IN what I have heretofore written upon the violin, that is, the papers, Seeking a Lost Art, and King Cole and his Band, in the Galaxy, and the article Violin in the American Cyclopædia, I have in the two former treated discursively many points connected with the making of the instrument and its gradually taking the place of the viol, and in the last confined myself to a methodical description of the instrument and a chronological account of its most celebrated makers. Among the divisions of this subject which remain for me untouched is the very interesting one which is offered by a comparison of the work of the great violin makers of the past and an estimate of its real value.
As I was once asked, in sober, matterof-course earnest, by an intelligent man, a great lover of music, whether I thought that a violin which I had in my hand, and of which I had been speaking, was “ really made by Cremona himself,” those of my violin-loving readers who never heard of any Signor Cremona will pardon me when I say that the history of violin making is, very briefly, this: The art, after having been long practiced by a promiscuous horde of unknown makers, who modeled their instruments each according to his own fancy, — and their fancies were often grotesque enough, — was advanced greatly, and somewhat suddenly it would seem, at Brescia about A. D. 1525. There is reason to believe that in this ancient town of Lombard Italy the violin first took the form which it has retained for more than three centuries, and which it will probably never change. An attempt has been made to obtain for Bologna the honor of having produced the modern violin ; the maker in whose favor this claim is set up being Gaspard Duiffoprugcar. But although Duiffoprugcar distinguished himself as a maker of viols and of lutes, there is no satisfactory evidence that he ever made a violin,— the violin having been looked upon, it should be remembered, as an inferior, “ vulgar ” instrument until the beginning of the seventeenth century, and even later. Of this the intending violin buyer may be very sure: that the aged seeming instruments offered to him, with inlaid backs and bellies, and very wide, stiff f holes, and the name of Gaspard Duiffoprugcar and a date of from 1512 to 1530 faintly printed in Roman letter on a soiled and discolored ticket, were never in the hands of that ancient lutanist, but are imitations of old Brescian instruments, and are at most thirty or forty years old. Bologna, having invented the sausage, should not be greedy of other fame. That is honor enough for one town.
There was another Gaspard, however, who did make violins with great success in the sixteenth century ; and possibly the identity of name has something to do with the confusion of the function of the two persons. For in Italy at that time artists and artisans of high class were known, like kings and princes, by their baptismal names, to which was sometimes added the name of the places where they were born, — as, for example, Lionardo da Vinci. This Gaspard, having been born in the little town of Salo, when he went to Brescia and began to make violins there was known among the Brescians as Gaspard da Salo, and that name he put upon the tickets in his violins. Gaspard da Salo’s violins soon attained a great reputation, — so great that Benvenuto Cellini did not deem it beneath his dignity to carve the head of one of Gaspard’s instruments, doing it by the order of Cardinal Aldobrandini. This violin has been for many years in the possession of Ole Bull. Toward the end of the sixteenth century Gaspard da Salo was succeeded in Brescia by Giovanni Paolo Maggini, who was in his turn succeeded by other Brescian makers of more or less repute ; but with none of these have we at present any concern.
Before the appearance of Maggini in Brescia, an imitator of Gaspard, possibly a pupil, had begun at Cremona, another town of Lombardy, a manufacture of violins which was to transfer the great violin mart of Italy from the former place to the latter. This was Andrea Amati, the first of the great “ Cremona violin ” makers, and the first of a family which for four generations, and through a century and a half, maintained and augmented the reputation of the Cremona instruments, until their work was surpassed by the members of two other Cremonese families, the Guarneri and the Stradivari, and finally by Carlo Bergonzi, the pupil and successor in business of Antonio Stradivari, and the last of the really great Cremona makers. Andrea Amati was succeeded by his sons Antonio and Geronimo ; they in turn were succeeded by the son of Geronimo Nicolo Amati, the most celebrated of this family of distinguished artisans. Nicole Amati’s reputation was rivaled, and during the last three quarters of a century has been partly eclipsed, by that of his pupil, Antonio Stradivari, whose reputation is now rivaled, although in no way dimmed or diminished, by that of his skillful pupil, Carlo Bergonzi. Of the Guarneri family, Andrea was the first. He worked between 1630 and 1690, and was a pupil of Nicolo Amati.
