classical guitarists would come up with Antonio de Torres Jurado as the definitive guitar builder. A few might mention Henry Steinway in regards to pianos but who would mention Cristofori as the true progenitor of the keys? What is my point? Ask a room full of reasonably erudite and informed non-musicians and probably most of them could come up with the name Stradivarius in regards to violin. He didn’t invent the instrument and there were others who preceded him or were contemporaries who made some truly great instruments (priced a Guarneri lately?) but popular conviction accepts that he was the greatest violin maker of all time. What was it that set him apart in the unglamorous world of violin building?

Antonio Stradivarius was born in 1644 in presumably in Cremona, Italy. That is where his shop was and he came from a well regarded family of that city. He lived to the ripe old age of 93, quite an accomplishment for that era. He was prolific, building over a 1000 instruments of which some 650 by most accounts still survive – a rather astonishing survival rate for 300 year old instruments made of thin wood. There is some evidence that he was apprenticed to Nicola Amati, a member of the lionized Amati violin builder clan. Nicola was also the mentor of the aforementioned Giuseppe Guarnerius.

Historical details of Stradivari’s life and work are a bit sketchy. He was a wood craftsman not a man of great financial, personal or political power so he was not well documented during his lifetime. He was widowed after 31 years of marriage to his first wife, Francesca, and then remarried a year later. The two unions produced five children each. Amazing that he found the time to build a thousand instruments. As a violin builder two traits would be his hallmarks. First, he was a man of great craftsmanship. He had great steady hands and an eye for beauty. Secondly, he was a great innovator and experimenter. He would experiment with different scale lengths and different sized bodies. He also experimented with different types of varnishes. Probably no two Strads were built exactly the same though he did use patterns for the different sizes and shapes. He was not a man that was satisfied with the status quo. He made it a life-long quest to build violins with great tone, volume and clarity. He wasn’t afraid to be different or to challenge the conventions of orthodox lutherie. Today these instruments command millions of dollars each. Each instrument has acquired it’s own name – the Hammer, the Lady Blunt, the Dolphin, the Messiah, etc. Each is considered a work of art.

I am often guilty of sermonizing. I admit it – but let’s segue a bit. One of the things that has made our country great is the propensity of its citizens to innovate and experiment. America is one of the few places on Earth where it is permissible to try and fail and then try again. We should encourage innovation. There is a great movie that you should rent or buy for you and your kids. It is called Meet the Robinsons. The young protagonist is an orphan who wants to be a scientist and inventor but his experiments typically go awry. He is taken in by the Robinsons who laud and celebrate his failures as stepping stones to future successes. If we nurture our young people and encourage them to push the boundaries of what is considered possible, who knows, we may just be mentoring the world’s next Stradivarius, Mozart or even Steve Jobs. Remember, when JFK challenged the country in 1961 to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade no scientist, not even those who would eventually build the space ships, believed that it was possible. We did it with over four months to spare.

And that’s a giant leap for mankind. Keep practicing.


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