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From Italian noblemen to the hands of the Wurlitzer Company to legendary musicians, the Library’s stringed instrument collections have had storied pasts. Much like their makers … do Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati ring a bell?

Violin by Antonio Stradivari, Cremona, 1704, “Betts.” Gertrude Clarke Whittall, 1867-1965

Antonio Stradivari is generally considered the most significant luthier, a craftsman of stringed instruments such as violins and cellos, in history. It is his strings that launched the Library’s instrument collections. In 1935, Library benefactress Gertrude Clarke Whittall donated five Strads with the intention of having them played in free public concerts, not merely displayed behind a case. To this day, they are brought out for the annual Stradivari Anniversary concert, which recognizes his death on Dec. 18, 1737.

Since then, other musical treasures have been acquired, including violins made by Amati, a flute that once belonged to King Frederick II of Prussia and Thai folk instruments donated to the Library by King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand.

As part of the Library’s Performing Arts Encyclopedia, a featured presentation highlights the Library’s instrument collections, offering background into each individual piece, with images and video-recordings of performances on the priceless treasures.

More than 50 years after acquiring its first Guarneri violin, the “Kreisler,” the Library received its twin, the “Baron Vitta,” in 2007. Around 1730 to 1732, Guarneri made two violins from the same piece of wood. Their reunion may have been the first time in more than 270 years the two were brought together. Nicholas Kitchen, first violinist of the Borromeo String Quartet, played the “Baron Vitta” for the first time at the Library. Kitchen was also the instrumentalist who compared performances of the Bach Ciaconna, playing both Guarneris, two Strads and the Library’s only Amati violin.

In May 2006, the Library sponsored a symposium on the violin in America, in which the aforementioned strings were on display and played in a series of concerts.

Stradivari’s cellos were the stars in a pre-concert presentation prior to a 2006 performance by the Enso String Quartet.

A. Violin by Antonio Stradivari, Cremona, 1704, “Betts.” Music Division. Photograph by Michael Zirkle. Reproduction Information: Not available for reproduction.

B. Gertrude Clarke Whittall, 1867-1965. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZ6-1192 (b&w film copy neg.)