In turn, in his family, followed his sons Giuseppe and Pietro, and his nephew Giuseppe Antonio, called for distinction from his cousin Giuseppe “Joseph del Gesùu,” because of an I H S monogram which he used upon his tickets. When we add to these Lorenzo Guadagnini and Giovanni Battista, of the same family, with Francesco Ruggieri and his nephew Giovanni, who was a pupil of Nicolo Amati, we shall have completed the roll of all the makers of high repute in the great Cremona school. Andrea Amati, the founder of the school, began to make violins about 1550; Carlo Bergonzi, its last great exemplar, continued to make instruments until 1755—60; and Guarneri del Gesù died in 1745. We thus see that the Cremona school lived vigorously for just two centuries. It was really a school, each eminent Cremona maker having been the pupil, and in most cases the son or nephew, of some other eminent maker in whose family and workshop he was brought up. The craft would thus naturally have its traditions ; and that it had them the workmanship of the instruments produced at Cremona between 1550 and 1750 very clearly shows.
The excellence of the Cremona violins as musical instruments and their fine finish as specimens of working in wood gave them early a high reputation, which they richly deserved. Undoubtedly they were the best and the handsomest violins that had been made. They had also this advantage, that as years went on their positive excellence became greater. The older they grew and the more they were used, — careful use being assumed, — the finer, richer, sweeter, mellower, became their tone. For although if a fiddle be in the beginning a bad one no age and no playing will make it good, one which is good in the beginning and has enough substance in it for a robust life becomes better every year that it is in the hands of a constant and careful player. Therefore it was that toward the end of the last century there began in the musical world of Europe a “ craze ” for Cremona violins. The demand was at first for the Amatis, so great was the positive merit of the instruments made by that family, and so had its members through generations and centuries impressed themselves upon the musical world as the leading lutanists of Cremona. Such was the supremacy of the Amati name, and so comparatively underrated, if not unknown, was that of Stradivari, that it is recorded that Cervetto took to England, about 1775, instruments by the latter maker, and, being unable to sell a violoncello for five pounds, he took them back again to Italy ! They would now, if they were good specimens of Stradivari’s work and in good condition, easily be sold for five hundred pounds, and if of unusual excellence for seven or eight hundred. In 1876 I saw in London three violoncellos by Stradivari, for which the prices were severally six hundred and fifty, seven hundred and fifty, and one thousand pounds ; and the possessor, although he was a dealer, was not at all eager to sell them at those prices. True, they were instruments of uncommon excellence and character, and were in perfect condition ; but so rapidly has the reputation of Stradivari increased during the last seventy-five years that it is now impossible to buy any sound instrument made by him for less than five hundred pounds. The influence of fashion could not be more strongly exemplified. If violins are bought for the beauty of their tone, what was the matter with the ears of the violin players in England in the last century, that they could not discover the positive merit of Stradivari’s instruments, and their superiority to those made by the Amati family ? For a “ Strad ” is now worth as merchandise at least twice as much, and generally three times as much, as any Amati instrument in equally good condition.
When Paganini appeared playing upon a Cremona instrument, the admiration excited in all musical and semi-musical circles of Europe by his wonder-working bow was reflected upon the Cremona violin makers ; and as all sorts of foolish and exaggerated and affected notions were set afloat about the player, so like notions began to prevail about the instrument— the violin in the abstract — on which he played, and the great makers of it. It was supposed that there was some wizardry about his playing, and some mystery about violin making. The world is always so ready to find the source of all things greatly good in mystery, in inspiration. Alas that it is so ! for in life there is no mystery unfathomable but life itself, as there is no evil irremediable but death. Paganini’s wizardry is now all understood and equaled. It was the fruit of study, thought, and hard work. All the great players now do what Paganini did ; and the mystery of Cremona violin making is a mystery no longer.
There was never any mystery at all about it, or any secret, or any art incommunicable or undiscoverable. This may be made plain by the consideration of what a violin is, and how it is made.
A violin is simply an oblong box of vibrating wood, — nothing more.1 Make a box fourteen inches long, eight inches wide, and one inch and a quarter deep, of which the top is deal and the sides and back are of any hard, tough wood, like maple, or sycamore, or pear-tree wood ; affix to one end of this a neck or handle about five inches long, and you have all the essential parts of a violin, except the strings. Moreover, if your wood, and particularly your deal, has been well chosen, and well proportioned in thickness, and the joints of your box are air-tight, it is within the bounds of physical possibility that when your instrument is properly set up it may equal in the quality and volume of its tone any violin made by Amati, Stradivari, Guarneri, or Bergonzi. Truly, the possibility is very remote, but it exists.
