Shown side-by-side, the wood from which these two Guarneri violins were made displays similar patterns in the grain, suggesting they are twins made from the same piece of wood.
By Jon Newsom
Evidence suggests that two violins brought together briefly at the Library this year, perhaps for the first time in 276 years, are twins.
Both were crafted lovingly by the same master, Giuseppe Guarneri (Cremona, Italy, 1698-1744), in the same year, probably 1730.
Placed side by side at the Library, the instruments show seemingly identical wood-grain patterns, suggesting they were derived from the same parent tree.
Those who have heard both instruments played by the same violinist say their sounds are similar -- "complex, rich, warm, dark."
These were the observations of a distinguished American luthier, John Montgomery of Raleigh, N.C., and Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, curator of the Music Division's instrument collection at the Library.
They were present at an April 24 reunion of the instruments at the Library. One of the violins, the "Baron Vitta," once owned by violinist-teacher-conductor Szymon Goldberg, came to the Library for a short visit before starting a concert tour with a former student of Goldberg's. The Library owns the other violin, the "Kreisler," which renowned violinist Fritz Kreisler gave to the Library in 1952.
If they could speak, the violins could tell fascinating stories of their lives -- their creation in Guarneri's workshop, where he gave each its shape, form and unique sound; the maestros who owned or played them over the centuries and how the instruments changed hands; the music that their sounds might have inspired great composers to write for them; their performances and their audiences; their travels and the history they witnessed.
Little is known about their early history. What is known is that the legendary Austrian-American violinist Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) bought his famous Guarneri violin in 1926.
Kreisler's recordings since that time constitute one of the earliest sets of documents to establish the quality of a particular instrument during a particular period. After Kreisler gave his Guarneri to the Library in 1952, visiting violinists kept the instrument in shape by playing it regularly in Library concerts.
A few blocks away, the "Kreisler's" sibling, the "Baron Vitta," had been on deposit at the Smithsonian Institution since the mid-1990s. The "Baron Vitta's" previous owner-violinist was Poland-born Szymon Goldberg, who had made his debut in prewar Germany at age 12, had served as concertmaster of the Dresden Philharmonic at age 16 and of the Berlin Philharmonic at age 19, in 1929. He fled to the United States from Nazi Germany, only to be interned by the Japanese during a concert tour in Java, in 1943. He later established the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and served as its soloist and music director for 22 years.
Goldberg died in 1993 at age 84, and his trust loaned the "Baron Vitta" to the Smithsonian. Last spring, Goldberg's widow, pianist Miyoko Yamane, decided the "Baron Vitta" should be more than a museum piece. She made a lifetime loan of the "Baron Vitta" to violinist Nicholas Kitchen, a former student of Goldberg's and an eminent soloist and a founding member of the Borromeo String Quartet.
Before taking the Baron on a concert tour, Kitchen and Yamane brought the "Baron Vitta" to the Library. She accompanied Kitchen, who played the first movement (Allegro) of Johannes Brahms' Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108, using alternately the "Kreisler" and the "Baron Vitta." Kitchen's performances and interviews with Ward-Bamford and Montgomery were videotaped as part of a documentary film being prepared for telecast in Japan in January 2007 by Kitanihon Broadcasting Co., Ltd. Subsequently, the Library hopes to make a Web presentation of its own.
Yamane died last month, before she could return to the Library to hear the "Baron Vitta" and the "Kreisler" played side by side once more.
The Library has invited Kitchen back to repeat his comparative performances on the twin violins, at 6:15 p.m. on May 18, preceding an 8 p.m. concert in the Coolidge Auditorium. Accompanied by Wu Han, Kitchen will perform a Stravinsky concertino for string quartet, Bartok's String Quartet No. 5 and Shostakovich's Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 57.
Many consider the "Kreisler" Guarneri to be one of the finest violins in existence. Could there be another equal to this one? Possibly.
Although comparison of the two violins at the Library was tantalizing and informative, any conclusion would be premature. All who heard both instruments at the Library last spring were not surprised by the beauty of each instrument and the complexities in tone revealed by a great artist working with great instruments. The "Baron Vitta," which scarcely had been played during the past 12 years, was, as would be expected, still a bit uneven. Kitchen's continual playing of the instrument over the next several months was expected to produce a more consistent quality. The "Kreisler," which is played fairly regularly and has been worked on recently by Montgomery, was in top form and produced its famous tonal qualities -- described by many as "complex, rich, and warm" -- consistently over the entire range of the instrument.
Over the next year, the Library will ask many questions as staff members develop a format for gathering responses to the sounds of these instruments from a wide range of listeners ranging from experts to laypersons.
Jon Newsom is the former chief of the Music Division.
Originally published in The Gazette - November 3, 2006