Hawking the cult of Stradivari Stradivari's works are prized because they've been hyped

May 17, 1998|By James Cox

I would like to thank Neil A. Grauer for the April 12 Perspective article on Stradivari and the Smithsonian's retaining of Herbert Axelrod's quartet of Stradivari instruments. I would further like to express my admiration of Axelrod for turning down a $55 million offer from an Austrian collector who wanted to buy the instruments. Axelrod realizes that there is value to these instruments beyond any price put on them.

I would also, however, like to offer some possible answers to two questions Grauer raises. First, what makes the Strads so great? And, second, how did a semi-literate Cremonese manage to make them?

The work of Antonio Stradivari is without question one of the great developmental leaps in the recorded history of art or craft. A problem, however, remains unaddressed. While the renowed violinist and teacher Earl Carlyss invokes Rembrandt as equivalent genius, the fact that there is no acknowledged analogue of Picasso (much less a Johns or de Kooning) in fiddle making goes unmentioned. If stringed instrument making indeed peaked in the mid-18th century, that would make it the only VTC technical pursuit to have gone backward since the Renaissance.

Every "discovery" is set relative to "The Secrets of Stradivari," rather than to the body of scientific advance in acoustic physics, materials analysis, polymer chemistry and so on that has accumulated in the intervening centuries. Any attempt to add an original observation to the work of the acknowledged master is discarded faster than a contemporary concerto.

Stradivari himself departed from the great example of his teacher, Nicolo Amati, to produce instruments that were louder, brighter and more acoustically efficient, using a long life of scientific experiment and intuitive observation. The emerging middle class filled larger halls to hear the likes of Corelli or Tartini play new music that demanded the power and response Stradivari successfully pursued. Stradivari met the changing musical demands of his time with the best blend of new and traditional ideas available in true "Enlightenment" style. Even more than the fiddles themselves, the problem-solving process is the legitimate legacy of Stradivari.

The process is the arena of craftsmen and scientific research. The product (especially after the creator is dead) becomes the grist of the hucksters.

Essentially, the secret of Stradivari is the same as the secret of Nike footwear: careful craftsmanship and unrelenting advertising bucking for the status of religious myth. This dodge was old when used by medieval grifters hustling enough pieces of the true cross to build half of the cities of Europe at that time. The resulting "cult of Stradivari" has turned even greater profits for those hawking items purported to be his work. One more case of market price obscuring artistic value. Two-thirds of any orchestra consists of string players, most of whom are servicing loans on instruments for amounts equal to a mortgage on a better house than they will ever live in. The resulting pay scale goes all the way out to the box office, where the curious 16-year-old is stopped by the prospect of $35 seats in the rafters. He will save his money to hear his preferred rock group, rather than investigate the orchestral sound he heard behind some of their cuts. The ever-aging clientele, known in the trade as "the sea of gray heads" has dictated no new instruments, no new music, no new interpretations of old music, period. The shadows of Stradivari and Beethoven have grown too cold to entice successor genius to attempt to live in them.

The semi-literate boy from Cremona lived in an age when the love of objective knowledge had just awakened from a 1,000-year sleep enforced by the systematic abuse of faith and power. His world was 20 percent literate, but everyone passionately wanted to read. The modern industrial world is 85 percent literate (though rapidly falling) and the few of us who bother to read do so to escape rather than better understand that world.

A tradition is a living thing that changes with the people sustaining it. Evolution according to need promotes continuity. Stasis relative to a terminal lack of energy and imagination is the process of waiting to die.

Antonio Stradivari would have been shocked and dismayed to find out that he was the only person who ever made a decent violin.

James Cox is a Baltimore-based maker of stringed instruments.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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