To set up your instrument for playing, you will have to stretch the strings over a bridge, and contrive some way of turning them, by increasing or diminishing their tension. This is easily done. But erelong certain difficulties would arise. In the first place, the corners of your box would be so much in the way as to annoy you, and indeed as to prevent your playing with any comfort; and a like difficulty would be made by the sides of the box just opposite the bridge, which would so interfere with the passage of your bow that you could play but little, if at all, upon the first and fourth strings. These difficulties would inevitably lead you, as the same difficulties led the makers of violins hundreds of years ago, to round off the corners of your box in sweeping curves, which would make it easy to handle and to hold beneath your chin, and to hollow out the sides opposite the bridge, so that the bow might pass over the two outside strings (first and fourth) without touching the sides of the instrument. Draw a parallelogram of the proportions mentioned above, but make it a little wider below than above ; then mark with dotted lines these curves made for mere convenience and comfort, and you will find you have, to all intents and purposes, the wellknown outlines of a violin. The form thus given is a very peculiar combination of curves, and it has helped not a little in the mystification of the world about this instrument. But this form has nothing whatever to do with the musical functions or the musical power of the violin, or with the quality of its tone. It is merely the result of mechanical contrivance to make the manipulation of the instrument easy. It need hardly be said, however, that as this form is required for convenience, efforts have been made to give it as muck symmetry and beauty as possible.
Other difficulties or defects would soon be discovered. The tension of the strings would produce a pressure upon your deal top, or sounding-board, that would check its vibration, and also, erelong, cause the top to sag under the bridge, and finally to break. A certain dullness of sound might also lead you to suspect that your instrument did not vibrate as freely and completely as it might, could, and should, and that the sound did not “ come out.”
These defects of course were discovered centuries ago, and they were remedied in the following manner; the means being, as it will be at once seen, purely mechanical and to mechanical ends. Indeed, they are just such as would be adopted under similar circumstances by an engineer, a machinist, a ship-wright, or a house-builder. The top, the soundingboard, or as it is usually called the belly, of the violin, instead of being made flat, was arched to resist the pressure of the strings. This expedient, however, did not completely remedy the defect. The continuous pressure of the strings would bend or even break the arched belly directly under the bridge; and, moreover, the vibration was yet imperfect. The next step was again a purely mechanical one: it was the introduction of a sort of girder or string beam, which stiffened the arch of the belly against the pressure of the strings. This is called the base-bar. It is a long strip of wood glued firmly to the inner side of the belly, directly under the foot of the bridge, which sustains the pressure of the heaviest or base string. The base-bar extends nearly from one end of the belly to the other ; it is thickest in the middle under the bridge, and tapers off in a curved line either way, until it comes almost to a point at each end. Thus supported, by a bar properly proportioned, the belly is able to bear up against the pressure of the strings.
It will be seen, however, upon a moment’s reflection, that if the base-bar does no more than to strengthen or support the belly the latter is still left in the position of a table upon which rests a heavy weight which it is able to bear. This condition of things is not good for vibration. The weight, that is, the pressure of the strings, checks in a measure the performance of the very function upon which the strings depend for their musical effect. What is needed is not only a support, but a counteracting force, — a force operating upward upon the belly, just as the strings operate downward. It will be seen that if this end can be attained exactly, that is, if the two forces just counterbalance each other, the belly is left as nearly as possible in its natural condition, and will vibrate as if, or almost as if, it were bearing no pressure. Again, a purely mechanical necessity is met by a purely mechanical contrivance. The base-bar is set in with “ a spring.” The convex curve of the bar is made upon the arc of a somewhat smaller circle than that of the concave of the belly to which it is to be glued. The result is that the belly is thrown up into a somewhat higher arch, and that there is an upward force operating constantly which is, or should be, equalized by the downward pressure of the strings. The equalization of these two forces is a very nice piece of mechanical work; but it is purely mechanical, both in end and means, — as much so as the shoring up of an old wall.
