Freezing winds were blowing through the spruce forests of northern Italy in 1666 when a young Italian nobleman took a plane to a quite extraordinary piece of wood.
The sound would have been like fingernails dragged down a blackboard, but it was the first noise in a symphony that would resonate through western musical culture.
Some credit those freezing winds for the seeming miracle that was the work of Antonio Stradivari, the man whose surviving 500 or so violins now never change hands for less than $1m (£670,000). There was a mini ice age then. The trees grew more slowly, so the grains of the wood he selected were more densely packed together, giving a more resonant sound.
Others have stressed the importance of the varnish of Cremona, the northern Italian town where he lived and worked, and the unique properties it lent to his instruments. The recipe for the varnish is long since lost.
Still more insist the real mystery is the man himself, believing that Stradivari alone was the origin and source of the magic of his instruments.
His name is as famous as any great artist. Any schoolchild who has ever boarded a bus with a violin case will have been asked by the hilarious driver whether they “have a Stradivarius in there.” Said bus driver may not be able to name more than a handful of paintings, but the Italian luthier, as violin makers are known, has made its way into his lexicon.
Perhaps it’s because they crop up in the news every so often. Stradivari’s masterpieces were created not merely to be gawped at, but to be actively used, so their stories weave their way not merely through the Florentine court of the Medicis and the Russian Revolution, but also the cab rank at Newark airport and the Pret a Manger at Euston Station. Their owners, or more commonly the musicians to whom they are lent by banks or governments, have no choice but to get on with their lives carrying them around, and occasionally things go terrifyingly wrong.
This week it emerged that a violin recovered in a police operation in Bulgaria may be the 1696 Stradivarius, valued at £1.2m, which was stolen from Min-Jin Kym, a Korean-born musician, while she sat with her cellist boyfriend at Pret near Euston Station three years ago.
John Maughan, an Irish traveller, was eventually jailed for stealing it with the aid of two teenage cousins, but all pointed the finger at the other, and it couldn’t be recovered.
He had, it was revealed in court, tried to sell it to a bus driver for £100, who told him no thanks, “my daughter already has a recorder.” It is a faintly familiar tale.
“Usually people have no idea what they’ve got when they steal it,” said William Morris, director of J & A Beare, a leading violin dealership in London that handles several Stradivarius’s every year (Stradivarius, is the Latin spelling of Stradivari, which the maker used on the label his creations).
“They just move them on to someone else, and eventually they come back. Stories of their being left on trains and whatnot come and go, but in fact it is remarkable how few go missing. The insurance premiums are quite low, as they’re virtually impossible to shift on.”
The French violinist Pierre Amoyal’s tale is slightly different. His was forcibly stolen from him outside a Rome hotel in 1987. He hired a lawyer specialising in kidnapping cases, and spent four years and any thousands of pounds recovering the instrument, in a tale heavy on organised crime that he told in his book, Pours L’amour d’un Stradivarius (For the Love of a Stradivarius).
The violin was a relatively new instrument when Antonio Stradivari was born, probably in 1644. Owing to a plague that swept through Lombardy in the years before, little is known of his birth and early years. He arrives in history already a fully formed genius at the age of 22.
His earliest surviving violin was made in 1666. Its label bears the words ‘Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Alumnus Nicolaii Amati, Faciebat Anno 1666’ (Made by Antonio Stradivarii of Cremona, pupil of Nicolo Amati, in 1666).
The Amatis were a legendary violin making dynasty at the time. Nicolo’s grandfather Andrea Amati produced the world’s oldest surviving instrument, dating to 1564.
Whether Stradivari was truly an apprentice of the family is still a little uncertain. His instrument of 1666 has its similarities, but its differences too.
Wrong Note: Missing Strings
Grammy-nominated classical violinist Philippe Quint accidentally left a $4m (£2.7m) Stradivarius in the back seat of a Manhattan cab in 2008.
Cab driver Mohammed Khalil returned the violin within a few hours and received a $100 dollar tip from the musician and a Medallion honour from the city of Newark. Mr Quint gave cab drivers a mini concert in thanks.
David Margetts was a second violinist with the University of California Los Angeles when he lost a case containing two violins – one the $800,000 “Duke of Alcantara” – in 1967. He said he might have driven off with the case on the roof of his car. The Strad turned up 27 years later, owned by Teresa Salvato, who inherited it from a relative who found the case by a freeway. UCLA won the legal ownership battle.
On his deathbed, Julian Altman told his wife Marcelle Hall to look after his violin, which he had never taken special care of. To her shock she discovered it was an $800,000 Stradivarius stolen in 1936 from Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman. Lloyd’s of London, which had paid out $30,000 on its loss, gave Ms Hall an undisclosed reward and took it off her hands.
A unique blend of beauty, tone and projection
When I first played one I couldn’t eat properly for two days afterwards.
It was just the most amazing experience.
From a player’s point of view, there is a sonority, a capacity to project, which almost no other maker of violins has – that possibility to project so well, while maintaining quality. You can have loud violins that are brash and hard but have no tonal variation. Then there are those that have tonal variation, but in a great hall with an orchestra behind you, they can’t be heard.
A Stradivarius has that ability to project and the range of tonal colours. That is why they are so highly sought after.
And, from a luthier’s point of view, they are just incredibly beautiful to look at. The carving, the colour, the detail – though I’m not such an expert on those things.
Carrying one with you though, is not without its difficulties. I’ve had the Regent Stradivarius on loan from the Royal Academy of Music since 2000, and it’s just like having a child. You just have to take very good care. You do have to get over the fear, though, in the end. But apart from the monetary value, you’ve got something that’s irreplaceable.
Tasmin Little is an English classical violinist and concert soloist. Her latest recording is Violin Sonatas: Strauss, Respighi