By YVONNE FRENCH and SUSAN MANUS
The Library has a world-renowned collection of stringed instruments by Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and Giuseppe Guarneri (1687-1745). Those instruments and others were the subject of a lecture on Dec. 18 that preceded the Antonio Stradivari Anniversary Concert in the Library's Coolidge Auditorium.
Executive Director of the Stradivari Society John Kang explained that the group is dedicated to advancing the careers of artists by joining patrons and their acquisitions with violinists, violists and cellists. The society has helped such esteemed artists as Joshua Bell, Gil Shaham, Sarah Chang, Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin.
Geoffrey Fushi, president of the society, spoke of the life and work of the great masters, while Janice Martin performed excerpts of several works on the various instruments.
Mr. Fushi described the characteristics of the violins created in Italy in the 17th and 18th century during the classical period of violin making and debated why they cannot be replicated today.
"We cannot replicate the art form. At the time, Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri were two of the many early violin builders in Italy who shared the same craftsmanship and materials, such as wood and varnish. Stradivari in particular was experimental with shape and size … of the violin as he progressed through four distinctive periods."
"The best works of Stradivari and Guarneri have never been surpassed. They were masters at the beginning of the art," said Mr. Fushi, a violinist himself and a founding partner of Bein & Fushi Rare Violins, the parent company of the Stradivari Society. He has played between 120 and 130 Stradivaris and 60 Guarneris, he said.
Stradivari and Guarneri often referred to themselves as Stradivarius or Guarnerius. It was customary at the time to Latinize formal writings and names. Inside each violin is a label bearing the name of the maker, the city in which he worked and the year the instrument was made. As was the custom, Stradivari Latinized his name to "Antonius Stradivarius" and Guarneri Latinized his to "Joseph Guarnerius." The names people can read inside the violins are "Stradivarius" and "Guarnerius," but they are more correctly referred to as Stradivari and Guarneri. Giuseppe Guarneri is commonly known as "del Gesu," which in Latin means "of Jesus" since he included a reference to this on his violin labels.
The Library's violin collection (including violas and cellos) totals eight instruments, which are considered to be some of the finest examples in existence. Five of these are by Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), and were acquired through a generous donation from Gertrude Clarke Whittall in 1935. These instruments are as follows: three violins (the "Betts," "Ward," and "Castelbarco"), a viola (the "Cassavetti") and a cello (the "Castelbarco"). The Library's collection also includes the "Kreisler" violin by Giuseppe Guarneri "del Gesu" (1698-1744), donated by the renowned violinist and composer, Fritz Kreisler, along with his manuscripts and other memorabilia in 1952; a violin (the "Brookings") by Niccolo Amati (1596-1684), presented by Mrs. Robert Brookings of Washington, D.C., in 1938; and a second Stradivari viola, the "Tuscan-Medici," on long-term loan since 1977 from Mrs. Cameron Baird of New York.
Famous instruments often take on the name of a collector, a player or a physical characteristic. For example, the Library's "Betts" Stradivari is named after former owner Arthur Betts, an early 19th century London instrument dealer and player. The instrument was subsequently sold 14 times prior to Mrs.Whittall's ownership. The "Kreisler" Guarneri and the "Brookings" Amati are other examples of instruments named after former player-owners. Some other examples include the "Ruby" Stradivari, so-named for its red hues, and the "Dolphin," Stradivari's last violin, named for its shimmering back.
The leading maker during the early 17th century was Niccolo Amati, who is generally thought to be one of Stradivari's teachers. The violins from this maker have a sweet, mellow sound. According to Mr. Fushi, Stradivari's early violins (from the 1660s-1690s) can be similarly characterized. However, in the 1690-1700 period, Stradivari lengthened the body and narrowed the width of his violins, rendering a more colorful, concentrated sound with more powerful projection. Stradivari's "golden period" instruments (1700-1720s) render a broader, richer sound, while those of the last period (1730s) produce a darker, deeper voice "as happens to us when we age," observed Mr. Fushi. In general, the increasing technical demands placed on players of the baroque era may have influenced the development of more powerful sounding instruments.
According to Robert Sheldon, curator of the musical instrument collections at the Library, the many instruments of the Guarneri family "are considered by serious players to be rather different from those of the Stradivari family, although there would be numerous differences found within the output of any one maker. The differences often have more to do with the way the instruments respond to the individual players than the actual tonal result for the listener." Mr. Sheldon said, "Many violinists who have played on the Library's ‘Kreisler' Guarneri feel as if it plays itself."
Along with the evening's lecture, Ms. Martin demonstrated the sound five rare Italian instruments. Of these, the "Brookings" Amati (1654), the "Ward" Stradivari (1700) and the "Kreisler" Guarneri (1733) were from the Library's collections. (The "Kreisler" Guarneri can also be heard online, in many of the video clips from the Library's American Memory Web site "An American Ballroom Companion" at memory.loc.gov/ammem/dihtml/dihome.html.
She also played two instruments from the Stradivari Society: a viola by Gasparo da Salo (ca. 1590), and the 1708 Stradivari violin presented to her by her patron, Joseph Burstein, who recently acquired it. Mr. Burstein is allowing Ms. Martin to use the "Sir Bagshawe" Stradivari violin of 1708, an example of ‘the golden period.' Mr. Burstein is the first Washingtonian to be a member of the Stradivari Society and was recognized by Mr. Fushi at the lecture.
Ms. Martin's impressive technique enhanced this rare opportunity to closely compare the distinctive sounds of these instruments. She first played the same excerpt on all the instruments (the opening phrase of J.S. Bach's unaccompanied Sonata in G minor), and then she played a different, virtuosic selection on each instrument.
The Racine, Wis., native is a graduate of the Juilliard and Indiana schools of music and has studied with Dorothy Delay, Yuval Yaron, Masao Kawasaki and Glenn Dicterow. She is a solo recitalist and lecturer and recently founded the chamber trio Aurora. She also works in other genres, including jazz, notably with jazz legend Larry Willis.
Following the lecture, the Juilliard String Quartet played three of the Stradivari instruments donated to the Library by Mrs. Whittall, plus the "Tuscan-Medici" viola, for the concert following the lecture. The performance included Mozart's Quartet in D minor, K. 421; Elliott Carter's Quartet No. 5; and Beethoven's Quartet in F major, Op. 59, No. 1.
The concert marked the 261st anniversary of Stradivari's death, who died in Cremona on Dec. 18, 1737. Such an anniversary concert has been played for more than six decades by the Library's resident string quartet, formerly the Budapest and now, the Juilliard.
Ms. French is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office. Ms. Manus is a music specialist for the National Digital Library Program.