The more complete vibration of the instrument is obtained by another mechanical contrivance, one much more simple and obvious than that of the basebar. The belly is connected with the back by an upright piece of wood which is pressed in between them, just behind, almost under, the other foot of the bridge, which is thus supported on one side by the base-bar and on the other by this piece of wood, which, from its effect, is called the sound-post. Upon these two appliances depends in a great measure, but by no means in an equal measure, the quality and volume of tone in a violin. The French, with that fanciful use of language which has less of simple manliness than suits us English-speaking folk, call the sound-post l ’âime da violon, the soul of the violin, and such is the estimation in which it is commonly held. This preëminence I deny to it, and with no doubt or hesitation. Next in importance to the quality of the wood of which the belly is made, its thickness and its form, comes the base-bar, which indeed is so important that it will in a measure correct faults of construction and supplement defects in material, and moreover will, by change in its form and size, change the tone of an instrument entirely in character, for better or for worse. In one instrument upon which I experimented, a common Mittenwald violoncello, worth some fifteen or twenty dollars, but fairly well made, I had five base-bars, differing in weight and form, put in, at intervals of three months. I designed and shaped the base-bars myself, and stood by to see the workman put them in. Each one made an entire change in the tone of the instrument, which, be it remembered, was left in all other respects just as it was originally made. With one of these base-bars the tone of the instrument was not only clear, free, and large in volume, but noble in quality and sympathetic. The next bar that I put in made the tone thin, hard, mean, and tin-pan-like. It was difficult to believe that two such differing sounds came from the same instrument. Now the sound-post has no effect of this kind. A change in its place or its size will make an instrument a little more or less brilliant, or will transfer strength from one string to another; but the sound-post has no such formative power as the base-bar has, which may be said to make or mar a violin.
No other point in the construction of the violin calls for particular remark ; and it should be kept in mind that all those which I have mentioned, the outline of the instrument, the arching of the belly and the back, the sound-post, and the base-bar, are all mechanical contrivances for convenience in handling the instrument, or to relieve by mechanical means some mechanical disability.
Every one of these points in the construction of the violin was perfectly well known and practiced before the times of the earliest of the great makers. Before Stradivari, before the Guarneri, before the Amati, before Gaspard da Salo, violins were made with all the curves and arches that those makers gave them, and with the formative basebar and the modifying sound-post. The violin was gradually perfected by unknown makers in the ages before the day of the first maker known to us, Gaspard da Salo ; since which time there have been only unessential, although not unimportant, modifications in construction and slight changes in external form. The violin was fitted to be “ the king of instruments ” not by Amati, or Guarneri, or Stradivari, but by humble, nameless experimenters in the Middle Ages, who gradually, by one mechanical contrivance or appliance after another, made it what it has been for three hundred and fifty years.
The all-important point in a violin is one which does not depend at all upon the skill of the maker, and a defect in which no constructive skill can remedy, — this is the quality of the wood in the belly. If this be of fine, resonant quality, and the instrument is but tolerably well made, the tone is sure to be good ; and if the wood has been left thick enough, any deficiency in vibration may he remedied by a little judicious working of it down on the inside by a competent person ; whereas, of a piece of light, spongy wood, not all the skill of Stradivari or of Bergonzi could make an instrument of more than tolerable tone. The fitness of wood for violin making (by “ wood ” deal being always understood) depends, according to my observation, almost wholly, if not wholly, upon the strength of the grain; that is, those hard, dark lines which mark the yearly growth of the tree, and which, owing to the way in which the log is cut for violin making, run edgewise straight up and down the belly of the instrument. If these are strongly developed, so that the wood looks coarse and presents a roughish surface, notwithstanding the varnish, it is almost surely resonant, and has in it the stuff of a good violin. If they are weak, and the surface presents a soft, smooth, pretty look, the wood is quite surely poor, and the violin made from it will have a weak, unsatisfying tone.
I once took in hand an instrument with which the possessor was dissatisfied, and with reason, for the tone was dull and hard. But I was very sure, on a brief examination, that it was an old Italian instrument of the Neapolitan school, and I saw that there was plenty of wood in it — too much in my judgment — of the good kind which I have described. On taking off the belly, which was very carefully worked inside, the reason of the dullness of the tone was at once apparent. The maker, evidently to try an experiment, had not only left the top too thick, but had made a sort of ridge down the middle, so that instead of one arch from side to side there were in a manner two. The great thickness of the wood enabled me to remodel the inside entirely, and work it all over ; and the result was an instrument of exceptionally powerful and delicious tone, which was due entirely to the wood. It proved to be by the younger Gagliano.
Another case in point was that of the wreck of an old violoncello, a collection of slabs and splinters that in its grimy, ragged wretchedness looked more like an ash-barrel stranded on a curb-stone than like a musical instrument. Moreover, it had at first been very poorly and clumsily made, — so poorly that it had never had “ corner blocks,” and every violin connoisseur will know of what poor manufacture that is evidence. But I had rarely, if ever, seen such a piece of deal. The grain marks ran through it like copper wires, promising inexhaustible nerve and ample resonance, and I saw that it was more than a hundred years old and had never been tampered with. I bought it for a trifle ; and under the restoring hands of that master lutanist and most skilfull surgeon of disabled fiddles, Herman König, this ruin of the work of some clumsy nameless old maker became an instrument which for richness, power, and grandeur of tone I have rarely heard equaled. All the virtue was in that robust grain, which made the wood as elastic as steel, yet with the soft, rich vibration of wood.
The violin having been made what it is now in all its essential points before the time of Gaspard da Salo (A. D. 152550), and the chief requisite of a fine quality of tone being a piece of highly resonant wood for the belly, the fact that there is no mystery in violin making, and that no peculiar genius is required for the making of instruments of the very highest quality, need not be further insisted upon. The notion to the contrary which has so long prevailed is due partly to ignorance, and partly, as I have before remarked, to that unreasoning enthusiasm and love of mystery which is so prevalent among men. Mr. Gladstone has made a remark, which is quoted on the title-page of Mr. Hart’s book on the violin, to the effect that “ to perfect that wonder of travel, the locomotive, has perhaps not required the expenditure of more mental strength and application than to perfect that wonder of music, the violin.” I cannot but believe that if Mr. Gladstone had known more of the construction of the violin and of its history he never would have uttered such a misleading opinion. There have indeed been many endeav ors for the improvement of the violin within the last fifty or seventy-five years, although the “ mental strength ” that went to them has probably not drawn largely upon the reserve of constructive force in the human race ; but these efforts have not in any way “ perfected ” the violin. On the contrary, they have all failed, and have all, one after the other, been abandoned ; and the violin remains, in all essential points, just what it became in the hands of the nameless makers of the Middle Ages.
What, then, did the great Cremona makers, what did Stradivari, in many respects, in most respects, the greatest of all of them, do which has given their instruments such celebrity ? Simply this : they made carefully and with high finish of workmanship that which their humbler predecessors made carelessly and rudely. It was upon the viol, a weak instrument, with frets upon its finger-board, like those of a guitar, that the earlier lutanists of reputation expended their skill. It was the viol that was played by ladies and gentlemen ; and it continued in favor with them even until the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the violin and the violoncello with imperial power drove it out of existence. But in earlier times the violin was used only by “ fiddlers,” who played in companies of jesters and “jongleurs,” and as the providers of dance music. Viols were made of great beauty of design and the highest finish; it was not until Gaspard da Salo began to make violins that they received much attention, as to either their construction or their appearance. What remained to be done for the “perfection ” of the violin was merely the proper graduation of the thickness of the wood, the determination of the best form of curve for the arch, and the beautifying of the instrument externally. As Gaspard da Salo and his follower, Maggini, both used what has been found to be the best arching, it will be seen that what was left for the Cremona makers was mere matter of detail and of finish.
The Amatis, however, began by trying experiments with the arch. This was heightened, producing what is known as the high model. Nicolo Amati at one time raised the arch somewhat suddenly from a flat surface, almost a groove, that ran around the edge of the instrument, and Jacob Stainer, the once famous imitator of the Amatis, exaggerated this high arching to an almost ridiculous pitch. But Nicolo Amati himself gave up this high arching in the latter part of his life, and returned to the flat model (which may be found in many of Gaspard da Salo’s instruments), in which he was followed by his distinguished pupil, Stradivari, by Guarneri del Gesù, by Bergonzi, and since their time by all the best makers. The reason is plain. There is no mystery, or trick, or even knack about the matter. The belly of a violin is a vibrating plate of wood. The brilliancy and power of tone in the instrument depends upon the freedom of the vibrations. Now it is plain that a plate nearly flat will vibrate more freely and more strongly than one that is highly curved and twisted into hills and hollows. Hence, and hence only, the superiority of the flat model. But it was thought at one time that there was some hidden mystery of sound in the exalted curves of the big-bellied, high-backed fiddles ; and they were preferred and looked upon with a kind of awful and wondering admiration. But as the violin drove out the viol by inherent strength, so the flat model drove out the high model ; and Stainer violins that once would command fifteen hundred or two thousand dollars can now hardly be sold for five hundred dollars.
And thus it was that Stradivari and Guarneri and Bergonzi rose so highly in estimation above the once supreme Amatis. Their instruments were made on the flat model, and the Amati instruments, admirable in themselves, sweet in tone, but comparatively feeble, could not stand before the superior volume and power and brilliancy of the flatmodeled instruments of the last three great Cremonese makers.
Of these three men, the first named, Stradivari, has attained a reputation which is at once deserved and fictitious, genuine and exaggerated. The man whose instruments could not be sold in England half a century after his death for five pounds apiece is now looked upon and spoken of as if he were a Heaven-endowed genius sent upon earth to make a revelation of the violin to inferior mortals, — as if he had by inspiration, or by patient elaboration, or by a union of both, evolved the ideal violin, created it, and bestowed it as a boon upon musical humanity. His praises have been sung by poets. Longfellow and George Eliot have honored him in this manner; but I must be pardoned for thinking that had they known what Stradivari really was they would hardly have thus glorified him in verse. For Stradivari invented nothing, revealed nothing. He was merely a careful, tasteful, painstaking workman, who availed himself of what others had done before him, and produced instruments which were made of the best and handsomest wood that could be procured, and finished to the highest point of perfection. Stradivari was a conscientious artisan of the highest class, who took pride in his work; and, being all that, he deserved honor, and the success and the money which his good work and his thrift brought him. There is no doubt that his violins were in most respects the best that had been made up to his time, and that the body of his work has never been equaled. Other makers, especially Guarneri del Gesù and Carlo Bergonzi, have equaled him in some respects, and, in my opinion, have surpassed him in one; but in his long and constantly laborious life (he lived to the age of ninety-three, and worked steadily for more than seventy years), he produced a multitude of instruments of such an average high excellence that the work of no other maker can be compared as a whole with his work. In symmetry and in finish his instruments have never been equaled, except by some of those of his pupil and successor in business, Carlo Bergonzi ; and in tone many of them leave little to be desired. But he was no inventor, no original genius, even in violin making ; he brought no “ mental strength ” to his work, and there was no need that he should do so. He was an eclectic maker, and merely brought to mechanical perfection and the highest possible external beauty the violin which had been made with equal knowledge, but not with equal manual skill, by his predecessors, and notably by the first known of them, Gaspard da Salo.
In one point some of the instruments made by one of his contemporaries, Guarneri del Gesù, and by one of his successors, Carlo Bergonzi, are superior to his, — tone ; not in power, not in brilliancy, in clearness, or perhaps even purity, but in an element of supremest musical value, — quality. I have never heard from any “ Strad,” in whatever hands, that delicious, penetrating, ravishing quality of tone that I have heard from more than one Guarneri del Gesù, even in the hands of an amateur. The tone of Stradivari’s instruments is generally in every respect admirable, and they — the best of them, at least — may be relied upon for their equality, and for their ready and true response to the bow; but there is in the tone of some of Guarneri del Gesù’s instruments a charm and grace beyond all this,—a tone that pierces the soul, and makes the delighted hearer forget admiration in emotion.
To what this difference is due I shall not pretend to say. I suspect that there are two causes of it: the wood of which Guarneri’s best instruments are made, and a slight difference in the modeling of the belly. It must be only to their quality of tone that the violins of Guarneri owe a reputation which makes them the chief rivals of the “ Strads,” so that the price of good instruments by the two makers is nearly equal. For Guarneri’s instruments are very rarely worthy to be compared with Stradivari’s in finish, or even in careful modeling. Compared with Stradivari, he was a slovenly workman. The very modeling of the bellies and backs of his instruments, upon which the tone depends, is in very many cases far from being exact, and is even positively irregular. But there nevertheless is the delicious tone,—an enduring, indisputable proof that high finish and even careful workmanship are not absolutely necessary to the highest musical qualities in a violin. Unfortunately, Guarneri made no violoncellos, — a great loss to music. A violoncello with the Guarneri quality of tone would be the most enchanting instrument of its kind that was ever heard.
It is in a very great measure to the fine mechanical finish of Stradivari’s instruments and to the beauty of the wood which he used for their backs and sides that they owe their reputation and the “ fancy ” prices which they now command. They are beautiful specimens of the finest kind of (so to speak) cabinetmaker’s work ; and this excellence being added to their very great merit as musical instruments makes them sought after as fast horses are, and old china. In their external beauty they have been equaled only by Carlo Bergonzi, the best of whose work is quite equal to his master’s. As to varnish, a very important point in the external beauty of a violin, Bergonzi seems to me the superior. Among the many Strads ” that I have examined, violins and violoncellos, I have not found one quite equal in this respect to more than one of the few Bergonzis that I have met with. Bergonzi’s varnish is richer in tone, more brilliant, and clearer.
Moreover, upon one principal point I hold an opinion which by all violin fanciers and specialists will be proonounced rank hei-esy. I do not hesitate to say that the forms adopted by Stradivari, both in the outline of the instrument and in the scroll, are inferior to those of some other makers in the highest quality of beauty. They have positive beauty in a high degree ; they are symmetrical ; and besides they are well adapted to bring out all the power of the instrument ; for they preserve as much vibrating surface as is compatible with the mechanical requirements for convenience of playing, before spoken of. But in its form the instrument has an unmistakable eclectic look. It lacks individual character, originality, expression. It seems too obtrusively to be the correct thing; and indeed has a self-conscious air of propriety and smugness which is as priggish as wood and varnish can be. It seems as if the form of such a violin might be arrived at by the rule of three. So as to the scroll : it is quite perfect. Such a volute you will hardly find, except in the capital of an Ionic column ; and this it brings to mind more than it does the convolutions of the shell. It is so exact and correct that it suggests a machine as its origin rather than the carving tool of an artist. In a word, Stradivari, with all his unsurpassed finish of workmanship, seems to me to " dwell in decencies forever.”
The question arises whether there are or will ever be violins equal to those of Cremona. So far as I can answer this question, I have almost done so already, — in the affirmative. If violin making were a mystery, and the conception and production of a violin were the result of inspiration or of genius, — such genius as produces a beautiful picture, statue, or building, — then indeed it might be as hopeless to expect violins of Cremona excellence as it would be to look for paintings equal to the productions of the great masters of Venice and of Florence. But violin making is no such art. It is simply a question of wood of a certain quality carefully worked into certain shapes and thicknesses. Take the chef-d' œuvre of Stradivari or of Guarneri del Gesù ; find a piece of wood equal in resonance to that of your model ; make the outlines identical by laying your model down upon your wood and marking the outside line with a pencil; make the back and the belly by measurement with calipers of the same thickness as that of the model; and you will have as good a musical instrument as your “ Strad ” or your Guarneri. That is, after it has been played upon as long as the other has been (or I will not say so long, but a few years), it will be as good, and possibly it wall be better. It is inevitable, in the nature of things, that it should be so. For a violin is not a thing with a soul; nor is it the product of a soul; it is merely a combination of wood, which can be judiciously selected, and of form, which can be exactly determined. It is not only inevitable that it should be so ; in fact, indisputable fact, it is so. This has been proved by a gentleman of leisure in Brooklyn (L. I.), Mr. Walter Colton.
Mr. Colton, an amateur musician, a lover of the violin, and a man of remarkable inventive faculty and mechanical skill, has given years to the study of the violin, in Europe as well as in this country. He makes violins; and having time and ample means at his disposal, he has invented, and with his own hand has made, tools and instruments by which he is able to reproduce forms and to graduate thicknesses to the last conceivable point of exactness and accuracy. Give him a “ Strad ” or a Guarneri, and he will reproduce its form, its proportions, and its thickness with such an absolute certainty that no difference can be detected by the nicest mechanical test, by sight or even by touch. Yet more : he will make an instrument on the model designed by Stradivari more exactly than “ Strad ” made it himself. For by his exquisitely delicate mechanical appliances he secures a gradation of forms and thicknesses which is mathematically and scientifically true. But even “ Strad ” could do this only approximately and tentatively (although with remarkable success) ; and as to Guarneri, careful mechanical tests show ridges and hollows in his backs and bellies. As to the quality of tone of the instruments thus produced, it is equal, and in some cases superior, to that of some, at least, of the Cremona instruments.
I had an opportunity of comparing an instrument which had only just left Mr. Colton’s hands with a very beautiful Guarneri violin, — one, indeed, which is well known and celebrated in Europe. The comparison was made in the only Way in which such a test can be safely applied, — by having both the violins played in an invisible part of an adjoining room, with the doors open. This not only tests the quality of tone, but the “carrying” power of the instrument, and secures perfect impartiality on the part of the hearer. Thus compared, the Guarneri violin, admirable as it was, showed a very perceptible inferiority to the new violin which had been finished in Brooklyn not a month before the trial. This was not only my judgment at that time, but the opinion of musicians of unquestioned competence at others.
Nor do I suppose that Mr. Colton, with all his intelligence, with all his study, and with all the means and appliances that leisure and money can bestow, has a monopoly of making violins which equal those made in Cremona. There are doubtless hundreds of violins in the world which, being exact copies of Stradivari and Guarneri, and made of wood equally resonant with that used by those makers, must be, by physical and mechanical necessity must be, equal to their models. For they are just what their models are. The Cremona makers breathed no soul into their instruments; they were merely careful, intelligent, painstaking workmen. The only advantage which the old instruments have over the new is that of long and careful use.
In one point Mr. Colton has achieved a great and a unique success. He is able to equal the Cremona varnish. Of the beauty of this varnish and of the mystery that has been thrown about it I need say nothing to the reader who knows anything of the history of violin making. For a hundred years it has been one of the lost arts. When I wrote Seeking a Lost Art, I recounted some of my experiences in trying after the Cremona varnish; but I left my readers uncertain whether or no I had discovered it. I now acknowledge that I did not discover it, and at the same time declare my conviction that Mr. Colton has done so. And after all it proves to have been an open secret, — no secret at all. I had discovered that all the talk about amber in the Cremona varnish was nonsense. It contained no amber. But Mr. Colton discovered in Italy that this varnish was used two or three hundred years ago commonly by all fine workmen in wood. Not only violins, but lutes and virginals and clavichords, and even tables and chairs, were adorned with it. He reproduces all the richness of color, all the transparency and all the splendor, of those old-time workmen. The lost art has been discovered.
One man, not a violin maker, did more for the violin than Stradivari did, or Guarneri, or Gaspard da Salo, or indeed than any other man known in the history of the instrument. This was the Frenchman Francis Tourte. In the latter part of the last century Tourte invented the modern violin bow. The old bow, as known to Gaspard da Salo, the Amatis, and even to Stradivari, was really a bow, to which the horse-hair supplied the place of bow-string. It was little more than a foot long. It must have been a very impotent instrument. Tartini, by increasing its length, added greatly to its efficiency. But still what he effected was merely an improvement. The bow remained Still a bow, a piece of wood bent over the hair. Tourte saw that to bring out the tone of the violin something more was needed, some power which would act upon the string in a more vivid and mordant way. He conceived the idea of making the bow not a bow, — a stick bent, not toward the string, but away from it. Under this he Stretched the hair, which he (in effect) shortened by a screw and nut (called the frog) ; and thus he produced not only a high tension of the hair, before unattained, but a constantly active spring, which caused the hair to “ bite ” the string, to leave it elastically, and to press upon it with a clinging power before unknown. This great and original invention revolutionized violin playing. Without Tourte, Paganini would have been impossible, and all his great successors would have been impossible. No intelligent violin player will doubt this, upon a moment’s reflection. But without Stradivari, Paganini was possible ; for he played upon a Guarneri instrument. All the splendor of modern violin playing, its grand and beautiful phrasing, its brilliant staccato, its long, sweeping legato, is the direct consequence of the invention of the Tourte bow. And not only these elements of style, but even, it would seem, the pathos of the instrument ; for in all that we read of the great performers of an earlier date, the greatest praise is generally bestowed upon what is called “ running divisions upon a plain ground,” or, in modern phrase, playing variations upon a theme. Nor are the violin compositions of the earlier masters and writers without evidence to the same effect. In their short phrasing, their lack of contrast of staccato and legato, and the absence of those passionate passages in which the violin is now surpassed only by the human voice, they all show the restraining influence of the short, limp bow. Tourte, who enabled modern violinists to work their won ders, brought his invention to perfection; and bows of his workmanship are now so highly prized that one hundred and one hundred and twenty-five dollars are not uncommon prices for them, and even one hundred and fifty dollars has been given, the value depending merely upon the stick, the fiddle-stick, that was fashioned by his hand. This wall not seem strange to laymen, when they know that if an artist, in coming before the public, had to choose between having a first-rate instrument with a secondrate bow and a second-rate instrument with a first-rate bow, he would choose the latter. Of such supreme, such absolute importance is the bow since the days of Francis Tourte, who made the only essential improvement in regard to the violin of which there is any record. In all essential points the instrument has existed at its present state of perfection for more than three hundred and fifty years.
Richard Grant White.
- It need hardly be said that all through this article I use the word violin for the whole violin family, including the viola and the violoncello.↩